Nosferatu is considered a classic for its imagery. It has influenced many directors and been analyzed by generations of film students. I have to wonder whether it's time to set its reputation aside so that we can take a fresh, objective look at it. It has some glaring technical flaws and contains a staggering amount of racist imagery, and its value as a classic lies more in director F.W. Murnau's techniques than in its actual watchability as a film.
The print I saw has a lot of scratches and jumps, but the video quality looks fairly sharp and clear. This particular edition, titled Nosferatu: Original Version, has a distracting soundtrack: silent films should neither be scored in contemporary styles of music nor with electric instruments that didn't exist at the time the film was made. The music itself is not bad, but it often feels as though whoever wrote it never saw the film. Hey, why not just go all-out techno? Maybe get Rammstein to do The Golem? It would have been better to have used the film's original soundtrack, which exists, performed by period instruments whether live or sampled.
I'm glad that I gave this an extra viewing, because some of the problems that had bothered me earlier really aren't so noticeable. Maybe the disconnect between the soundtrack and the images prejudiced my opinion. Murnau really did have a good eye for composing a scene, and not just the creepy ones. His outdoor settings are gorgeous, even in deteriorated sepia, and can be seen echoed all the way to the Hammer Dracula films of the 1970s.
Most of the film's most dramatic images involve Max Schreck's Count Orlok, who has the face of a bat and the body language of a wolf. Vampires of legend were frequently depicted as little different than ghouls, filthy dead things that live in the ground, and Nosferatu owes more to this image than to the refined Dracula popularized by Bela Lugosi. This is a refreshing difference.
Some of the acting is amazingly overwrought. Schreck and Greta Schröder are exceptions, but actors like the guy who plays Knock, the evil realtor, make Jim Carrey look like Jeremy Irons on Quaaludes. Were these people given advance payments in cocaine?
The amount of anti-Semitic imagery is startling. Compare the bigoted caricatures of anti-Semitic literature to the appearance of Knock, and check out Orlok's exaggerated nose. Orlok is depicted as a foreign invader and a vermin-accompanied, plague-bearing bloodsucker, all of which are common images from anti-Semitic propaganda during World War I and shortly thereafter. The Freemasons were another object of fear and hatred in Weimar Germany, and the strange symbols used by the villains Knock and Orlok imply a connection with them as well. When the vampiric "death plague" arrives, a man is seen marking residents' doors with a cross. For those unfamiliar with that bit of Judeo-Christian imagery, it's based on Passover. When the Israelites sought freedom from their enslavement in Egypt, ten plagues were sent on the land to pressure the Pharaoh to release them. The final plague was that the firstborn of each household would be killed, and the Israelites were to mark their doors with blood so that the destroyer would "pass over" their houses. The Israelites were then to hold a yearly feast in remembrance of the event. Christians view Jesus in part as a kind of "Super-Passover" who released the world from spiritual slavery. The man in this scene is marking doors for protection from the plague. He marks a couple of doors, bypasses one after conferring with its resident, and moves on to the next. Do we need five guesses as to why he skipped that one door?
Nosferatu is not the only acknowledged classic to include racist content, but its production values aren't quite what one would expect from such an acclaimed film. Even Ed Wood probably would not have inserted footage of a hyena and tried to pass it off as a werewolf. It was certainly influential for its imagery and camera technique, but it is flawed and is not even Murnau's best horror film. Check out Faust, which doesn't have Nosferatu's creepiness but in general is a superior production. Film scholars trumpet this as one of the greatest horror films ever, but these are generally people who don't care for horror in the first place. If they don't like horror, should we listen when they tell us how a horror film should be made? There have been deep academic analyses of this film's messages, but maybe if these scholars turned their attention to an underappreciated film like Habit, they would find as much meaning, if not more.