Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Nosferatu

Oh, I’m—Putting on my top hat—Tying up my white tie…

Somewhere high in the Carpathian mountains, just as the evening shadows are lengthening, a stagecoach pulls up at a rustic inn and disgorges a carefree young man dressed in the classic Biedermeier style. His trunk is hastily pitched after him and the stagecoach rattles away in a cloud of dust. Wolves howl in the distance. Wondering why the coachman could possibly be in such a gosh-darned hurry, the youth shoulders his trunk and enters the inn. Happy smiling peasants in traditional Transylvanian costume welcome the handsome young stranger! His trunk is squared away in his room and the Transylvanian bellboy doesn’t even ask for a tip! The jolly innkeeper drinks the stranger’s health in slivovitz and asks the stranger what he’ll have to eat!

“I hear you serve an excellent goulash with red peppers,” says the smiling boy. “Oh, and I arranged to have my mail sent on to this address. Can you tell me if it’s here yet? The next up in my Netflix queue is Nosferatu, and I was really looking forward to viewing it this evening.”

A stark silence falls on the room. The peasants grow pale. His mustache drooping, the innkeeper turns to the young man and says, in a hoarse whisper, “Nosferatu?”

“From Netflix?” adds a trembling peasant.

Blinking away compassionate tears, an ancient crone rises and approaches the youth. Lifting an icon on a cord over her gaily patterned babushka scarf, she slips the religious image over the youth’s neck.

“Wear this, for your mother’s sake. It is the blessed icon of the Saints Béla and Boris. It will protect you against inferior public domain prints of classic horror films on DVDs.”

To be honest, though, we’re lucky to have any print of Nosferatu available. When Albin Grau and Enrico Dieckmann of Prana Films decided to adapt Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula for their first production, they neglected to secure the rights from Stoker’s widow. Figuring that they’d be safe from prosecution if they simply changed all the names of the characters, Prana Films went blithely ahead with principal photography in 1921. The resulting film was a justly praised masterpiece, but Mrs. Stoker sued them and won. The courts ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately enough copies had been hidden away in boxes full of Transylvanian earth to ensure Nosferatu’s survival, but Prana Films went bankrupt. Incidentally, this is one of film history’s neater little ironies: “Prana” is Sanskrit for the breath of life, life energies, the vital force, and Nosferatu (being their first and last release) effectively drained the life out of Prana Films.    

Work of genius though it is, a lot of your enjoyment of Nosferatu is going to depend on which version you see. I first watched a grossly truncated 16-mm version in a storefront theater on Catalina Island in the 1970s, and came away with the impression that, while undeniably creepy, Nosferatu was an incoherent mess. It wasn’t until I caught a screening of Kino International’s excellent restoration that I saw the film as its creators intended, and was awed and appropriately horrified. Nosferatu isn’t the first horror film, it isn’t a particularly faithful adaptation of Dracula even if you change the names back, and it is undeniably silent—a thing that apparently weirds out some of our younger readers (There, there, kids, just take your Xboxes and go sit someplace quiet while the grownups talk, OK?). But it is one of the finest horror films ever made and arguably the most frightening vampire film ever made.

Credit goes, in part, to Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography and Albin Grau’s production design, as well as the varied locations chosen for the different scenes. Nosferatu genuinely gives you the sensation of watching a dead world temporarily revived, something of the same shivery feeling you get when listening to the recently-discovered clip of the earliest-recorded human voice  (which you can do at

Credit must also go to Henrik Galeen’s screenplay, which discards Stoker’s basic premise of an ancient predator defeated by the modern world and deliberately places the action further back in time. Instead of the dictating machines, typewriters and railway schedules of Dracula, the vampire here is defeated by a sort of mystical arrangement wherein a virtuous woman must sacrifice herself in order to destroy him. Instead of creating more vampires and building himself a sexy vampiric family of initiates, Nosferatu’s Count Orlok simply kills, and brings the plague in his wake with his hordes of attendant rats. All very medieval…

But the ultimate credit must go to brilliant principal actor Max Schreck. His Count Orlok truly looks like a dead man walking, humanity long rotted away to leave nothing but a giant rat in a long black coat, a mushroom-domed monster with staring eyes that hold no recognizable human expression. The young Béla Lugosi as Dracula was a handsome seducer, the young Christopher Lee much more earthily so; but no gothgirl or Twilight fan would ever want to go anywhere near Max Shreck’s Count Orlok. The stink of the crypt radiates off him in waves and leaves one feeling cold and sick.

Not that the other actors don’t earn their garlic and crucifixes. Alexander Granach as Knock (the Renfield equivalent in the plot) especially deserves a Freak of Nature Award for Most Believable Lunatic. Gustav von Wangenheim as Thomas Hutter (the Jonathan Harker figure) shuttles adequately between cheerful dimwit and haunted victim. Greta Schröder as Ellen Hutter (or Mina) is perhaps not the greatest actress on film but, with her huuuuuge dark eyes and sickly pallor no one can doubt for a second that this chick is enough of a morbid obsessive to decide to sacrifice herself to a horrible fate out of love for her husband.

As I have already intimated, you want to be careful which version of this film you see. Avoid at all costs cheapo public domain prints with missing scenes, crappo misspelled title cards and totally inappropriate soundtracks. Your best bets are either the Kino International 2-disc version, which has a fine print and tons of extras, or the Image version with commentary by film historian Lokke Heiss. I’d go with Kino, personally.

Back in the pre-IMDB days there was an urban legend that “Max Schreck” was an alias, the way Karloff’s first billing as Frankenstein’s monster was simply a question mark, since in German the word schreck means fear or terror. We now know that Schreck was a real actor, if a rather eccentric one, but E. Elias Merhige riffed on the legend in his superb film Shadow of the Vampire, which suggests that Nosferatu’s director F. W. Murnau somehow found a real vampire for the role and paid the consequences. Want the best Halloween film party ever? Play Nosferatu back to back with Shadow of a Vampire. You’ll thank me—though not when you’re lying awake at 3AM, unable to get Count Orlok’s shadow off your bedroom wall…


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