“Is That Your Wife? What a Lovely Neck…” – Nosferatu

Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)A Prana-film ProductionDirected by F.W. MurnauWritten by Henrik GaleenBased upon Dracula by Bram StokerStarring Max Schreck and Gustav von Wangenheim

In this, the age of slick production, huge budgets and digital special effects, F.W. Murnau’s legendary work Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated, a Symphony of Terror) isn’t easy to watch. The film is silent and was shot in black and white, the images are grainy, the lighting flickers, the acting is overdone even for the stage, and the only existing prints look like they’ve been trampled on. So why should anyone care about a German horror movie filmed almost 80 years ago?

The answer is simple–Nosferatu is historic. For centuries, stories of vampires and similar creatures have fascinated and frightened cultures the world over. In 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula introduced thousands of readers to the legend of the vampire, and in the century that followed, stories of vampires only became more popular. While not the first film to feature a vampire, Nosferatu was the first feature-length film based on Stoker’s Dracula.

Nosferatu (from the Greek nosophoros, meaning “plague-carrier”) tells of a vampire, known here as Count Graf Orlok, who sits wasting away in a decrepit Transylvanian castle. Through his servant, a broker named Knock, he arranges the purchase of a new home in the small town of Bremel, Germany.

Young Thomas Hutter, an employee of Knock, travels to Orlok’s castle to complete the deal. When Orlok sees a picture of Hutter’s wife, Ellen, he becomes obsessed with finding and consuming this girl. Thus begins a race to Bremel, with the life of Ellen as the prize.

Rather than portraying vampires in the romanticized way we have grown accustomed to, Nosferatu shows us a vampire who is half-alive, emaciated, and alone. He bears a curse, a disease which rules his life and compels him to consume others. Rather than the debonair vampires which have dominated popular culture since the 1931 Universal Pictures version of Dracula, Orlok is a pitiful and loathsome beast.

To be honest, Nosferatu isn’t likely to give you the slightest scare. When compared to current techniques, the effects used to create the menacing supernatural evil of Count Orlok just don’t work. However, this is evidence of just how effective Nosferatu once was. Many of the scenes in this film aren’t frightening simply because you’ve seen them too many times in the countless works influenced by or directly copying this film. The techniques used in Nosferatu were copied in so many later films because they proved amazingly successful in frightening audiences of that time.

One of the most memorable aspects of this film is the performance of Max Schreck as Count Orlok. Various historical reports have claimed that Schreck was perhaps a bit too close to his on-screen counterpart, and stories of him sleeping in coffins and avoiding the daylight are common. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000) suggests an even stronger connection between Schreck and Orlok. Despite the limitations of film at the time, Graf Orlok is unsettling.

Beyond the merits of the story and performances, Nosferatu is required viewing for anyone with a serious interest in film. Murnau was one of the earliest Western directors to embrace montage, and in this film he uses several montages to relate long journeys, such as Hutter’s journey to Orlok’s castle, or to show simultaneous action through cross-cutting. Also, German cinema of the time was characterized by expressionism, where the environment itself is a reflection of a character’s mental state, and Nosferatu is no exception. Like Citizen Kane and The Birth of a Nation, Nosferatu is a film in which some of the basic filmmaking techniques we take for granted were pioneered.

Unfortunately, Murnau did not secure the rights to Stoker’s Dracula before filming his adaptation. Despite changes to character names and the story’s setting, a lawsuit was filed by Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Stoker. As a result, the original film negatives and all known copies of Nosferatu were destroyed. Fortunately, a few copies had been hidden away, and they resurfaced after Florence Stoker’s death. Despite impressive restoration work, even the best copies of the film are damaged.

Several versions of Nosferatu can now be found. Some use the names from Dracula, others use Murnau’s names, and there are many different musical scores to choose from. Regardless of the version you find, the story remains the same. If you plan to see Shadow of the Vampire, being familiar with the film that inspired it is strongly recommended. However, anyone with an interest in vampire mythology, filmmaking, or horror in general would do well to see Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens.