Nosferatu (Germany, 1922)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Vampire. It is perhaps one of the few words capable of raising the hackles on the necks of both grownups and children alike. Tales of the un-dead date back centuries, but the most famous vampire of all was not born until the late 1800s (1897, to be precise), when a writer named Bram Stoker put pen to paper and, using an historical figure named Vlad the Impaler as his inspiration, created the legend of Count Dracula. Since Stoker's book was first published, no icon has been more closely linked to evil and horror in the Christian world than Dracula.

In 1921, when legendary filmmaker F.W. Murnau set about making the first adaptation of Dracula for the silver screen, he ran into a little snag: Stoker's widow denied permission for her husband's work to be used. 80 years later, it is unclear whether Florence Stoker wanted more money than Murnau was offering or whether she simply didn't want the movie made, but the director was unfazed by her refusal and went ahead with the project. His only concessions were to change the names of the characters and to make some minor plot alterations. However, anyone familiar with Dracula would immediately recognize Nosferatu as a transparent adaptation.

Unfortunately for Murnau, Stoker's widow made the connection and sued. The eventual decision of the courts was that all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. Obviously, since the film still exists, this was not fully implemented. However, it is uncertain whether copies available today contain all of the material from Murnau's cut. Some reports have the original running time at 1:33, but the most complete, commercially available edition is roughly ten minutes leaner. There is also a substantially shorter, "bare bones" version that was circulated during the years before film historians worked to restore Nosferatu. The recent restoration may come close to Murnau's vision, although there are sequences in which the damage to the source material is evident. One significant improvement to this version, which represents the current "official" copy, is that the tinting has been restored (blue for night, sepia for day) so that the vampire no longer appears to be wandering around outside in full sunlight.

As I child, I was endlessly fascinated by monster movies, and I spent my Saturday afternoons religiously watching "Creature Double Feature" - a TV program that broadcast two back-to-back films ranging from schlock to classics. However, although I had viewed most of the so-called "greats", Nosferatu became my Holy Grail. Having seen stills from Muranu's picture in a book, I was eager to watch the movie. What I didn't realize was that there was no way a commercial television station was going to air a silent movie. So it wasn't until many years later during the advent of home video that I finally had the opportunity to experience Nosferatu. The film surprised me with the strength of its visual style and the different manner in which it approached the vampire legend.

Nosferatu opens in Breman, Germany by introducing us to estate agent Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in Stoker's novel, played by Gustav von Wangenheim) and his young wife, Ellen (Stoker's Mina, played by Greta Schröder). Hutter is about to embark on a journey to the Carpathian Mountains in order to sell a Bremen house to the mysterious Count Orlock (Max Schreck). Superstitious natives warn Hutter not to travel to the Count's castle, but greed overcomes caution. Once there, after completing the transaction, Hutter discovers Orlock's true nature - that he is a creature of the night who drinks blood and sleeps in a coffin - and nearly doesn't survive the ordeal. The Count, however, loses interest in Hutter once he sees a picture of the man's wife, and, as he makes the passage to Germany via boat, he prepares to bring his powers to bear upon her.

The most obvious difference between the vampire in Nosferatu and the one of nearly every other version of Dracula is the creature's appearance. Orlock is presented as a walking cadaver - an emaciated monster with a bald head, pointed ears, rat-like front teeth, elongated fingernails, and a stiff gait (rumor has it that aspects of Orlock were used in the creation of the creature for the 1931 version of Frankenstein). Beginning with Bela Lugosi and extending through the '90s, it has become commonplace to portray vampires as urbane, charismatic individuals whose sexual magnetism is reflected in their appearance. It's hard to imagine someone as openly hideous as Orlock seducing a woman - and that's precisely one reason why Nosferatu is so unsettling. Like every other vampire movie, Nosferatu has a deeply erotic undercurrent. Orlock possesses a power of compulsion - one that is belied by his gaunt and horrific appearance. Young children who smile at an image of Lugosi's Dracula may shriek in horror when confronted by Schreck's Orlock.

Indeed, while sexuality is never overtly referred to or expressed in Nosferatu, it is a constant influence that only the most naïve or obtuse viewer would miss. The Count's relationship, such as it is, with Hutter, shows hints of homoerotic interaction. Their dance of seduction, however, remains unconsummated beause Orlock's attention shifts to Ellen. As has always been the case in vampire stories, the drinking of blood is a poorly concealed metaphor for sex, and this is evident in the way Orlock feeds on Ellen.

Duality is a prominent theme in Nosferatu. By using Hutter and Orlock to symbolically represent two halves of a complete individual, Murnau allows the film to explore the Jekyll & Hyde split between man's civilized and bestial natures. Hutter is the childlike innocent who cares for his wife in a platonic manner and reacts to circumstances with wide eyed amazement. Orlock, on the other hand, is animalistic. His advances towards Ellen are fueled entirely by his base needs, and are grounded in sexuality in a way that the metaphorically emasculated Hutter could not comprehend. In that way, Hutter and Orlock complement each other. Ellen gains from each of them what she cannot have from the other.

Ellen is the living embodiment of the Madonna/whore syndrome. To Hutter, she is the chaste wife who sits by the window playing with a kitten or calmly doing needlepoint. To Orlock, she is a wanton who willingly succumbs to his embrace. In fact, their "passion" is so intense that the vampire loses track of time and burns up in the dawn's first light. Ellen pays a price for this symbolic loss of virginity by also dying, echoing the age-old link between sex and corruption. (This connection regained popularity during the '80s slasher movie craze, when Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, and their kind chose sexually active teenagers as their prey. The virgins typically survived.) At the end of Nosferatu, the only one left alive is the childlike Hutter.

Missing from this telling of the vampire story are religious icons. Through the years, we have come to accept a connection between Christian symbolism (the cross, holy water, etc.) and the undead, but none of that is evident in Nosferatu. Murnau has removed God from the equation, stripping the movie of a spiritual underpinning. The conflict presented here is not one of good against evil; instead, it's an externalization of the struggle between the opposing halves of human nature.

One of the most significant changes made by Muranu and screenwriter Henrik Galeen from the Dracula text is to downplay the role of Professor Van Helsing (Bulwer in this version). In Stoker's novel, Van Helsing was a key character. Here, however, Bulwer does little more than to provide background color. His participation in the story is minimal, and he has nothing whatsoever to do with the vampire's eventual downfall. In Nosferatu, that is entirely Ellen's doing.

Although Murnau relied primarily upon Stoker's interpretation of vampire myths and legends for Nosferatu, he added an important wrinkle of his own, and one which has become a staple of the genre since then. In Dracula, although the title character thrived at night and was diminished during the day, he was capable of being exposed to direct sunlight without shriveling up. (During one scene in the novel, the count is out and about in London during the day.) Not so in Nosferatu, where Murnau introduces the concept of vampires being fatally susceptible to daylight. Orlock meets his demise after the crow of a cock, not at the pointed end of a wooden stake.

Nosferatu is often used as the poster child of the German expressionist wave of motion pictures. This movement, of which Murnau's classic is clearly a member, externalizes emotions and relies upon a heavily theatrical acting style to achieve that aim. Expressionism has many components, including a strong visual approach and a visceral appeal, but subtlety is not among them. By today's standards, the acting in Nosferatu is almost comically over-the-top, but, seen in the context within which the film was developed, it was par for the course. And, even though Murnau is less interested in building characters than he is in exploring themes and telling a chilling story, we nevertheless develop a sense of sadness where Orlock is concerned. Despite his horrific appearance, he is very much a tragic figure.

Atmosphere and visual composition represent two of Nosferatu's most prominent features. Murnau carefully planned every shot in the film - nothing is left to chance, from the placement of a mirror to the point on the screen in which characters enter and exit a scene. Framing devices like arches (for Orlock) and windows (for Ellen) are presented repeatedly. Primitive special effects, such as time lapse photography, are used sparingly but effectively. And certain images, such as one of Orlock's distorted shadow climbing the stairs of Ellen's house, imprint themselves upon the mind. Nosferatu may not be traditionally frightening, but the result of Muranu's artistic approach is a pervasive sense of eerieness and unease. And, because the film's visual palette is so rich, there is much to be discovered on subsequent viewings. Like all great artwork, Nosferatu hides many of its most striking features from those who sample it casually.

For actor Max Schreck, Nosferatu represents the first of many credits on his resume. Buried beneath layers of makeup and rarely photographed in close-up, this was a striking way to begin a career. Schreck would go on to appear in over a dozen films during the next 13 years (he died in 1936), although the only performance for which is widely remembered is that of Count Orlock. It's interesting to note that Schreck's moniker is almost certainly a pseudonym, and, since little is known about him before Murnau "discovered" him, there has been much speculation about his origins. Evidence indicates that he may have been known for stage work under another name, but used "Schreck" (literally translated "terror") to avoid scandalizing those who knew him as someone else. (A more fanciful possibility, put forth in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, argues that Schreck may not have been acting when playing this part.) Most of the other performers (with the exception of character actor Alexander Granach, who played the Renfield-inspired Knock) had short, less colorful, and largely uneventful careers in front of the camera.

As is true of all silent films, the soundtrack is important to the movie's overall impact. I have seen Nosferatu with three different scores (four, if you count watching it with no sound whatsoever), and I find that the best music tends to be that which relies upon classical, gothic themes. More modern compositions have their defenders, but I find that they clash with as often as complement the visual elements. Of course, this is all a matter of personal taste, but watching Nosferatu with a live orchestra playing in the background offers the best experience (although the DVD version, featuring a 1991 score by Timothy Howard, makes for a good second choice in the absence of a big screen revival).

As vampire movies go, few are more memorable than Nosferatu, which is not only the first screen version of Dracula, but, in some ways, remains the best. Unlike many of his predecessors who dabbled in the vampire genre, Murnau was a craftsman, and the care he lavished upon this production is evident in each shot and every scene. Alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, few motion pictures have had a more profound impact upon an entire genre than Nosferatu has had upon the legion of horror movies that trailed in its wake.

Nosferatu (Germany, 1922)

Ranked #69 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:22
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1