Director - F. W. Murnau
Starring - Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim
Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact. Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people's choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror. Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film. Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu. it doesn't end there either, F.W. Murnau's silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.
The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh...it is a silent movie after all.). Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting. Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point. From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire's castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.
Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear. Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous. There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I've ever seen depicted in film. Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling. The film even refers to him as the "Bird of Death", further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.
His appearance isn't his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation). When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.
One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn't survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned. This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story. Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.
As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film's terrifying lead, Max Schreck. His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created. The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen. His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen. It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor's life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of "Shadow of the Vampire" starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.
From the research I've done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true. Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people's impression of a rather popular stage character actor. Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art. Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.
I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it. Just watch the shit out of it. I know it's silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren't worth it, mind you). To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today. So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won't regret it.