It's funny--I blew through almost every movie on this month's list in a couple weeks. But then I was left with this one and kept putting it off. I once said I believed M was the oldest film I had for the list. That, of course, was incorrect. This 1922 classic is the oldest. The only visual I've ever known from this film, which is a visual I've known even since I was a little kid, was the shadow (and then the woman on the bed), both of which are in the climax. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
For those unawares, this film was infamously adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula, changing a few things here and there to avoid copyright... which they were unable to avoid still as Stoker's widow sued and had them burn every copy and negative. Fortunately, some had been distributed around the world by this point and the film survived. So we get Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who is hired by Knock (Alexander Granach), to travel to Transylvania to meet with Count Orlok (Max Schrek). The Count wants to buy a house in their village, and they're going to set him up with an abandoned building across the way from Hutter's own place. Unfortunately, Hutter quickly discovers that Orlok is actually the deadly vampire, Nosferatu.
If you don't count a big chunk of The Great Dictator, this would be my first silent film. This is also the oldest film I've ever seen (with M in 1931 having taken the previous spot, with Freaks in 32 before that). And all of that worried me. However, practically neither of those things were my issues with this movie. Well, I suppose it could be attributed to it in a round-about way, but... let me explain.
The first half of the film bothered me more than the second half for technical reasons. I think the film might have been more effective in black and white than with the weird color hues throughout. I know they were used to determine day from night and whatnot, but it was still mildly bothersome. Also, while overall the music was quite excellent, the music of the first half of the film sometimes didn't seem to match up with the apparent mood it wanted you to take from the scene. For instance, there could be dramatic or eerie music, but the actors were being goofy (I'll get to that in a minute)... or there was more light-hearted music, and the scene appeared to be more serious.
Then there's the acting. For the most part, it was alright. Max Schrek in particular was creepy and menacing as the title character. However, the character of Hutter was... freakin' whack or something (to borrow a teen phrase of the day). I've seen arguments where perhaps he was supposed to be off his rocker. I've seen others that state the opposite and that the actor was just doing a poor job--though that undermines an otherwise competent director. But no matter how you look at it, the guy played the character to an annoying and bizarre level. His over-the-top reactions to things were... almost always out of place and unfitting of the moment. Sure you might argue it was the acting of the times or of expressionist film-making, but really none of the other actors were acting that way. I'm sorry, but it was a huge detriment to the film for me.
Then you have the narrative cards. In silent films such as this, these are the main things to help you with the flow of the story. And I know it's due to the time period and style, but man were a lot of the lines and wording super cheesy. It adds a certain charm to the film, yeah, but still... worth mentioning. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the majority of the time, the narrative cards that I could read quickly were on the screen forever, to the point I could read them numerous times; however, the longer cards were up for half the time, and sometimes I couldn't even finish reading them. It could be quite annoying.
So I mentioned at the beginning the shadow/bed stuff being the only thing I knew about the film visually. That scene is in the last 4 or so minutes of the film, and by golly is that a fantastic 4 minutes. There's a reason that's probably the most famous part of the film. The entire climax of the movie is outstanding. Everything works together--the music, the tension, the visuals. The shadow up the stairs followed by the shadow of the hand sliding over her chest and then closing over her heart... amazing. If you're going to watch this film for anything, do it for the last 4-5 minutes. Oh, and in a kinda-spoiler way, did you know that this movie was what introduced "vampires are killed by sunlight" into vampire lore? I thought that was a neat fun fact.
Overall, in these types of films, you only have 3 main things to work off of: The actors' expressions, the music, and the narrative cards. It's unfortunate that I found fault in the use of all 3 of these things. Now don't get me wrong. For 1922, I can see how this movie (especially Orlok himself) are freakin' terrifying. I find his looks scary even today. And for its time, I suppose it's rather well done. But looking back on it now, from somebody who doesn't typically watch this style of film (and I don't mean horror), it's merely OK... but with one hell of a climax (oh, and that rising from the coffin bit was awesome, too).