in about 100 words or less
Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922) is a masterpiece of silent cinema that blends mysticism and medieval landscapes with the modernity of German expressionism. An important benchmark in the horror genre, Nosferatu also established the vampire character in film.
Based upon an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, Nosferatu was infamously part of a copyright infringement case which ordered the film to be destroyed. Fortunately, copies survived which eventually found new generations of audiences and onto the list of “1001 movies to see before you die.” As one of the first feature-length silent films which I had ever watched, Nosferatu not only fueled my interest in the history of silent film, but also led me to the films of Werner Herzog through his wonderful re-imagining of Nosferatu in Phantom der Nacht (1979).
Though Murnau illegally used Stoker’s novel as the basis for his screenplay, the adaptation is nonetheless notable for its use of shadow and light against stark set designs to achieve some of silent cinema’s most memorable images. As the tortured, lonely and filthy soul known as Count Orlok, Murnau’s vampire is a deplorable and rat-like creature that stands in stark contrast to later adaptations which portray Dracula as a captivating and sexually charged character. While there is room for both versions, Count Orlok’s very existence is a curse to both himself and to his victims, and arguably offers a more complex and tragic figure to the screen.
Muranu’s film begins in the home of Thomas Hutter, an unsuspecting young man and his beautiful wife Ellen. In search of much-needed funds, Hutter soon finds himself on a journey to Transylvania to conduct a lucrative real estate deal with a mysterious rich client. Despite his wife’s misgivings about the venture, the dire warnings of the locals in a Carpathian mountain inn, and his perusal of a book on vampire lore, Hutter forges ahead by hired horse and coach toward certain peril. Left on a high mountain pass by a driver who would venture no farther, he is eventually met by the Count’s own coachman, who delivers him to the wretched vampire’s castle in the darkness of night.
Presented with dinner upon his arrival, Hutter is watched closely by Count Orlok who seizes upon the opportunity to suck the blood from his thumb when he accidentally cuts it with a knife. With this first glance of the vampire’s lust for blood we are taken along with Hutter into Orlok’s shadowy world. Though not yet realizing the danger of his situation, Hutter will eventually understand his predicament, but will become helpless against his host’s nightly advances. Meanwhile, Hutter’s wife comes to know that her husband is in mortal danger, while the Count becomes fixated on Ellen after seeing her photo.
Completing his transactions with Hutter and turning his attentions to Ellen, Orlok travels by a rat-infested schooner to his newly purchased residence. During the journey, all hands aboard, save the first mate and captain, fall to sickness and die. Arriving in Wisborg, Orlok disembarks, and carries his coffins into his new home across the street from Hutter’s residence. Believing the ship to be a source of plague, and following more deaths in the town, the townsfolk are panicked, leaving the streets all but deserted. Infatuated with Ellen and acting on his desires, Orlok becomes so preoccupied by the thought of drinking her blood, that he fails to realize that the day is about to begin – only to seal his fate forever.
As a simplified version of Dracula, the story of Nosferatu does not include the making of vampires, but rather is focused on the creature’s deathly nocturnal activities, which are conveniently blamed on the plague. Though the film’s images and mood are not necessarily frightening by today’s standards, they do create an evocative and foreboding mood. As the vampire genre later developed in film, much of the dark originality of Muranu’s monster would be lost. Supplanted by lesser versions, many incarnations of Dracula would be taken far less seriously by lesser filmmakers.
Highly influential in late 20th century popular culture, and particularly in the music video industry, Nosferatu also regained increased public notoriety with Herzog’s meticulous re-make, which can be seen as an homage to the original. Likewise, Merhige’s postmodern account of the making of Nosferatu, in Shadow of a Vampire (2000), suggests that the silent film actor Max Schreck, who played Orlok was indeed a vampire! Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Schreck breathes new life into cinema’s original creature of the night (Klaus Ming August 2016).