You can always count on F.W. Murnau to deliver the goods. Nosferatu—though a blatant act of plagiarism—changed the landscape of horror films forever, bringing in the mood and character that allowed the genre to reach new heights in the ensuing decades. There’s no image that can sear into your brain quite like the horrific power of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, with his protruding ears, gnarled claws and rat-like teeth. That indelible moment when he stalks up the staircase toward Ellen Hutter’s bedroom is German Expressionism at its most beautiful and fulfilling, the shadows and composition pitched to stunning heights. Murnau’s camera could summon equal parts dread and artistry, and there’s also a wonderful sensuality when the story digs into the psychosexual elements.
The only thing that keeps me from rating this higher is the amount of dead air that hampers the pace. It takes too long for Thomas Hutter to meet Orlok, for instance, and Orlok’s sea voyage to Wisborg (apart from that brilliant moment he slowly rises out of his coffin) is relatively unexciting. I saw Werner Herzog’s remake a few years ago, and I don’t remember that film having the same issue. If I recall, Herzog deliberately kept the pace languid to bring out and maintain the nihilistic streak in the story. Now, obviously Murnau didn’t have the luxury to be existential, but a few well-placed trims wouldn’t have hurt.