Original release: March 4th, 1922
Running time: 94 minutes
Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Henrik Galeen
Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff
The influence of Nosferatu is hard to deny. In the 90 years that have passed it still continues to inspire. Whether it’s in film, music or any other art form that gears anywhere near towards Horror, Expressionism, the Gothic or the surreal, you’ll most certainly find hints of this Weimar classic.
I recall first seeing it at a lecture for a class I was taking on early German Cinema and my first impressions were that it was a truly magnificent piece of work. The imaginative sets, locations, suspenseful music and the style of acting together with the make-up and costumes all contributed perfectly to the creation of a film I will never forget or be able to equally compare to another.
The eerie and dreamlike story takes us to the fictitious German town of Wisborg where solicitor Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim ) is about to leave for Transylvania to meet a new client, Count Orlok (Max Schreck). He leaves behind his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) in the company of their friends Harding (Georg H. Schnell) and Annie (Ruth Landshoff) but once he approaches the Carpathian Mountains, Thomas begins to hear strange tales of werewolves and beats.
Staying at an inn for the night he witnesses a creature in the darkness from his window, frightening a woman outside and causing distress to the horses nearby. He later finds The Book Of Vampyres, Phantoms, and The Seven Deadly Sins which tells him all about a creature called Nosferatu who lives on human blood.
When he reaches Count Orlok’s castle it’s not long before things start to get even stranger. First there’s the odd manner in which the Count tries to suck his wound dry when he cuts his thumb, and then there are two puncture marks on his neck when he wakes up the following morning. When the Count sees a picture of Ellen he becomes entranced by her beauty and attempts to cross oceans to seduce her and make her his own bide.
Nosferatu’s story is of course exactly the same as what Bram Stoker wrote in his 1897 novel Dracula, with the names changed and the omission of the Van Helsing character. It did however add the part about the Count bringing the plague with him to Wisborg but this wasn’t enough to stop the film’s production from going belly up.
Prana Film had been set up to produce occult and supernatural films in Germany but their one and only film was… Nosferatu. They were forced to declare bankruptcy after Stoker’s widow, Florence, sued for copyright infringement and won. Prana Film were supposed to have destroyed all copies of the offending item but luckily one set of reels managed to slip by.
Stoker was not the first one to have written about such a creature though. In 1819, Dr. John Polidoro published The Vampyre, a story about a decadent young aristocrat who preys on young girls for their blood. Legends about blood drinkers go back even further, but it’s not Baron Gilles de Rais, Countess Elizabeth Bathory or Gilles de Rais we mostly associate the legend with, it Stoker’s Dracula and Murnau’s Nosferatu which marked the vampire’s first screen outing.
With his bald head, rat-like face, pointed ears and sunken cheeks he’s makes quite a first impression, together with his two long fangs and elongated fingers. I can only imagine what an audience in 1922 must have felt like when he first graced the screen before them.
Scenes such as when the Count walks across the prow of the ship that’s carrying him to Wisborg show him hunched, menacing and though the style is exaggerated, it’s also compelling and fills us with dread. It’s here we also have that well-known low-angle shot of him. He looks larger than life as Murnau’s cinematographers shoot from below with the camera looking up at him. It’s the scene when he climbs the stairs to Ellen’s bedroom that’s most famous though. Silhouetted against the moonlight he appears like a black figure creeping towards his awaiting victim.
For all these dreadful pleasures though, Nosferatu, as a film, also gives us beauty and at times tranquillity, making use of much of the outdoor scenery…
Nature participates in the action: sensitive editing makes the bounding waves foretell the approach of the vampire, the imminence of the doom about to overtake the town. Over all the landscapes – dark hills, thick forests, skies of jagged storm-cloud – there hovers what Balazs calls the great shadow of the supernatural.” ¹
In this way, unlike Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene, Nosferatu’s Expressionist qualities are not as obvious. We do not see a world on screen where lines, curves, shadows, movement, light and dark run amok, instead this is a film where the natural environment is gazed at through the lens of Expressionism. It’s a much subtler approach and it makes the experience of the horror all the more unsettling with this delicate balance of mise-en-scène and performance.
As a film of remarkable endurance, Nosferatu, very much like the character himself, has managed to live far longer than its makers, or even Florence Stoker, might have expected. Our modern day screen vampires might, for the time being at least, be preoccupied with glitter and romance, but cinephiles and those who appreciate true autuership will no doubt be able to look beyond these temporary trends and see that Nosferatu will continue to outlast them all.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .