F.W. Murnau’s classic “Nosferatu” has been playing in a new restoration in the BFI’s Gothic Season, and has now made its way to Blu-ray on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema imprint. Fiona Pleasance takes a look back at the daddy of horror movies.
Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie des Grauens [A Symphony of Horror] has a lot to answer for. It marks the first surviving film appearance of Dracula, the granddaddy of all vampires in popular culture, albeit in unauthorised form. As such, Nosferatu‘s Count Orlok stands as the undead progenitor of all cinematic bloodsuckers that have followed. If you’re so inclined, you could trace his bloodline all the way down to Twilight and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Of course, there would have been filmed versions of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel without Nosferatu, and the first official cinematic retelling of the story appeared a mere nine years later, in Universal’s eponymous 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi. But Murnau’s film was at least as influential as its successor in establishing many of the conventions of the horror movie. Particularly of note is the use of darkness in general and shadow in particular to convey menace; the vampire seems to be able to travel in shadow form to attack his victims. Unsurprisingly, much of the film takes place at night, a fact which some tinted restorations of the movie accentuate; on a couple of occasions, the colour changes from blue to sepia as a light source enters the scene. This association of shadows with danger is particularly associated with German Expressionism, of which Nosferatu is a key film.
The plot uses Dracula as a starting point, but does not follow the novel slavishly. Because of nervousness about copyright, all names and some details were changed. Attempts to distance the film from Stoker’s work were in vain, however, and Stoker’s widow sued the producers for copyright infringement and won. All prints were supposed to be destroyed; fortunately not all were.
Nosferatu is set in the 1830s, and the central couple, renamed Hutter and Ellen, are already married. Hutter’s boss, a strange estate agent named Knock who is obviously dabbling in the occult (and who calls Orlok “Master”), sends the young man on a trip to Transylvania. Here, Hutter is to meet Orlok with a view to selling him property in his home town of Wisborg. Hutter’s relentless enthusiasm is contrasted with his wife’s caution and nervousness, and is tested to the limits on his trip. During an overnight stay at an inn en route, the locals freeze when he mentions his destination, and a strange, wolf-like animal prowls the countryside. Initially chipper even on meeting his unusual host, he becomes increasingly suspicious of the goings-on at the castle. In one extraordinary scene, Orlok visits Hutter’s room in the dead of night with the obvious intention of drinking him dry, but is stopped. Viewers are led to infer that the vampire has been given pause by a hallucinating Ellen back home in Germany. Murnau cuts between Orlok stopping and turning and Ellen’s appeal to save Hutter’s life as if they were in the same space, bridging the actual gap their locations with vampire telepathy. Orlok’s control of the minds of his associates and his potential victims is a recurring theme.
The Count, having seen Ellen’s picture and formed this connection with her, sets off for Wisborg by sea. Meanwhile, Hutter has escaped from the castle and, after recuperating from a fall and a fever, rushes home overland. Accompanying Orlok on the boat are a couple of coffins and a horde of rats. In chilling scenes, rodents and vampire see off the entire ship’s crew, and carry the plague into Wisborg. Again, the story resonates with ancient fears about the terrifying and arbitrary nature of death in the absence of scientific knowledge as to its causes – one of the roots of horror in myth and literature.
As you would expect from a film made in 1922, what counted as “horror” then certainly doesn’t fit the bill nowadays. Yet Nosferatu is still surprisingly atmospheric and, at times, genuinely creepy. This is partly due to Murnau’s extensive use of real locations, stretching from beautiful half-timbered German towns and villages to Orlok’s tumbledown medieval castle, which lend authenticity and the sense of something truly ancient lurking underneath. Then there is Murnau’s rendering of the vampire’s power using special effects like fast- and stop-motion: very simple, but still effective. It should be noted that, in the 1920s, German film technicians gave Hollywood a run for its money when it came to screen effects, puppet work and optical illusions. In general, Nosferatu seems to have aged rather better than the 1931 Dracula, and encompasses fewer moments which have degenerated into cliché (and provoke unintended amusement) over the years.
Hutter and Orlok arrive in Wisborg at roughly the same time, but although Hutter is the first to reach Ellen, she is no longer his alone: Orlok’s telepathic connection to her is still intact, as witnessed by her continued sleepwalking. Ellen learns that the only way to defeat the vampire is to have a beautiful young woman distract him from the oncoming dawn. So, in a virginal white nightgown, she sends her husband on an errand and offers herself up to the monster. Her plan works – but at the cost of her own life. At that moment however, as the intertitle tell us, the dying stops and the city is saved.
And here we have another horror staple: sexuality. The young married couple, Hutter and Ellen, are strangely sexless, and it is interesting that Ellen responds to the instructions for an “innocent maiden”, a woman “pure in heart”, to lure the vampire to its doom. Marriage itself should, by definition, have put paid to her “innocence”. Are we to infer that the marriage is unconsummated? No matter: here is a bad boy come to awaken dark thoughts and inspire some hysteria (in the classic sense). At any rate, and in accordance with genre conventions which state that sexually active women should be punished, the very act of giving herself up to the vampire, however pure her motivation, is enough to ensure her demise.
Of course, Nosferatu is not only a milestone in the history of the horror film, but also counts as one of the leading examples of German Expressionist cinema. Many of the features which contribute strongly to the uncanny atmosphere and to the film’s at times dreamlike mood, like the use of contrast and shadow, can be attributed to Expressionism as much as to horror. Above all, the interplay of camerawork and mise-en-scène places Nosferatu firmly in the Expressionist canon, resulting in the interesting framings and symmetrical compositions which are typical for this film-historic movement.
Nosferatu is a milestone film in several respects. Thanks to the tireless restoration work by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung over the past few years, its beauty and importance can still be enjoyed to the full, whether you’re a fan of horror or German Expressionism, or just somebody who loves great cinema.
Note: unfortunately, and through no fault of the nice people at Eureka, MostlyFilm’s review copy of Nosferatu did not arrive in time to evaluate either the quality of this latest version of the film transfer (billed as a “brand new 1080p restoration”) or the available extras, which include newly recorded audio commentaries, a video interview and a 2008 documentary on F. W. Murnau.