Nosferatu – A Comparison. (F.W Murnau, Werner Herzog)

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There’s something wonderfully timeless about early vampire films. No matter how aged the visuals of screen adaptations look, the bare bones of the narrative make them compelling and often affecting slices of drama. Even the word Nosferatu drips with gothic headiness and its jagged inflections speak of something dark, morbid and supernatural.

Though not a completely accurate adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original novel (though are as accurate as we’ve ever got), both versions of the Nosferatu film fulfil its atmospheric and chilling purpose boldly albeit in different ways. The first film is by one of the early masters of silent of film; F.W Murnau. Murnau can perhaps be seen as one of the pioneers of horror and, along with the likes of Robert Wise and Benjamin Christensen, is a pivotal figure within the genre, which he would return to several times.

Nosferatu- Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (1922) is a story quite like a chase. Jonathan Harker is sent to Transylvania by his boss to sell a property to a reclusive count. However on realising that the count is in fact a blood sucking ghoul, Jonathan is trapped in his castle while Dracula, having seen a picture of Harker’s wife Lucy, makes the journey back to Wisboug (or in Herzog’s case Varna) where he aims to find her.

With quite a simple narrative, it’s up to both the directors to add more interesting elements to the visual mix. Murnau’s film is perfectly placed at a time when German Expressionism was coming to the fore and is a highly stylised take on the story. Shadows play a huge role in making the scares work and buildings seem uninviting but at the same raise curiosity. Max Schreck plays the role of the count in the early version and gives a compelling, slightly disturbing performance. His silhouette is a wonderful creation; a balding hunchback with huge claws and a rat like face. Even with no dialogue (the film is of course silent) he is an unnerving presence and only needs to appear at a distance in shot to send a shiver down ones spine.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 adaptation Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is a very different film though along similar narrative lines. Herzog’s adaptation includes elements from the novel which were perhaps not possible in the early 1920s for Murnau to create. The film boasts a fitting sense of eroticism, especially in the way the count is finally dispatched (though the method is the same as in Murnau’s film). The scale of the journey to Transylvania is made more epic by some beautiful location work, whereas the journey back was easier for Murnau to concentrate on, making a shadowy boat, the perfect place for a vampire haunting to take place.

The film is in colour and has sound but still manages to retain those gothic sensibilities that made the original so timeless. Klaus Kinski plays the count this time round and brings a sense of danger to the role due to his genuine psychotic persona. Whereas Max Schreck was a lumbering presence, Kinski is a fast, aggressive creature who seems capable of unspeakable atrocities. Another element brought out from the novel is the infestation of rats. Typical of Herzog, a director who always liked to put himself through physical challenges, the film genuinely does fill the town where it’s set with thousands of rats, all of which have been especially painted the right shade of grey.

After years of sparkling, sexy vampires, both versions of Nosferatu seem from another world. While one is approaching 100 years old and the other just over 30, it’s startling to see how they both manage to retain their power. While both are distinctly different from one another, their aims are not only similar but are achieved to the highest level of quality possible.

Adam Scovell

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