F W Murnau, “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” (1922)
This early German silent film is an unauthorised adaptation of the famous Bram Stoker novel “Dracula” so all original characters’ names have been changed. The plot and the major characters remain faithful to the novel, so much so that Bram Stoker’s estate sued for breach of copyright when the film was released and the court presiding over the issue ordered all available prints be destroyed. Unfortunately for Stoker’s widow and fortunately for the rest of us, by the time the court made the order, copies of the film had been released worldwide and these copies became the “master” copies from which subsequent copies have been made. The copy I saw on which this review is based is a digitally remastered copy of good quality with very few scratches.
Fans of the original novel know the story well enough but I’ll repeat it for those not so familiar: real estate agent Knock (Alexander Granach) sends his employee Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) out to Transylvania with papers and deeds for a property in their home town Wisborg which a mysterious investor called Count Orlok (Max Schreck) wants to buy. So eager and determined is Hutter to clinch the deal that he laughs off local peasants’ warnings about werewolves and other strange creatures of the night as he makes his way through the mountainous forested Transylvanian region. He does pick up a book about the local nosferatus in his room at an inn for light reading on the carriage trip. Entering a stone castle high atop a mountain, Hutter meets the count and their meetings follow the book fairly closely, the count entertaining Hutter, discovering that he has a young wife and then leaving in his coffins for Wisborg while Hutter, drained of blood and trapped in the castle, struggles to escape.
In the meantime Hutter’s young wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder), staying with friends, has been fretting over Hutter’s absence and feeling a strange presence pulling at her that causes her to sleepwalk at nights. At the same time Knock goes mad and is put into a mental hospital. News of outbreaks of plague occurring in ports where the ship bearing Orlok’s coffins reaches Wisborg. The ship itself reaches Wisborg and Orlok escapes at night with his main coffin while town officials puzzle over the one dead sailor found on board and the ship’s log. They declare the town to be plague-infested and all those suspected of being ill are required to stay indoors.
At this point the story diverges from the Bram Stoker original. Hutter returns and is reunited with his wife who tells him of her strange experiences. He warns her about Orlok and forbids her to read his book of the nosferatus. She finds it anyway and discovers the only way to get rid of such creatures is for a young woman of pure spirit to allow the nosferatu to feast on her blood and not hear the cock’s crow signalling sunrise. Ellen resolves to be that woman and tricks Hutter into going away. Ellen lures Orlok to her room and he sates his appetite. The cock crows, Orlok turns to face the sunrise and dies. Hutter returns to the house just in time to see Ellen before she also dies.
The plot does get ahead of itself a fair bit – how does Ellen know that her strange experiences are related to Orlok and nosferatus before she picks up Hutter’s book? – and once Orlok arrives in Wisborg, the story bounces between the plague hitting Wisborg and Hutter’s travails so I don’t get a sense of the connection between Orlok and Ellen and the attraction / repulsion and the tension that should have resulted between the two. The build-up to Orlok’s arrival runs at a steady if brisk pace so it’s a shame that his one meeting with Ellen which should have been filled with intense terror and atmosphere turns out so brief and perfunctory. Also Ellen doesn’t live long enough for her to at least hear Hutter confess and beg forgiveness of her. Whether she survives long enough also to forgive Hutter or dies before saying anything is another matter.
Of the various characters, Hutter’s is perhaps more fully realised than the others – foolish, materialistic, naive, not at all heroic – while Ellen’s character could be construed as heroic (because she willingly chooses to die to rid the town of Orlok) or merely passive and desperate (she does not know of any other way to get rid of Orlok and her restricted social context works against her finding an alternative that would spare her life). There’s the possibility too that the connection she feels with Orlok once he comes in contact with Hutter is a psychosexual one and only Orlok can satisfy her; thus she chooses to die sexually whole and satisfied rather than live an unsatisfying and restricted life with the vapid, puppy-like Hutter. Orlok may represent what Hutter can never be for Ellen: he has an animal power that neither Hutter nor Ellen can resist yet which binds all three of them.
A number of cleverly crafted scenes suggests Orlok’s sexual potency: when Hutter first sees Orlok’s castle, the angle of the camera makes the building appear as a phallic erection overlooking a high cliff or rock pinnacle; Orlok frequently appears in settings where a building or a bridge is arched above him in the background, again suggesting erection (though the arch could be seen as enclosing and limiting Orlok’s potency as well); in one very blatant scene on the ship, Orlok rises out of his coffin perfectly straight like an erect penis and a horrified sailor, watching him and feeling out-gunned (ha ha), runs back out onto the deck and jumps into the water, presumably to drown and his corpse to dissolve; Orlok often appears in silhouette which grow bigger or smaller or which emphasise his stiff body shape or stalking gait. Once Orlok has died in a whiff of smoke and flame, suggestive of an orgasm, the closing shot of the film focusses on his castle again from another camera angle, revealing the castle to be in ruins. Unusual cinematography and use of different outdoor locations bring the background scenery to viewers’ attention as a significant “character” in its own right: in those pre-Nazi days in Germany, love of nature was a very strong facet of German culture and there are many beautiful black-and-white shots of grassland, looking fresh in blowing winds, stern mountain peaks and rivers and streams of fast-flowing water. The scenes where Hutter travels directly to Orlok’s castle in a mystery carriage after local peasants refuse to transport him farther are done in the negative to anticipate the meeting with the sinister Orlok. Even the architecture of Wisborg looks very distinctive and is used in ways to heighten of hysteria and terror during scenes where town mobs chase Knock after he has escaped from the asylum. The property Orlok buys looks creepy and foreboding with black empty windows and the plain brick facade.
The use of plague is symbolic of sexual contact too: like a sexually transmitted disease, it can be contagious, it spreads via unseen pathogens and people with the plague are forced to stay at home and have their front doors (symbolising vaginal entry) marked with crosses which themselves symbolise Christianity and the history of sexual repression that accompanies that religion. The plague disappears only when Orlok dies. Another symbol of sexuality is the window: Ellen frequently opens windows in the film as if opening herself up to the possibility of sexual congress and first spies Orlok through closed windows; she tugs at her bedroom window and throws it open, to which invitation Orlok responds and comes to her. He takes his fill of life-giving fluids and just as he satisfies Ellen, so she satisfies him, but ironically at the cost of his own vampire existence: his satiety causes him to lose track of time and exposes him to “death”.
Not knowing much about the influence of Expressionism on German artistic culture in the 1920’s, I can’t say how “Nosferatu …” has been influenced by it but I certainly note the use of atmosphere and mood in influencing audiences to feel a certain way and how Murnau directs his actors to express their feelings and thoughts in actions. Films certainly lost something once they converted over to sound (overly hammy acting being one thing) but employing unusual camera angles and positions and staging scenes and backgrounds in particular ways to create a certain required mood or tension in audiences and to alert them of something significant happening in the plot remains a standard convention in the horror movie genre, and we can certainly thank early German films like “Nosferatu …” for that. If anything, I would prefer to have seen Orlok more in shadow or in silhouette in all his scenes bar perhaps his scenes with Ellen.
One theme which is strong in “Nosferatu …” is the ineffectiveness of men against Orlok contrasted with Ellen’s act if this is construed as heroic and selfless. In his encounters with Orlok, Hutter is usually helpless, succumbing or trying to avoid him; other men in the film such as Professor Bulwer (the would-be Van Helsing) are merely befuddled by the strange goings-on or too absorbed in their work to notice anything. To think that the world’s first vampire film should strike a positive blow on behalf of women! In this respect “Nosferatu …” was a lone innovator in giving women in vampire film and television heroic roles until Joss Whedon gave the world the teenage Van-Helsing vixen Buffy in the 1990’s.
For modern audiences the film at first viewing may not seem very scary or even very substantial in its plot and it’s only after a few repeated viewings that viewers come to appreciate the film’s richness in its themes (fear of sexual contact and corruption, repression of desire and emotion, Hutter and Orlok forming a polarity of opposites, among others) and technical artistry.