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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Nosferatu (1922), directed by F. W. Murnau

I don't know what it is about Bram Stoker's novel, but for whatever reason it doesn't seem to lend itself well to adaptation. The best ones, I think, have been the Louis Jordan BBC TV movie, which was quite slow at times, and Francis Ford Coppola's version, which received vociferous complaints about Keanu Reeves' performance as Jonathan Harker. But this one, Nosferatu, is the first, albeit "unauthorized" because Murnau couldn't secure the rights to the novel. What this means is that certain details have been changed -- Count Dracula becomes Count Orlock, Renfield is not a separate character but instead the gone-mad estate agent who sent Harker (now Hutter) to Orlok in the first place, and so on -- none of which fooled anybody, the finished film landing Murnau in court. The director hadn't left the court much choice, and it ruled that all prints of the film be destroyed. One survived, however, along with other bits and pieces, and that is the basis of what we have now.

And, doggone it, you better like it.

Murnau has nothing to prove to me. Sunrise (1927) is one of the greatest films ever made. I think he learned a lot in the five years separating the two films, or perhaps it's just that pesky source text. Either way, Nosferatu isn't, I think, the great masterpiece so often claimed. Oh, it's something special when Orlok is on camera, but (as in the novel) he isn't around for long stretches of time. Murnau barely bothered to replace Van Helsing and he totally excised Lucy, so when Orlok isn't around, he's got very little to work with.

As part of his departures from Stoker's book, Murnau mixes up Orlok (the "deathbird") with the Plague -- all those rats serve a purpose, after all. In his passage to his new home, Orlok infects every port-of-call on the way and when he reaches Wisborg there's a powerful shot of men carrying coffin after coffin through the streets. It isn't that Orlok doesn't crave blood, just that his devastation is more widespread than that.

The film has many beautiful shots -- the opening shot of the town, for instance, and the one of the sailing ship that transports Orlok across the sea are terrific -- and, of course, the wall shadows of Orlok at the end are iconic. But image alone can't carry a film, not one so freighted with narrative as this one, anyway.

It's a good movie and one I confess every serious horror fan should consider, but unlike Sunrise, if you happen to miss it, you won't be bereft.