DVD review by Gary Johnson

F.W. Muranu's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) has been available in a multitude of versions on home video. Companies specializing in public domain movies have released several editions generally culled from worn out prints that have long lost most of their detail. Kino released a VHS version in 1991, created in cooperation with David Shepard and Dean Duncan of Film Preservation Associates. This version was a revelation. Using the best surviving 35mm materials, Kino's version featured a vastly improved transfer and new titles that clarified translation problems. If you haven't upgraded your home video system for DVD, Kino's video (which they upgraded with a digitally re-mastered edition in 2000) is still the definitive edition; however, if you've joined the DVD revolution, you should check out Image Entertainment's new DVD edition.

Detail long missing from all VHS versions suddenly jumps off the screen. This isn't a perfect edition, but no perfect edition exists. All negatives of Nosferatu were long ago destroyed when Bram Stoker's widow charged that the movie was an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, and she won her case in court. All prints and negatives of Nosferatu were ordered destroyed. Years later, prints did eventually surface and Nosferatu took its place as one of the classics of cinema. But no negatives have yet surfaced, and it's unlikely they ever will. Accordingly, this DVD edition is marked by occasional scratches and stains, but David Shepard has done a remarkable job of restoring Nosferatu, eliminating dust and dirt and giving us the cleanest looking transfer ever available in America. (Reportedly, a superior quality print exists in Europe, culled from a re-release print of Nosferatu titled The Twelfth Hour, but this re-release print is also reportedly compromised by several alterations, such as a revised ending that allows the heroine Ellen to survive Count Orlak's attack.)

Nosferatu still shocks audiences today. Max Schreck, in particular, delivers a chilling performance as Count Orlak. With rat-like fangs and spastic motions, Schreck looks and moves like no other screen vampire. He's so unusual that director E. Elias Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz have created a recent movie, Shadow of the Vampire, that fancifully suggests the actor playing Count Orlak was a real-life vampire.

Murnau's Nosferatu doesn't romanticize vampirism (as would latter versions). Murnau's vampire is unsettling and horrific -- but also pitiful. He moves like a rat emerging from shadows. With a bald head, narrow face, a large nose, bat ears, and long talons for fingers, Orlak is a nightmarish vision. He doesn't attempt to seduce his victims. He uses his hypnotic power to overwhelm them before scrambling forward to claim his prey. But we also sense his extreme weariness, for his lust for blood won't let him rest.

Nosferatu is clearly based on Stoker's Dracula. Both stories feature a young man (named Thomas Hutter in Nosferatu and Jonathan Harker in Dracula) who ventures to Orlak's/Dracula's castle, high in the Carpathian mountains, to help arrange for a move to the city. While Dracula would move to London, Orlak moves to Wismar, Germany (Bremer in most previous translations) aboard a ship that carries his coffins. Orlak/Dracula vampirizes the entire crew before it reaches its destination.

Murnau's Nosferatu (from a script by Henrik Galeen) moves toward a different conclusion than Stoker's novel, with Ellen (Mina in Dracula) serving as the object of the Count's affections. But before the Count can flee to his homeland as in Stoker's story, Ellen sacrifices herself, enticing the vampire to stay until the cock crows, where he is vaporized by the morning light. There are no hints that she enjoys Orlak's attack, but through her willing supplication, Orlak's act of vampirism becomes irrational, much like lust itself, and he forgets what is best for his own welfare. Significantly, while Dr. Van Helsing comes to the rescue in Dracula, Murnau gives us an ineffectual doctor. Professor Bulwer is apparently cast in the Van Helsing mode. He talks to his students at the university about vampirism in nature, but when called upon to help save Ellen, Bulwer fails completely. Only through Ellen's self-sacrifice does Orlak's assault on Wismar come to an end.

stills from Nosferatu
[click photos for larger versions]

This isn't Image Entertainment's first try at Nosferatu. They first released Nosferatu on laserdisc back in 1991 with audio commentary by German cinema scholar Lokke Heiss. This commentary is included (with some re-editing) on Image Entertainment's new DVD. Heiss' commentary provides a close textual analysis of the movie that may be too cerebral for some tastes. Heiss is all-too-quick to grab onto conventional tropes of scholarly analysis (e.g., if a character looks in a mirror, then a doppelganger motif must be present). And Heiss' textual analysis leaves little room for insights into the movie's production or the legal battles that threatened to destroy the movie altogether. For example, Heiss hardly mentions the Dracula/Nosferatu controversy (a short excerpt from David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic serves as the liner notes and helps correct this glaring oversight). To be fair, though, Heiss does deliver several insights. For example, he points out that when Ellen waits at the seaside, pining for the return of her husband, Thomas Hutter, that she is more likely waiting for Count Orlak's arrival.

One of the main reasons that Image Entertainment has replaced their 1998 DVD of Nosferatu comes on the soundtrack. In addition to Timothy Howard's organ score (also used on Kino's video), an eclectic duo named The Silent Orchestra perform an alternate score. Combining acoustic and electronic sounds with contemporary styles, they weave a wonderfully atmospheric and intense sound. Particularly impressive is the pounding electronic aural assault that accompanies Count Orlak when he goes on the attack.



As much as I'd like Image Entertainment's DVD to completely replace Kino's video and eliminate any confusion about which version to watch, the titles for both versions are completely different and the differences in the translations occasionally become problematic. More care has clearly been taken with the presentation of the titles on Image Entertainment's DVD. Whereas Kino's version simply places text on a solid background, Image Entertainment's print uses titles that look like journal pages, and dialogue is surrounded by fancy borders. However, the translations that appear on the titles are sometimes startling in their differences.

For example, when Hutter looks out the window of his room at the inn, he sees horses excitedly running in a field. He picks up a book on his bedstand and reads: "Of Vampires, Terrible Ghosts, Magic and the Seven Deadly Sins" (the book's title). Hutter laughs and throws down the book. Huh? We've already seen the book's title on a previous title card. Something's missing. You'll find out what's missing when you watch Kino's video. When Hutter picks up the book, we see text from a page of the book: "Men do not always recognize the dangers that beasts can sense at certain times." Yes! Now the scene makes sense.

In other instances, Image Entertainment's translations are nonsensical. When Ellen becomes ill after Count Orlak attacks Hutter, the doctor initially describes her condition as "harmless blood congestions," but seconds later the titles describe her condition as an "unknown illness."

Overall, Kino's translations are carefully worded and almost poetic while Image Entertainment's are blunt and clumsy.

Kino: "The raftsmen little suspected what terrible cargo they carried down the valley."

Image Entertainment: "The raftsmen did not know anything about the creepy load they were taking down the river."

The Kino translation is more forceful and vivid, while the Image Entertainment translation uses the trivial "creepy load" instead of the more ominous sounding "terrible cargo."

I wanted to find out why these differences exist in the translations, so I contacted David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates. He was involved in the production of the titles for both versions. He said Image Entertainment's DVD contains literal translations from a German print. Previous translations resulted from using French prints, where liberties has been taken with the translations -- and these are the translations used for the Kino video. But Mr. Shepard wasn't able to explain specific differences in the titles. Too much time had passed (nearly a decade) since his work on Nosferatu. Neither does Mr. Shepard speak German, so he had to rely exclusively upon the translations of others.

I wholeheartedly recommend Image Entertainment's DVD for the quality of the transfer and the superb score provided by The Silent Orchestra. In addition, the DVD contains a magnificent selection of then-and-now photographs that show the locations where the movie was filmed. These are outstanding extras. Overall, the Nosferatu DVD is one of the best produced packages ever assembled by Image Entertainment. But nonetheless, I won't be discarding my Kino video anytime soon. Its translations may be less literal, but they make more sense.


Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The disc includes several extras: A Dolby Digital 5.0 Score composed and performed by the Silent Orchestra, an organ score compiled and performed by Timothy Howard, an audio essay by Lokke Heiss, "Then-and-Now" photographs, and a gallery of stills, posters, and design sketches. Suggested retail price: $24.98. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.

Nosferatu is also available on VHS from Kino. However, in January of 2001, Kino updated their video with the same video transfer as Image Entertainment's DVD, so the less-literal-but-more-eloquent translations of Kino's previous VHS version (released in February of 2000) appear to be lost. Suggested retail price: $24.95. For more information, check out the Kino Web site.