157. NOSFERATU (1922)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror

“It is commonplace to say that silent films are more ‘dreamlike,’ but what does that mean? In ‘Nosferatu,’ it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away.”–Roger Ebert

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DIRECTED BY: F.W. Murnau

FEATURING: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach

PLOT: A young clerk named Hutter leaves his wife Ellen to travel to Transylvania with a deed for one Count Orlock to sign so he can purchase a house in Viborg. Orlock, however, is nosferatu, a vampire, and Hutter find himself a prisoner in the Count’s castle as Orlock ships himself to the German port in a coffin. When Orlock arrives the town is shut down for fear of plague, and the vampire takes an interest in Ellen…

Still from Nosferatu (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • F.W. Murnau’s first seven films, made between 1919 and 1921, are all considered lost. Among them was an adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Nosferatu was his tenth movie.
  • Albin Grau, Nosferatu‘s co-producer, financier and production designer, was an occultist and a German rival of . His production company Prana intended to produce films promoting occultist beliefs, but the company went bankrupt after Nosferatu.
  • Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” barely disguised by changing the names and moving the action from London to Germany. The Stoker estate successfully sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement after release, and the film was ordered to be destroyed (fortunately, many prints survived).
  • Ranked #21 on Empire Magazine’s List of Best Films of World Cinema.
  • ‘s 2000 film Shadow of a Vampire is about the making of Nosferatu, and plays on the notion that the actor Max Schreck might really have been a vampire (an idea fleshed out from a tongue-in-cheek suggestion made by the writer Ado Kyrou in his book “Surrealism in Cinema”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it be but Max Schreck, the rat-faced herald of plague and pestilence and the screen’s most bestial bloodsucker? The scene where he rises unnaturally, stiff as a plank, from his coffin in the ship’s hold still presses the primal panic button.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The experimental use of negative images, sped up film stock, primitive stop motion photography, and the play of shadows to suggest a diabolical world coexisting with our mundane sunlit world creates an uncanny, nightmarish universe. The once new and startling techniques Murnau employs quickly became commonplace, but after nearly a century of disuse they have again become novel through their very archaism.


Trailer for a 2013 re-release of Nosferatu

COMMENTS: At the dawn of cinema, horror movies weren’t diversions meant to give teenage boys an excuse to put a comforting arm around their dates. They were experimental art movies that explored the dark underside of human existence. The need to evoke the uncanny and extreme states of mind gave directors license to experiment with unreal set designs and photographic techniques. In 1922, the rules and lore of the vampire film were not yet codified. Put yourself in the mindset of a 1922 patron sitting in a darkened theater, anxiously awaiting the rising curtain. The tale of bloodsucking demons walking among us you are about to see will be totally new and fantastic. Nosferatu invents many of the rules of the genre, such as the idea that vampires perish in direct sunlight (although this notion may have been based on an oversimplification, as we’ll discuss below). Yet, despite the enormous respect Nosferatu has earned, no other vampire movie resembles it very much. In particular, there has never been a vampire as vile, animalistic, and unqualifiedly malevolent as Max Shreck’s Count Orlock. After his brief, obligatory interactions with Hutter at the castle, Orlock is never again a person in the story. He never again speaks, but is only a noxious, feeding animal spreading the plague. The nosferatu is a negative force of nature, a toothy, walking penis that brings rape and disease to the good, civilized people of the world.

Horror was the perfect vehicle for the German Expressionist’s desire to capture emotional and psychological reality rather than the mere physical world. Murnau uses several now-simple, then-novel techniques to announce Orlock’s otherworldliness. Most obvious is the inhuman makeup: bald head, sunken eye sockets, bushy eyebrows, bat wing ears, sharp snout-like nose, overgrown fingernails and rodent fangs. Shreck’s Orlock can barely pass for human; when he meets Hutter, he wears a hat to cover as much of his bizarre head as he can (Orlock conspicuously refrains from removing his cap when the young man politely tips his, merely tapping it instead). Orlock first appears when his carriage comes to pick up Hutter; the scene is stop-motion animated so that the vehicle seems to be stuttering its way towards the unsuspecting Hutter, at a slightly reckless speed. We are not yet told that Orlock is aboard, but there is already something unnatural about his onscreen presence from his first entrance. Draping a white cloth across the carriage so it shows up as black on the screen, Murnau portrays the ride to Orlock’s castle in a negative image, inverting the natural order as we pass from Hutter’s normal world into the mystical undead realm of the nosferatu. Later in the film, Orlock will be seen merely as a shadow, a phantom gliding up stairways and turning doorknobs with his long talons. Whenever Shreck is onscreen there is something to remind us that what we are looking at is not a man.

Murnau explicitly associates vampires with disease, in particular with the plague. The book of vampire lore Hutter reads explains that the undead’s coffins are filled with “cursed dirt from the fields of the Black Death.” Intertitles tell us that the plague has broken out in Transylvania, and it is feared that cargo ships will spread it to Germany (we know that it’s the vampire’s bite, not a virus, that is causing victims to fall sick and die). When a sailor breaks open the coffins in the hold, he first sees not a corpse, but a horde of rats that scurry out—the traditional bearers of the bubonic plague. After Orlock lands in Viborg the town is sent into curfew for fear of the plague. Perhaps spreading fear of the plague is part of Orlock’s plan to cover up his own vampiric crimes. Future movies will use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS and/or drug addiction (Habit, The Addiction), but never again (other than perhaps in ‘s 1979 Nosferatu remake) will a film be so upfront in its association of vampires and disease: the two fears literally coexist in Nosferatu.

Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula” in England 1897, in the late Victorian era, when there was something of a national medical panic, not over the plague, but over venereal disease. Vampires are inherently sexual symbols: usually males, they penetrate the skin, induce the exchange of bodily fluids, and put their surrendering victims into a complicit trance as they suckle at the font of their vein. Only lovers share the same intimacy as a vampire and his victim. Bald Orlock is explicitly phallic as he stiffly rises from his coffin like an erection. He hunts Ellen, the only female in the story, whom he has taken a particular interest in since seeing her photograph in his castle. (He has also assaulted and dominated her lawfully wedded husband and left him for dead). Unlike the other characters in the story, Ellen has some level of attraction to Orlock—she virtually fantasizes about letting him into her bed. She’s been ordered not to read the frightful book of vampire lore by her overprotective husband (the knowledge of what goes on at night in bed between a maiden and a sucking beast is forbidden to her tender feminine sensibilities). As she sneaks a peek in the tome and reads about the vampire suckling on the “hellish elixir of [his victim’s] bloode”, she glances around the room, as if to assure herself she’s alone, then swoons, closes her eyes and rolls her head about in a near-orgasmic display of fear. When the vampire finally does appear to her in her bedroom, she clutches at her breast (to calm her beating heart—sure) and falls onto the bed (rather than fleeing). The shadow of the fiend’s hand falls across her nightgown, at first gently caressing it, then violently grabbing her heart/breast as her head is flung backwards in what in a different context would look like an ecstatic spasm. This brief scene is as daringly erotic as anything you will see in a movie from the 1920s.

But this is not a simple case of a rapist taking what he needs from a woman, however. Ellen actively seeks union with the beast—not from desire, but from duty. The forbidden book has told her that “deliverance is possible by no other means but that an innocent maiden maketh the vampire heed not the first crowing of the cock… done by the sacrifice of her own bloode.” (This is why the myth mentioned above about the sun being deadly to vampires doesn’t accurately spring from Nosferatu—sunlight is only half the formula, a sexual sacrifice is also necessary). Some critics would doubtlessly like to read Nosferatu as a Freudian parable about sexual repression, but the story is more a symptom of repression than a warning of its dangers. The symbolism here sticks closely to the traditional moral values of Bram Stoker’s Victorian milieu. The phallic nosferatu, who seeks only to fulfill his lustful desires, is associated with disease (whether the plague or syphilis), homosexuality (he feeds on Hutter), adultery (he covets Hutter’s wife), rape, necrophilia (he is after all a corpse), and general sexual impurity. To purify and cleanse this evil, an “innocent maiden” (although Ellen is presumably not a literal virgin, she is pure of heart) must willingly allow the vampire to sate himself upon her, giving up her (hymenal?) blood. Consummation, when done properly, according to ritual—i.e. within wedlock—will lead to the dissipation of desire and removal of the sexual threat. It is the woman’s duty (not her desire) to make this sacrifice. Nosferatu, in other words, appears to be pro-sexual repression. The vampire here is not a charmer like ‘s Dracula, a seducer a woman could understandably give herself to out of lust. This hideous vampire of sex brings disease and death.

The mixture of sex, greatly to be desired, and death, the ultimate fear, is a powerful and primal one. The two are intimately bound together. Even before Orlock’s shadow casts itself across the story, in the idyllic prologue, Hutter brings his wife a bouquet of freshly picked wildflowers as a courting gift. The couple passionately embrace, and Hutter hands the posies to his beloved. Ellen’s blissful face turns sad as she utters the story’s first line of dialogue: “Why did you kill them… such beautiful flowers?”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…not especially stirring… most of it seems like cardboard puppets doing all they can to be horrible on papiermaché settings.”–Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times (1929 revival)

“…a concentrated essay in horror fantasy, full of weird, macabre camera effects.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

“…a poem of horror, a symphony of dread, a film so rapt, mysterious and weirdly lovely it haunts the mind long after it’s over.”–Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune (retrospective)

IMDB LINK: Nosferatu (1922)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Nosferatu Movie Review & Film Summary (1922) | Roger Ebert – Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” entry for Nosferatu

Six Degrees of Nosferatu – Thomas Elsaesser maps out the network of influences on Murnau in an article written for the February 2001 issue of “Sight & Sound”

Nosferatu – Gillian Anderson – The notes for composer Gillian Anderson’s reconstruction of the lost Hans Erdmann score includes many original notices about the movie, as well as the music

Forecast Nosferatu – Selections from Blue Mountain Ensemble’s avant-garde classical/electronic score for Nosferatu, matched to stills from the film

DVD INFO: Nosferatu is in the public domain and can be downloaded free from the Internet Archive and similar services. The best quality version is probably the 2006 restoration, drawn from three separate prints, commissioned by Murnau’s descendants. This version was re-released in 2013 by Kino Classics on DVD (buy) and for the first time on Blu-ray (buy). This release includes two separate versions of the film, one with the original German intertitles (in some cases recreations had to be made) and another with English intertitles. Extras include the informative, occasionally dry hour-long documentary “The Language of Shadows,” a trailer for the restored version, an image gallery of promotional material, and excerpts from other Murnau films.

Since it is in the public domain, Nosferatu is available in dozens of versions, each featuring a different soundtrack. For the Kino edition, Berndt Heller recreated the Hans Erdmann score from the composer’s notes. Other musicians have created alternate reconstructions of the original, and many new soundtracks have been made to accompany the film, from orchestral arrangements to avant-garde electronic scores. One noteworthy version, titled Nosferatu: the First Vampire (buy), is scored to songs by the goth/metal band Type O Negative; it includes an introduction by David Carradine.

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