Special Interests (Hallowe’en Edition) Nosferatu- Tom McHugh
Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens
From Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, comes Nosferatu, the 1922 masterpiece of the German Expressionist tradition. An unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the film was almost lost to history due to a lawsuit. Its survival is a testament both to Nosferatu’s lasting power, and our dedication to maintaining great cinematic works.
On the surface the film is a faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel, plot-wise at least. However, the film truly shines in its imagery and creature design. Stoker’s Count remains mostly human, albeit with fangs, pointed ears and hairy palms. He retains a superficial aristocratic appearance, ornate costuming, hair on his head and even a stylish Victorian moustache. Where the film deviates the most from the source material is in the appearance of Count Orlok. Here the Count is almost unrecognisable, bald with chalk-white skin. He sports two fangs protruding in place of front teeth, long spider-like claws and is clad all in black. His facial features emphasise his connection with rats and other carriers of plague and disease. This feature ties into the plot later into the film.
The story of the film runs in five acts giving it the feel of a theatrical performance. We begin with intertitles gravely warning the audience of the ‘Nosferatu’, which translates as ‘plague-carrier.’ The villagers describe him as a monstrous creature from whose grasp no-one can hope to escape. We soon cut to the newlyweds living in the German town of Wisborg, Ellen and Thomas Hutter. The two are played by Greta Schroder and Gustav von Wagenheim, respectively. They live carefree, innocent lives and are seemingly in perfect harmony with each other.
As a silent film, with intertitles to convey dialogue, the early stages of the film move rather slowly. The pacing and acting style here deliberately lends itself to a sweetly sentimental feel. It may appear overwrought and silly to those watching almost exactly 100 years on from the film’s initial release.
This is especially evident when the plot truly begins and Thomas Hutter enters the office of his employer. The real-estate agent Knock is a clear stand-in for Stoker’s mad servant to the Count, Renfield. Here we begin to see the influence of German Expressionism perhaps for the first time. The use of awkward angles in the set design, and furniture with uncomfortable proportions, reflects Knock’s twisted mind. This feature is put to use similarly in other contemporary films such as Der Cabinet de Dr. Caligari (1919), Der Golem (1920), and Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924).
Knock, already in servitude to the monstrous antagonist of the piece, instructs Hutter to find the castle of Count Orlok. His job is to advise Orlok upon the purchase of an estate, a run-down piece of land. The land in question is helpfully directly opposite Hutter’s own home.
On his travels deep into the Carpathian mountains, Hutter is advised multiples times to discontinue his search. Villagers near the castle react with horror and disdain upon the mention of Orlok’s name and Hutter even receives a book describing his plague-carrying properties and the only way method to destroy the foul creature. Hutter, of course, remains steadfast. His hubris may appear as childlike or even pantomime-like but nonetheless it should be clear to the audience at this stage that he is set on a path of personal destruction which he is actively remaining blind to, and which is already far too advanced to reverse.
Just in case the film is beginning to appear silly, Murnau introduces us in this section to the first appearance of the Count. We know from Hutter’s book that the Nosferatu changes at will into the form of a monstrous werewolf and soon we see a hyena stalking the woodlands. This is an animal it is quite possible many of the audience at the time had never seen before.
When Orlok first appears in humanoid-form, it is as a coach-driver sent to bring Hutter to the castle. In a scene reminiscent of Stoker’s novel, this coach driver appears almost from nowhere, remains silent and disappears almost as quick but nonetheless is clearly the vampire in disguise, without any explanation given. During this coach-ride the screen turns to a colour negative for a moment, briefly flipping all colour and contrast to add to the sense that Hutter has irreversibly crossed a threshold into a land of mystery, dread and horror. When he arrives at the castle, Orlok is there to greet him, waiting patiently with hands grasped together expectantly, like a cat about to a catch his first meal of the night.
From here on the movie progresses largely in line with Stoker’s text. But the grim appearance of Max Shreck as Count Orlok, in heavy white make-up and exaggerated, Expressionistic features dominates the screen and haunts the imagination of every character, even miles away.
The creature design was truly revolutionary for its day, and even inspired rumours that the actor playing Orlok was no method performer but an actual ancient bloodsucker himself, first proposed by the film critic Ado Kyrou in 1963 and culminating in a film made in 2000 titled Shadow of the Vampire which delves into the ‘behind the scenes’ of Nosferatu.
In any case, Orlok is soon drawn away from his castle, psychically linked to the young bride of his first victim. In every way Ellen Hutter is set up as Orlok’s opposite. The film portrays her as the young and gentle maiden in contrast to the vampire’s demonic and parasitic influence, thus falling into an ever-present trope in horror cinema of the heroine who must remain virginal in order to survive. Since the film severely reduces the presence of the Van Helsing and Lucy Westenra subplots from Stoker’s original novel, the draw of the vampire increases in pace and intensity as the story drives to its inevitable conclusion.
And so the vampire begins his voyage by sea. The film’s strongest links to fears of plague emerge as Nosferatu brings with him coffins filled with unholy earth and rats the film’s intertitles make sure to warn us are synonymous with death. This ever-present dread of the impending spread of plague was perhaps inspired by the fact that almost immediately following World War One, a Spanish flu epidemic and famine did indeed ravage Germany. While the scale of the casualties caused may remain somewhat undetermined, it is doubtless that the monster, with his rat-like teeth and ability to move in shadow and on ships, is a direct correlation to the traumas the country had recently experienced, eventually leading to reactions with would further plague the world with the rise of the far right.
On the Nosferatu’s newly christened, ‘Ship of Death’, the special effects of German cinema at the time are pushed to their absolute limit. The creature terrorises the crew of the ship tasked with transporting him. In transfixed terror and panic the crew witnesses the vampire fade in and out of frame. He eventually disappears entirely and rises from a coffin in an iconic shot before massacring them all indiscriminately.
Once he arrives in Wisborg, the vampire causes an almost immediate panic in town. As more and more and more of the townspeople fall victim, the whole formerly peaceful and tranquil society breaks down. As the Expressionistic frantic descent into madness reaches its crescendo, Ellen resolves to sacrifice herself to the monster. This is preceded by one of the most iconic frames of horror cinema. Orlok’s shadow on the staircase is an iconic film shot. The film’s conclusion sees the creation of some new vampire lore, in the form of a timely sunrise. In Stoker’s novel, sunlight is not fatal to the Count, serving more as an irritant.
In the end the film is a haunting tale. Its imagery remaining influential in horror cinema and stories of vampires even 97 years later. Nosferatu isn’t for everyone. However, for fans of the macabre that can tolerate silent cinema, it is a rare delight. I would highly recommend this intriguing oddity for Halloween.