F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens is a film that, ironically, inaugurates the vampire genre, while at the same time not containing a lot of the elements that modern audiences have come to expect from vampire films. There are no seductive vampires, no religious images, no scenes of bloodsucking. And yet Murnau manages to make a powerful film anyway. I would not argue that Nosferatu is the best or most profound vampire movie ever made, but it does have a definite, full conception of its vampire and puts that across in an effective way.
The vampire himself, Count Orlok/Dracula, played by Max Schreck, is creepiness defined. He is tall and thin and forbidding, with ratlike features and movements. Indeed, the strangest thing about the film is that anyone would believe that he was human at all. (I have heard some argument that Count Orlok is an anti-Semitic character, but I think that argument may have power only in retrospect, when paired with anti-Semitic propaganda comparing Jews to rats. This interpretation lends an ugly lens through which to view the film which I think obscures the real content; however, it is also a powerful and sustained metaphor if a particular viewer wishes to find it there.)
None of Count Orlok's cinematic descendants can be said to have been as outright hideous as him, though we can see his influence through the years, especially on the posture and movements of later screen vampires, and even in the makeup and costume design of Gary Oldman's withered Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's version of the classic tale. Yet none has matched Count Orlok in sheer repulsiveness, and that adds a unique dimension to the power of seduction inherent in the personality of any vampire. Instead of being drawn in, knowing the consequences but not caring, as with Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman or Tom Cruise, the vampire's victim, and the audience, know that Count Orlok is hideous, are genuinely taken aback by the vampire from the beginning, and the fascination now lies in how those on screen react to something that is plainly so terrible. Fitting in with the rest of Count Orlok's supernatural powers, such as placing people under his mental control, making them forget events, and even steering a ship without a crew, the audience is presented a very different vampire than the usual one. He is irrationally powerful, a real monster, and so more truly frightening in a way than vampires whose kisses and caresses are harder to reject.
The acting in this movie is so-so. While we have Max Schreck doing excellent work as Count Orlok, we also have Gustav Von Wangenheim and Greta Schroeder as Hutter/Harker and Ellen Hunter/Harker's wife set loose with gratuitous histrionics every time they appear. Alexander Granach as Knock/Renfield is also hysterical when he should be weirder. His character is perhaps the most changed from Stoker, and it is generally not a change for the better. Overall, though, none of the more overwrought acting really harms the film, as it is all tightly contained within the film. In other words, it is meant to be a fantasy where things move so quickly that they take on a certain languor. So while histrionics might infinitesimally detract from the believability of a character, they also combine to create a mood of controlled panic.
It is very interesting that Murnau went on to make Der letzte Mann, a film with much more obvious and blatant political or social overtones than Nosferatu, and this leads one to look for those elements in Nosferatu, as well. As was said before, they can be found if one chooses to look for them, but they are probably not what Murnau intended them to be, and so are also probably beside the point.
And while Der letzte Mann was more cutting and emotional, yet satirical, Nosferatu puts across the message that horror can be conquered by love and determination, a simplistic message powerfully rendered.
My only personal quarrel with the movie is indeed in the depiction of the vampire. Perhaps it is because of a diet of very different cinematic vampires and too many Anne Rice novels, but I feel that the erotic elements could have been handled better. A vampire should make your heart flutter as well as race--though perhaps this does not apply to the message of Nosferatu.
Internet Movie Database Entry
Roger Ebert Review
Visit Alex Christensen's
Democrat Guide to the 2012 Race for President