There is only a handful of films a hundred years old or more that are still preserved, watched, and acknowledged as masterpieces. A few from the early days of cinema endure as milestones and curiosities but works of cinematic art that have endured for over a century are rare—Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon,” some of the early shorts of Chaplin and Keaton, and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari come to mind. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu stands prominently in this small fraternity and for some, even towers above them all. In 1924, critic Béla Balázs wrote that the film was imbued with “a chilly draft from doomsday” and filmmaker Werner Herzog, who would make his own version in 1979, called it “the very best German film ever.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was quite simply a genius, one of the most innovative and artistically gifted filmmakers of all time. Nosferatu is for many the ultimate expression of his considerable talents, though The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), and Tabu (1931) are also considered masterworks. Gaining his first notoriety from his work with noted stage director Max Reinhardt, Murnau quickly developed an incomparable and fiercely original visual style that had, and continues to have, a great deal of influence. Film historian Lotte M. Eisner called Murnau the greatest director Germany ever produced. Considering that this includes Weine, G.W. Pabst, Ernst Lubitch, Fritz Lang, and later Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders among many others, this is high praise indeed.
Though Murnau is the name most often associated with Nosferatu, as with all films it was truly a collaborative effort. A great deal of credit is also due to scenarist Henrik Galeen, who liberally adapted the script (without permission, more on that later) from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and producer/art director/designer Albin Grau. Both were devoted occultists with Grau moving in circles that acquainted him with the likes of Aleister Crowley. Grau’s intention was for Nosferatu to be the first truly occult film and designed the sets, costumes, and props to reflect this. Several of Grau’s production illustrations still exist and have one-to-one correlations in the finished film. The key image, the look of the vampire Count Orlok (Max Schreck), is clearly sprung from the imagination of Albin Grau.
Like Murnau himself, Henrik Galeen had worked in the famous Max Reinhardt theater company, which thrived during the years of the Weimar Republic following World War I. Galeen’s simplification of the plot of the novel Dracula not only shaped Nosferatu but had a surprising amount of influence on later adaptations, particularly the 1931 Tod Browning film, Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958), and a few elements even found their way into Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation. Being a devoted spiritualist, Galeen latched onto Grau’s vision for the project and focused on the mysterious and the mythic in his treatment. The film includes elements that differ greatly from most Dracula interpretations including a long sequence of Knock (Alexander Granach), Renfield in most versions, being pursued through the countryside and significantly less emphasis placed on the Van Helsing character in favor of Ellen (Greta Schroeder) claiming the final victory over Orlok.
A somewhat mysterious figure in the creation of Nosferatu is the actor who played the vampire, Max Schreck. His unusual name (the German word for ‘fright’) and, until recently, a lack of photographs of the actor without makeup led to rumors and myths surrounding the actor. These ranged from the plausible—that it was a pseudonym used by a better-known actor, to the outlandish—that there was no Max Schreck and Murnau had cast a real vampire in the role. In reality Max Schreck was not only his real name, but he was a generally respected character actor in the Reinhardt company and continued to appear in films, including Murnau’s The Grand Duke’s Finances (1924), until his death by heart failure in 1936. Schreck’s makeup, very likely created by Albin Grau, is truly inspired and iconic. Unlike Lugosi’s oft replicated look, it would not be repeated until Tobe Hooper’s television adaptation of Salem’s Lot nearly sixty years later. Schreck’s portrayal of the vampire, however, would have a great deal of influence upon monster performances of all kinds for decades to come from Frankenstein to Freddy Krueger.
Nosferatu is memorable for many reasons, but the most enduring include several innovative in-camera effects and startlingly images they create. Some of these visual effects, such as the primitive form of stop motion used throughout the film, no longer have the ability to impress that they once did. Others, like the use of undeveloped negative spliced into the film to give the appearance of Count Orlok’s coach driving through a ghostly white forest, still carry an eerie effectiveness. Variations on this technique have been used to by no less than Stanley Kubrick in the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Martin Scorsese for the opening and closing of his remake of Cape Fear (1991). Several images remain as fresh and unsettling as they were a hundred years ago: Orlok’s unearthly rise from his coffin, rats spilling from the hold of the ship, the shadows of the vampire’s clawed fingers creeping up Ellen’s bedclothes and grasping her heart. These images all serve the film’s themes which remain frightening and shockingly relevant even to this day.
In Nosferatu, Count Orlok is a force of nature, the embodiment of fate, disease, and the grave itself. He is a human sized rat concerned only with his own survival and completely disinterested in who or what he may destroy along the way. As author Seigfried Kracauer observed, many German films of the Expressionist period are about and prominently feature tyrants. Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, and Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are all prime examples. Here Orlok surely represents the human tyrant in one sense, but even more, he is the embodiment of the most vicious and deadly dictators in history: war and pestilence. Nosferatu came along while the memories of the most destructive war ever fought up to that point and the most devastating influenza pandemic in modern history were still fresh.
Someone who found the film itself to be a plague was Florence Stoker, the widow of Dracula author Bram Stoker. After her husband’s death in 1912, Florence’s only reliable source of income, though rather small, was the rights to her husband’s most famous work. In April of 1922, she began seeking legal action against Prana Films (the production company created by Albin Grau) and the producers of Nosferatu. It proved to be a protracted and complicated case, going through a number of verdicts in her favor only to be appealed to a higher court.
Eventually, the final verdict came down that since Prana had gone bankrupt, all copies of the film including the negative were to be destroyed.
According to film historian David J. Skal, Nosferatu was likely the second unauthorized film version of Stoker’s novel, the first being a lost Hungarian film from the previous year, and the second unauthorized horror film directed by Murnau. The first was a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde titled Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus) with Conrad Veidt of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the lead role. Interestingly, Veidt was one Universal’s top choices to play Dracula in their authorized film version ten years later, and Der Januskopf featured in a secondary role as a butler, the man who would eventually be cast, Bela Lugosi. That film, which never faced any litigation from the estate of Robert Louis Stevenson, is lost to time. Ironically, it seems that Florence Stoker’s litigation and eventual insistence upon the film’s destruction may have saved it from suffering the same fate as Der Januskopf. Instead of being exhibited in its day and soon neglected, Nosferatu was copied, smuggled, and preserved as a piece of forbidden fruit by film societies of the time that saw it as an important work of cinematic art.
The shadow of Nosferatu is long and looming, its tendrils reaching and stretching like Count Orlok’s wraithlike fingers through Ellen’s door. The specter of its plague narrative can be seen in the figure of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964). It was brilliantly remade by Werner Herzog in 1979, with another new version on the horizon (hopefully) from Robert Eggers. One of the most interesting films spun from the original is the strange and darkly funny Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a fictionalized recounting of the making of Nosferatu that revels in the rumors that Max Schreck was an actual vampire.
In many ways, vampires in movies follow two lines of descent: one from the hideous incarnation of Nosferatu, and the other from the debonair and attractive vampires originated by Bela Lugosi’s turn as Dracula. This latter version was the dominant image for decades, but the more repellant and animalistic incarnation has become popular again more recently. This resurgence began with Herzog’s remake and Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, particularly in the design of the vampire Barlow. Since then, we have seen reflections of Orlok in Reaper in Blade II (2002), Marlow in 30 Days of Night (2007), Petyr in What We Do In the Shadows (2014), and “The Angel” in Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass (2021) among many others.
If the themes of Nosferatu seem all too familiar to us today it is because, as part of the human condition, they are always all too familiar. As it was in 1922 it is in 2022. Political factions battle, wars break out, sicknesses spread. At any moment, a power-hungry tyrant decides to invade a smaller nation. A tiny unknown organism invades a human cell, multiplies, and before we know it spreads across the globe, bringing even powerful and technologically advanced civilizations to a halt. Both have been with us from the dawn of humanity and, as horrible as it sounds, will likely continue as long as humans exist. Tyrants will rise and fall, factions will battle, wars will rage, and plague will decimate populations. This is why, after a hundred years, Nosferatu not only fascinates but frightens. The “chilly draft” Balázs spoke of that issues from every frame of Nosferatu like a gale from the grave still blows.
Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen by David J. Skal
From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film by Siegfried Kracauer
The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt by Lotte H. Eisner
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.