The next time you sit down to watch Nosferatu, ask yourself a question: why is this vampire movie so much more disturbing and disquieting and capable of creating a sense of anxiety within you than a slightly more recent and significantly more explicit film such as any entry in the Underworld series? What, exactly, is it about this black and white movie made even before the invention of sound technology for the cinema that makes it so much more palpably nightmarish than the color vampire flicks filled with carnage and horrifying sound effects?
The answer to that query can likely be found in one of the most famous shots in film history: the vampire Count Orlock rising out of his coffin in much the same way that cartoon characters come back to the land of the living after being trapped inside a nightmare. Orlock rises up from grave in a way that is distinctly disconnected from any sense of reality. That disconnect from reality lies at the heart of so much effort that filmmakers equipped with far greater tools put into modern vampire films, yet fail so miserably at in comparison to the simplicity afforded by the experience of watching Nosferatu. The silent act of Orlock making his way from the horizontal to the vertical is more disturbing as a result of its disconnect from the reality we think we understand than all the millions of gallons of fake blood and all the tens of thousands of hours spent on creating special effects and makeup to make the unreal seem real.
The eerily noiseless (by the way, if you really want to experience Nosferatu in all its most enjoyably disturbing potential, turn off the soundtrack and watch the movie sometime after midnight when most of the sounds of the modern world have quieted down) image of the physically repulsive vampire in Nosferatu appearing to disobey the laws of physics is such a modest means of undermining reality that at this point in the history of film its significance can easily fly right over the head of viewers. But it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t because undermining reality is the fundamental basis upon which the success of all horror is determined. For all the effort that goes into making the unreal seem to exist within the bounds of reality in modern horror film, the inescapable fact is that horror works best when the supernatural remains outside the conventions of logic. The absence of logic to Count Orlock not bending a single limb or flexing a single muscle as he rise from the horizontal to the vertical is the very element that succeeds in making Nosferatu a viewing experience exponentially more disturbing than any number of increasingly graphic gorefests trying to pass themselves off as horror.
Another element contributing to the elevation of Nosferatu above movies seeking to make their mark on audiences by attempting to make horror more real through explicit means is the ability to read into the movie a number of different meanings. The looser the connection of horror to mundane reality, the more opportunities are afforded for interpretation. For instance, the very repulsiveness of the Dracula figure in Nosferatu (which is, after all, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stroker’s novel) situates this example of German Expressionism to be critically interpreted as a more subtle precursor to examples of anti-Jewish propaganda to come as Hitler’s Nazi Party takes more and more control. The fact that Nosferatu is infinitely more aesthetically pleasing and artistically satisfying than those later examples of Nazi propaganda serves as more evidence that horror works best as art when less explicit.
Lending further credence to this argument is that just as Nosferatu can adequately—if not necessarily intentionally—be interpreted as forwarding a fascist agenda, so can it also be strongly supported as being a tool of communist propaganda. One of the metaphors that Karl Marx employs to characterize the nature of capitalism is that of the vampire sucking on the lifeblood of the working class. Do not forget that it is a capitalist transaction—specifically, a real estate deal—which is the impetus behind the vampire’s journey and the subsequent devastation that his travel plans wreak upon all who fall under the gravitational force of his orbit.
What a simple analytical overview of Nosferatu most capably supplies is the recognition that in keeping the story simple and in rejecting attempts to enforce an intellectual logic upon supernatural event and actions, the film successfully endorses an argument against the horror genre benefiting from explicit realizations of generic conventions. The heavy use of shadowplay to suggest the more horrific elements associated with vampirism succeeds in distancing the narrative from Hollywood-style realism while also succeeding in intensifying the disturbing qualities of elements of vampirism.