There are not too many movies from the silent era of filmmaking that have built a reputation for themselves that lasts until this very day. Only few film have left such an indelible impression on multiple generations that everyone is intimately familiar with their names. Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" comes to mind immediately, and some of Charlie Chaplin’s early works. But another, quite peculiar, film has surfaced in 1922 that still captures everyone’s imagination by simply uttering its name. "Nosferatu" - the mother of classic vampire movies, brought to the screen by German expressionist filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Never has the byline to a films had more validity than in the case of this cinematic masterpiece - "A symphony of horror."
To coincide with the theatrical start of "Shadow Of The Vampire," a fictional movie that takes the actual shoot of Murnau’s Nosferatu as its premise and adds some wicked twists to "history," Image Entertainment has now prepared a Special Edition DVD of Murnau’s vampire tale, offering new "life" to the film.
Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is a real estate agent, travelling to see the mysterious Count Orlock, who is living in a remote castle in central Europe. He carries the deed for a house Orlock is planning to buy in Wisborg and upon his arrival Hutter realizes that Orlock (Max Schreck) is not your usual nobility. A bizarre-looking creature, Orlock is a vampire, whose plan it is to spread his evil disease across the country. Taking possession of his new home, Orlock travels to Wisborg and begins to leave a trail of victims. But as others commence to interpret the signs of pestilence and doom, that manifest themselves in Wisborg since the grotesque Orlock’s arrival, the cadaverous vampire soon finds himself the hunted.
As is easily visible, "Nosferatu" is, at its core, a blatant and unauthorized rip-off of Bram Stoker’s novel "Dracula." Interestingly enough, it also still remains one of the most lyrical interpretations of the story, and for many years, the film had been entangled in legal disputes between Stoker’s widow Florence and the German filmmakers. The legal battle was so fierce that we can actually count our blessings for being able to still behold this film. At one point a court order was in place to actually destroy all copies and prints of the film. An order that - fortunately - was hard to enforce and a few prints, which were in private possession at the time, survived the battle, which only ended many, many years later.
Image Entertainment had previously released a DVD of "Nosferatu" which was quite good, and certainly satisfying for most "Nosferatu" fans. The promise of a "Special Edition" featuring a newly transferred version of the film may sound only moderately exciting, considering the rocky past the film has had and the fact that with the few original prints in existence, the movie can look only so good. Was I in for a surprise.
While the film clearly shows its age - what will you look like at 78 years? - and still contains serious signs of wear and decomposition, the new transfer that was created for this DVD is nothing short of a revelation. It doesn’t even take a direct comparison to see that the new presentation is significantly cleaner, more stable and is having noticeably better contrast. But most importantly, it contains a level of detail that was unseen before.
The definition of the transfer - and the print used of course - is so good that even in long shots you are able to see the seams on Count Orlock’s coat. The result, an image that gives us an even more ghastly and frightening version of the movie. As I mentioned before, the contrast in this transfer is much better, with deep blacks and much better fall-offs and overall gradients. Although the film has a strong lith-like look by nature, the image appears much more balanced in this new transfer than it was ever before.
I have also noticed that there are a few differences between the versions of the films. Most notably, the new version has different title cards, which look more "authentic" than the computer generated titles found in the previous release. Although they are in visibly better condition than the rest of the print, indicating that these are still not the original English title cards, they greatly enhance the overall atmosphere of the film. Interestingly there are also some differences in the tinting of the film. The amber tones of the new transfer are much richer than the fairly pale colors from the previous version, but interestingly, I found that some scenes that were previsouly tinted blue now appear in amber tones as well - most notably the shots of Count Orlock’s approaching of Hutter to feast on him.
Three audio tracks can be found on this Special Edition of "Nosferatu." The first one is a 5.0 channel Dolby Digital track of a new score composed and performed by the Silent Orchestra. It is a fairly modern sounding score that uses a full instrumentation for its music. It is not nearly as classical as it may seem appropriate for the film when you think about the approach at first, using themes and harmonies that partially stem from rock and jazz music rather than the classical orchestra approach. I was very pleasantly surprised however, by how well it works with the film. The music goes well with the images and manages to create just the right mood for the film. Note however, that this approach may certainly not be for everyone’s taste. Purists and scholars of film scoring may find the somewhat anachronistic approach distracting or even blasphemous, in which case Image Entertainment has also supplied a separate organ track. This track, performed by Timothy Howard is much more what traditional silent movies were underscored with. It is haunting, beautiful and dramatic, giving "Nosferatu" the edginess we have come to love. It is the same audio track found on the previous release of the film.
The DVD also contains a commentary track by "Nosferatu" scholar Lokke Heiss, which can also be found on the previous release. The commentary - credited as an "Audio Essay" - is a bit dry at times, but manages to reveal a great deal of information about a film that has been seen countless times, but hardly ever really publicly analyzed. Not only from a production standpoint Heiss manages to convey a lot of information, but more importantly he discusses Murnau’s technique in quite some detail. For fans of the film certainly an enrichment, but like most historian’s commentaries, this one suffers a bit from the fact that is entirely read-off notes and lacks the spontaneity and free flow of natural speech.
There are a few extras on this release that make "Nosferatu" an even more appealing package, especially since these features are presented here for the first time. The highlight is "The Nosferatu Tour," a supplement that you don’t want to miss. It is a feature that explores the production sites of the film. Many of the sites where Murnau shot "Nosferatu" are still around today and Lokke Heiss created a gallery of images showing us how many of the locations look today. See how Orlock’s castle is still looming ominously atop a steep hill, or take a look at the houses and landmarks that were immortalized by their use in the film. It is an impressive tour through time that allows you to see many of the film’s scenes in a new light.
Also included on the disc is an elaboration on the infamous reversal shot that Murnau used during the coach trip to the castle. For the first time you can see a positive print of the scene - Murnau used a negative shot in the movie to create an utterly eerie look - that is complemented by an explanation how the shot was composed and ultimately executed, as also referenced in the commentary track.
Last of the special features is a photo gallery featuring sketches and illustrations by the movie’s art director Albin Grau, as well as a collection of still photographs from the set, poster art and most interestingly, a casting call for the film in a German newspaper.
With the rekindled interest that "Shadow Of The Vampire" will no doubt instill in "Nosferatu," this Special Edition release of "Nosferatu" is a gem. Even if you already own the previously released DVD, you should definitely check out this new version with the greatly improved image quality. Image Entertainment has managed to pump a lot of lifeblood back into this film, so check it out before Count Orlock gets the chance to suck it back out of it...