The filming of Nosferatu (1922) is complicated by the demands and habits of lead actor Max Schreck.
In 1921 F.W. Murnau, a German filmmaker, set out to make a vampire film based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, the only trouble was that Stoker’s heir’s refused to give up the rights to the novel. Murnau skirted his way around this little speed bump by changing Count Dracula to Count Orlok, and thus one of the best Dracula adaptations, and the greatest vampire movie in silent film history was born. This movie is a slightly fantastical version of the making of that film.
“We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory, but our memory will neither blur nor fade.”
I suppose I should say straight away that I am a sucker for both movies about making movies and period piece films, plus this is a film about the making of “Nosferatu” (1922), which was one of the first silent films I ever watched, and it’s a film that I still enjoy and find remarkably atmospheric and creepy. All I’m saying is, I was pretty much bound to like this film from the beginning. However, I was surprised by how much I liked it, for it surpassed my expectations in many ways.
First and foremost, Willem Dafoe “At Eternity’s Gate”) absolutely kills it as Max Schreck. He spends the entirety of the film in the character of Count Orlok, and it’s wonderfully dark and unsettling. The first time we really see him on screen is when Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard, “Across the Universe”) is acting out a scene where his character meets Orlok. The way that Dafoe first comes onscreen is absolutely haunting, and it’s easy to believe that people on the set would find his presence absolutely horrifying. The makeup certainly helps add to the character, but the way that Dafoe contorts his face into wide eyed, snarling yet smiling expressions is really unsettling. John Malkovich (“Being John Malkovich”) is fantastic as F.W. Murnau in this movie too. His character is a morphine addict and an obsessive director. I think his character is incredibly well written, and he provides great insight into the psyche of an artist that wants to preserve his legacy at any cost. The exchanges that pass between Schreck and Murnau when they’re alone in private are some of the best scenes of the film. I’ve typically liked both Dafoe and Malkovich in pretty much whatever I’ve seen them in, and this movie is a great showcase of both their talents. Dafoe is given far more material to work with as far as range and strangeness of character, but Malkovich is able to really sell the director desperate to be remembered.
Another thing I genuinely loved about this film was the production design and locations. As I have seen (and really enjoyed) “Nosferatu” before, I was on the look out for things that might remind me of the original film, and I didn’t have to look far. The way this film was shot, the way the production design looks, is incredibly similar to the original silent film. Even from the opening credits the film is reminiscent of the silent film era, and it doesn’t stop there. The makeup on the lead actors, the simplicity in some of the designs of the silent film’s sets, the overall aesthetic whenever Schreck was onscreen was absolutely spot on as far as comparison to “Nosferatu”.
I really enjoyed the writing in this film too. This is a slightly (haha) fictionalized version of the filming of “Nosferatu”, and as such, there are wonderfully creepy moments that play out before us. Not only are some of the scenarios really well written, but the dialogue is particularly poetic, especially when Murnau is speaking. Murnau has it in his mind that this film will be his crowning achievement (it was one of them- apparently Sunrise (1927) is really good too, but I have yet to see that). As he believes he’s making his masterpiece, there are many moments when Murnau waxes poetic about the permanence of art and the sacrifice one must make in order to achieve brilliance. Lots of these moments are elevated by Malkovich’s fantastic performance.
However, this film wasn’t perfect. Though I really enjoyed some of the cinematography that utilized silent film era techniques, I found that a noticeable amount of shots were slightly out of focus (enough shots that it bugged me enough to make note of it). The shots where the camera faded to silent era technique were really awesome; I particularly liked the shots that used the circular fade around the sides of the frame. Another thing I thought about while watching this was that this film would probably have a hard time finding a target audience. While I, personally, have an interest in the making of films and film history, I can’t imagine that is a huge topic of interest for everyone. Taking that a step further, this is a fictionalized account of a film production for a silent film. I can’t imagine this film would honestly attract a large amount of people. To me, it feels like it was made only for cinephiles and filmmakers- and that’s fine- it just means I can’t recommend this movie to many people. It’s a horror film without much horror; it’s a period drama with a bit too many fantastical moments- I just can’t see whom this film was made for, other than people like me. Again, I really liked this movie, but I probably won’t recommend it to many people because I can’t see them liking it as much as I did.
If you’ve an interest in silent film, film history, the making of movies, or weird alternate history tales, you might want to give this film a look. There are lots of great performances, a couple of really memorable scenes, some awesome locations, and lots of cool silent film era Easter eggs for film buffs. I really enjoyed this film, but it certainly wont appeal to those who are just looking for either a straight up horror film or a straight up drama. This is a well done movie, but the right audience for it is probably rather small.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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