Rating: ★★★½ out of 5
Released in 1922, Nosferatu was the earliest screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though the filmmakers never had the rights to Bram Stoker’s work, it follows the same story closely. At the start of the film, the central character is a young man named Hutter who travels to a distant castle on business, only to discover that the owner of the estate is a blood-sucking vampire named Count Orlock. After the Count’s identity is revealed to the audience, the remainder of the movie focuses on Count Orlock’s journey to Wisborg, Hutter’s hometown.
Nosferatu displays many technical devices that were characteristic of the silent era and German Expressionism. The camera does not move, but stays immobile during each shot, allowing the actors to move around the fixed space and stylized sets. Though there are occasional close-ups to capture character emotion and focus on important objects, the majority of the film is comprised of medium-long shots at eye-level. Even though it is a black-and-white film, color is put to good use to convey different times of day (blue for nighttime, sepia for daytime, and red for twilight), and the passage of time and change of locale are both signalled by fade transitions.
In terms of the overall narrative, the film has a somewhat unsteady flow. Due to the lack of sound and infrequent intertitles, character motivation is not always entirely clear. Even though the actors are very theatrical to make up for the lack of spoken dialogue, and clever camera directs the audience to points of interest in the frame, the story still feels a bit muddled, and character motivations are not always clear. That being said, the makeup and costuming are very impressive for the time, and the use of special effects helps make Orlock seem even more supernatural. However, the most impressive aspect of the film is the lighting. Though many of the shots were probably filmed in broad daylight, most scenes with Orlock are especially dark to make him seem creepy and sinister. Minimal backlighting and harsh fill/key lighting create Orlock’s shadow as he creeps over his victims. Overall, the film is technically proficient and innovative for its time, but could have been much more entertaining (especially for modern audiences) with a more coherent narrative.