Nosferatu (1922). 94 minutes. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Starring Max Schreck (as Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (as Thomas Hutter), Greta Schröder (as Ellen Hutter), Alexander Granach (as Knock), John Gottowt (as Professor Bulwer), and Georg H. Schnell (as Harding). Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.
We are fortunate to have F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in any form at all. The movie is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), but Murnau never obtained permission from the Stoker estate to film his adaptation. Although the names and places were changed in the film from the original novel (this was done as a precaution), Nosferatu was still essentially Dracula. When Stoker’s widow determined that Murnau had made a film of her husband’s novel without her approval, she sued for breach of copyright in Germany and won. A judge ordered all existing copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, Nosferatu had already been imported to France, and it is from those prints that our modern copies descend.
The story begins in the German town of Wisborg when Thomas Hutter is asked by his employer Knock to visit the Transylvanian nobleman Count Orlok, who is interested in buying a piece of property in their area. Hutter takes leave of his wife Ellen and makes his way to Transylvania but on the way learns that the locals are frightened of the count. Hutter’s coachman, in fact, will only take him so far up the mountain to Orlok’s castle; a phantom-like black carriage picks up Hutter and transports him the rest of the way.
Hutter arrives at the castle and meets Orlok, a strange-looking individual who is preoccupied when Hutter accidentally cuts his finger at dinner. Orlok purchases the German property, but Hutter grows increasingly concerned about Orlok’s strange behavior. Eventually Hutter comes to suspect that Orlok is a vampire who will kill him and his wife. During the day he discovers Orlok sleeping in a crypt in vampire form. That evening, Orlok packs up coffins filled with earth and departs from the castle. Hutter makes his escape from the castle, is injured and hospitalized, and speeds towards home, concerned for the safety of his wife, who in trance-like states has had visions of Orlok behaving menacingly. In the meantime, Orlok hides out with his coffins on a ship bound for Germany; he stalks the crew at night and slaughters them all, with the result that the ship drifts into port devoid of living people. Orlok begins to kill the residents of the town, who believe that the plague has struck. In the meantime, Hutter’s wife, who knows that Orlok has threatened her husband and is after her, comes to believe that if she can lure Orlok to her chamber to feast on her blood until morning, she can destroy him. She summons him, and he does just this, disappearing in a cloud of smoke as the sun rises, at which point Hutter discovers his wife dead in her bed.
Nosferatu is the earliest surviving vampire movie and, as Roger Ebert points out nicely in his review of the film, is what the vampire movie was before it became drenched in Hollywood clichés. This does not make it scarier, necessarily, but Nosferatu is certainly eerie and richly atmospheric in a way that its vampire movie successors are not. Certainly one reason for its eeriness is the actor Max Schreck, who plays Count Orlok (i.e., Dracula). In the role of Orlok, Schreck looks non-human, otherworldy: he is tall and thin, with enormous bat-like ears, protuberant front teeth like a rabbit’s, and eyes that seem to have no connection to a human soul. He appears in doorways and windows, still and threatening. Schreck does not have to move or make sound in order for us to sense how ominous his presence is, how unnatural his intentions are. The shots of him in the castle are particularly artful and beautiful, albeit unnerving—images of his lanky figure standing up against the angular gothic architecture. There is a weird juxtaposition in those images between the ornate and structured versus the base and animal.
Schreck is so convincing as a bizarre creature of the night that the 2000 movie Shadow of the Vampire (in which Willem Dafoe plays Schreck) made the fanciful case that he was actually a vampire in real life. The transformation of Schreck from mortal to vampire character was admittedly astonishing: he was an attractive and dignified-looking man of the theater in real life. But the other actors in Nosferatu are equally deft in their portrayal of Stoker’s characters. In particular Alexander Granach as Knock (Renfield in the Stoker novel) is exceedingly creepy and transitions beautifully into Count Orlok’s mad devotee later in the film. Gustav von Wangenheim is also effective as Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in the novel); in fact, all of the performances are genuinely very good.
One of the reasons for this is that the acting here is devoid of many of the bad habits that developed in the silent period. In many other silent films, the cast speaks dialogue while gesticulating, sometimes copious amounts of dialogue, that we never hear and that the intertitles never translate for us. In Nosferatu, however, there is considerably less silent talking. For the most part, characters are shot looking, thinking, and moving, and the intertitles clue us in to key bits of dialogue that we sometimes do not even see the characters mouthing approximations of. The emphasis of the shots is thus on framing, staging, and the meaning of movement and gesture rather than language. Overall, this approach makes for a rich presentation that focuses on the artful staging of shots that convey a great deal of significance on their own—threats, warnings, realizations—and contribute to an enveloping sense of horror, mystery, the supernatural, and the unknowable. Silent movies that emphasized visual storytelling achieved something astonishing: Nosferatu is one of those silents that manages to tell a story in almost purely visual terms, which is, after all, the essence of film.
It is probably not coincidental, therefore, that the Stoker character Dr. Van Helsing is mostly absent from the movie. In the novel, he is highly verbal and marked by an implausible foreign accent. Van Helsing makes only a brief appearance in Nosferatu in the form of Professor Bulwer, who teaches his students about the Venus flytrap. Although the Bulwer scenes are the few that feel isolated and disjointed from the rest of the picture, they also provide a useful commentary on the kind of animal Count Orlok is: like the flytrap, he is a carnivorous species, not human. The Venus flytrap scene is revisited in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola Dracula, where Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing is shown lecturing his university students on venereal disease.
The moments with Bulwer on screen have a clinical air, which stands in brilliant contrast with the romantic, gothic territory of so much of the rest of the film. Bulwer by implication offers a different take on how to handle Orlok than what we derive from the German crowds, who in the midst of a surge in deaths behave erratically and superstitiously. We might like to think that we resemble the calm and methodical Bulwer, but we are probably more like the crowds. Just as the horrific and bestial Schreck weirdly standing in the artful, vaulted doorway of Orlok’s castle highlights the tension between the animal and the artistic, the Bulwer material stresses another juxtaposition inherent in the vampire story: the rational versus the emotional. Despite our belief that we are high-minded creatures, ultimately the movie reminds us of the thin line between the human and the inhuman.
One of the most remarkable vampire movies to succeed Murnau’s Nosferatu is surely Werner Herzog’s remake of the same name (1979), which he filmed simultaneously in German and English. Klaus Kinski stars as Count Orlok in Herzog’s version, playing him as a vaguely sympathetic vampire. Herzog talks in the commentary to that film about how he admires the German silent filmmakers and about Murnau’s influence on him as a director. It is evident that Herzog’s Nosferatu is a direct commentary on Murnau’s movie, yet Murnau’s Nosferatu is one of those rare movies that has managed to influence generations of filmmakers and film-goers while remaining largely unique. As much as Herzog’s film is a paean to Murnau’s and a wonderful movie in its own right, I still would not confuse the two of them: Kinski’s Orlok is more eccentric, Herzog’s art direction is less expressionistic. Murnau’s movie is a treasure, and I recommend it especially for those who find themselves tired of modern vampire stories. It may be the grandfather to what came later, but it is hard to find anything else quite like it.