#14. Nosferatu (1922)

I don’t like this movie at all. Even at eighty minutes long it felt as tedious as Les Vampires. I was really bored and irritable throughout and so I started thinking that the movie just flat out sucked, which is obviously not the case, but it made me realize how much work goes into watching some of these things. For probably 98% of my life I’ve equated movies with downtime and reprieve. Even the disturbing ones. I watched Nosferatu last night at the end of an exceptionally long day and I guess I sat down for it with an unspoken interest to just decompress, to be entertained, more than I was probably wanting to scrutinize a 94-year-old movie for its merits.

I wonder if a small kid today would be put off by some of the imagery but I think even the most straightfaced adult will have to make an effort here.
I think maybe a small kid would be put off by some of the imagery. Even the most straightfaced adult, though, is gonna have to make an effort.

So I stand by my attitude that it’s boring as fuck, at least for an attention span like my own, but will of course concede that Nosferatu was super influential on the horror genre, on filmmaking overall, and that, on the basis of this, it deserves respect. Max Schreck looks pretty creepy as Nosferatu at times, this lanky and wide-eyed Count Orlock who, like Dracula before him, sleeps in a coffin and drinks blood and fucks shit up on a boat.

I watched it in the last couple hours of my shift at the college, after a four-hour rush of students, and didn’t think much of it until I encountered a couple things later in the evening.

There's a really great little theater in town that plays lots of indie fare, old stuff, and when they were playing Nosferatu this October I wanted to check it out just to see how many people in the theater were probably pretending to be legit terrified.
There’s a really great little theater in town that plays lots of indie fare, old stuff, and when they were playing Nosferatu this October I wanted to check it out just to see how many people in the theater were probably pretending to be legit terrified.

First thing was that, having been at a total loss for insights after watching it, I read Roger Ebert’s essay about it, followed by some remarks from A.O. Scott, and then an account of how the original prints of Nosferatu were nearly all destroyed or lost, then rediscovered, restored and praised. The word “rodent” came up somewhere in describing Schreck’s appearance. That sounds accurate. Now what’s also worth mentioning here is that I’m terrified of cockroaches, which I tend to find in my bathroom more than any other place, and after some bad experiences wherein they’ve scuttled out past my feet while I did my business I’m now in the habit of checking under and around the toilet bowl before using it. So last night I got home from work at around 9 p.m., Nosferatu about an hour behind me, and I went to the bathroom and checked behind the toilet, both sides, and, finding no roaches, I unzipped, relieved myself, zipped back up and then went to the sink where I came within an inch of setting my hand – my fucking ACTUAL hand – upon a two-inch cockroach while reaching for the handle. I went reeling toward my bedroom for a handful of change and then crouched in the bathroom doorway throwing nickels at the roach until it got away from the sink. Once it was down by the floor, a safe distance from my toothbrush, I went and doused it with Raid. In that moment I thought of rodents and roaches as like distant kin on the scale of vermin and suddenly Schreck’s performance was, I have to confess, made to look more formidable. Like a six-foot roach with fangs and claws and an eye for real estate.

I do think a few of the shots have held onto their power through the century

The other thing that happened is that while eating dinner I watched some of The Sunset Limited, which I’d recorded earlier in the week, and Tommy Lee Jones says to Sam Jackson at one point that the works of John Coltrane probably won’t exist forever. He then asks Jackson if the perishability of that work makes it meaningless. Jackson says no. I think that I’m about as grudgingly resigned to the reality of my impending death as it’s possible for a kid to be, but the thing that I’m not reigned to at all, what genuinely worries me, is thinking about the impermanence of certain things that I love. The idea that my favorite novel has fallen out of print in the past and will someday vanish again for the final time. The idea that books may disappear altogether. That the movies I love will no longer be seen. I think the root of this feeling is that, if my favorite works of art can survive me, they’ll work as a channel for communicating with people after I’ve died. Maybe this is why we obsessively show people our favorite videos and memes online. “Could you please love this thing with me so that when somebody else loves it in the future, after we’re gone, our spirits might flicker someplace in relation to theirs?”

And so Nosferatu lives on as a tedious movie that I think can be enjoyed at least in a cerebral way, if you’re keeping the historical context in mind. It isn’t a conventional sort of cinematic fun, I don’t think. We hold onto it, mostly, because it mattered very much to people in the past, people who are dead. And I think that’s a beautiful thing. I really do. But it’s made me think about letting go of things. And of that day, way down the line, when somebody else will have to do it for me.


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