In 1927, one of the earliest vampire movies, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, was released. Director F.W. Murnau and cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner shot the film based on Henrik Galeen’s script in Germany, Slovakia, and the Carpathian Mountains over several weeks film. By the time he set out to shoot Nosferatu, Murnau already had several movies under his belt. Having barely made it out of World War I alive, Murnau merged his love of the stage with his dark experiences and his newly kindled fascination with the occult and became a successful filmmaker. Most of his earliest films (his first, Emerald of Death, premiered in 1919) are now lost to the sands of time, and his twisted tale of a Transylvanian vampire almost suffered the same fate.
The script borrowed heavily from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some minor characters were cut, but the key ones remained more or less intact: Dracula is Count Orlok (played by the fantastically creepy Max Schreck), Jonathan and Mina Harker are Thomas and Ellen Hutter (played by the dashing Gustav von Wangenheim and talented Greta Schröder), Knock is the slave Renfield, Van Helsing is Professor Bulwer, and Arthur Holmwood and Lucy Westenra are Harding and his sister Annie.
The major parallels between Nosferatu and Dracula were not lost on Stoker’s estate and they sued the filmmakers (at the time, the book had only been on the shelf for 25 years; comparatively speaking, it would be as if a Hollywood studio made a movie based on Bonfire of the Vanities without getting Tom Wolfe’s permission). The resulting court case bankrupted its production company Prana Film had planned to release films with occult and supernatural subject matter, and had they pulled through cosplay today would look a hell of a lot different and an order to destroy all copies was handed down.
The movie opens in 1838 in the fictional German town of Wisborg, where crooked real estate mogul Knock already under Orlok’s spell sends Hutter off to Transylvania to sell the count a house. Ellen is devastated by the news and begs her husband not to go, but this is Tommy-boy’s big break and he can’t wait to travel on the company’s thaler. While he goes traipsing about Eastern Europe his wife is wracked with nightmares and nearly sleepwalks herself to death. Hutter gets his first sign that there’s something rotten in the state of Orlok-ville when he mentions his destination to a bunch of Transylvanians and they freak right the fuck out. His coach drivers refuse to take him to the castle and dump him in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. A ghostly carriage driven by a creepy little dude in a creepy little hat race up and Hutter, being the trusting and not too bright guy that he is, thinks it’s a perfectly good idea to climb aboard. He’s whisked off to the castle and abandoned at the front gate. “You’ve kept me waiting too long!” Orlok taunts as he invites his tasty guest in. And that’s when things start to get weird.
At dinner, Hutter, who manages to be both very cute and very dumb, accidentally slices open his finger. Moaning “blood… your beautiful blood,” Orlok starts OM NOM NOMing the poor boy’s thumb. The next morning Hutter convinces himself last night was just a dream and goes on walkabout through the castle. Ellen, meanwhile, is slowly descending into insanity and spends her days staring at the ocean and being all emo and stuff. Eventually Hutter figures out what Orlok really is, but by then the vampyre is already headed back to Germany to sate his bloodlust for wifey. What makes this movie unique, especially for its time, is that Ellen is the one who does all the fighting, albeit with a hefty dose of swooning. Ellen learns the only way to defeat the “Deathbird” is for a good woman to sacrifice herself to him until he’s so distracted he misses the cock’s crow and gets toasted by the daystar. She walks into a trap knowing she’ll never make it out alive, and she does it willingly and without any angsty internal debates. Ellen Hutter is cinema’s first vampire hunter, the original Buffy Summers.
Nosferatu is one of those movies you just have to see. Regularly ranking on “best of” lists, Murnau’s film is a cinematic masterpiece. With its deep shadows and obsession with madness, it is a jewel of German Expressionism. Anyone who’s seen a movie understands how a movie is supposed to be structured. We have come to expect that suspense is created through anticipation, darkness and obscured sightlines, characters lurking on the edges of the screen, ominous music, the contrast of brilliant daylight with vicious night, and creeping shadows all constructs Expression and Murnau helped spawn. Noir in the 40s and the entire horror genre are rooted in these elements.
And that’s the best part. Even after 89 years and countless ripoffs, Nosferatu is still scary. Not scary like Johnny Depp getting eaten by his bed or Jigsaw MacGyvering a bear trap on someone’s face, but still discomfiting. Imagine having this stare at you while you sleep. *shudders* I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times (what can I say, I have a fetish for German Expressionism…don’t even get me started on Fritz Lang), but when I sat down to rewatch it for this article, I got so engrossed I completely forgot to take notes.
The biggest difference between Nosferatu and Dracula are the villains. Where Dracula is suave and seductive, Orlok is monstrous. Dracula’s undercurrent of eroticism and sexuality sparked our modern predilection for brooding, handsome vampires. But there is absolutely nothing sexy about Orlok. He is a walking corpse complete with pointy ears, a balding, misshapen head, rat-like fangs, and disconcertingly long claws. Stoker wrote a tale about religion and eroticism, about the collapse of Victorian ideals in the face of change and social advancement. Murnau crafted a film about the warring sides of human nature, and the havoc both sides can wreak on the innocent.
Alright, so let’s say I’ve convinced you to take time out of your super busy life to check out the film. Before the verdict, several copies had already been distributed around the world, and, what with film degradation and constant recuts, there are quite a few versions out there. If you’re watching one that uses Stoker’s character names or is all black-and-white, dump it. The only one you should be interested in is the 2007 2-disc Kino set. It’s the longest version (clocking in at 94 minutes) and the most complete (made by piecing together a few different versions). It’s also the only version that utilizes color tinting. Murnau did a ton of day-for-night shooting, and because of the limitations of the technology that means all those scenes that are supposed to take place outside at midnight are riddled with afternoon shadows. By tinting night shots blue, dawn and twilight shots pink, and daylight and candlelight shots yellow he distracts from the contextual problems. Finally, this version also has the newest translation of the German intertitles (the second disc includes the original language for your multilinguists).
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror truly is a film you must see to believe. Not because it’s a classic or because it’s the foundation for much of our pop culture, but because it is a profound work of art. It is a pinnacle of achievement in the art of the silent film. It saddens me that silent films went the way of the dinosaur. Silent films can’t rely on dialogue to tell the story so it all comes down to the visuals. You can have your Transformers movies with all their explosions and constant chatter, I’ll take intertitles and a rousing orchestra any day.
Alex Brown is an archivist by passion, reference librarian by profession, writer by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.