March 15, 2022 Nosferatu: A Century of Horror
Some concepts are older than they seem. ‘Breaking the 4th wall’ is considered a television term, yet authors as old as Shakespeare, Cervantes and Chaucer have used that concept in their work. Likewise, obscure knock-off films have gained notoriety as being, say, the ‘Turkish Star Wars’ (1982’s The Man Who Saved the World) or the ‘Indian Harry Potter’ (2004’s Aabra Ka Daabra). They are considered to be a relatively modern phenomenon mastered by budget studios across the world.
Except that one of the most famous and acclaimed Horror films of all time could essentially be called ‘German Dracula.’ Not only that, but it adheres so closely to Dracula’s plot that it could be considered one of the best adaptations of the material.
Titled Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, but often just known as Nosferatu, the film premiered in German theaters on March 15, 1922 and now celebrates it’s 100th anniversary. It is the most famous work by acclaimed Director F. W Murnau (The Last Laugh 1924, Sunrise 1927), and made Count Orlok (Max Schreck: Nathan the Wise 1922) as recognizable as his more famous, official counterpart.
Was it that much of a knock-off though? Dracula, by Author Bram Stoker, followed estate agent Jonathan Harker on his journey to Transylvania to sell a London property to a nobleman, the titular Count Dracula. Then he realizes too late that the count is an evil vampire, and that he must get back home to England before Dracula can make London his home, and Harker’s wife Mina his own.
So, how does that resemble the story of Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim: Danton 1931)? He is just an estate agent on a journey to sell a property in the German town of Wisborg to the Transylvanian Count Orlok. Hutter also learns the Count is a vampire and tries to rush home before Orlok can claim the town and his wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder: Victoria the Great 1937).
Being honest, the film was never meant to be sneaky with its premise. While modern knock-offs, pressured by creativity or the legal team to be different, will take different plot turns. Nosferatu was always meant to be a Teutonic take on the vampire story by Prana Films. Screenwriter Henrik Galeen (The Golem 1915) even titled the script Dracula before changing it to Nosferatu out of copyright concerns.
It does divert from the book in key places. It does not have an equivalent to Dracula’s harem of female vampires, Ellen combines the characters of Mina Harker and Lucy Westernra, and it all takes place in Wisborg- a fictional town in the north of Germany made from combining location shots in Wismar and Lübeck. Orlok does not create vampires either. He just kills his victims under the cover of a plague.
Most famously, and spoilers for a century-old film, Orlok is ultimately killed by sunlight, while Dracula was just rendered powerless by it. If Nosferatu was not the first to show this, it certainly popularized the sun as the vampire’s biggest weakness. From 1958’s Dracula, aka Horror of Dracula, to the manga series Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and more, it has roasted the undead in many famous scenes. All of them can be traced back to the simple, sweet scene of Orlok fading into nothing here.
Murnau’s talent can be showcased in making the most of a little. Nosferatu, even by 1920s standards, was a low-budget film. It did not have the big, fancy sets that 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had. However, it evokes mood through its use of filters and lighting, with Orlok’s shadow imprinting itself on the walls and on the Hutters. Even today, it is quite effective at showing the vampire’s power.
Other effects are noticeably more dated. The use of quick cuts and fast-time evoke Benny Hill sketches than terror nowadays. While the filters work better in setting the mood than turning an obvious daytime shoot into a night-time one. If only Prana Films got that time machine working to get some modern tech.
Jokes aside, there is a more worrying undercurrent to the film, and it is one that has persisted through the decades. That there are anti-Semitic traits to the film. Orlok’s creepy look could just be that of a monster. But it does resemble the depiction of Jews in gross propaganda of the time. Said propaganda also compared Jewish people to rats and the plague. Likewise Orlok’s ship brings rats with him, and his attacks are mistaken for a plague.
This was not necessarily Murnau’s intent, as he was said to treat all with respect. He even cast Jewish actor Alexander Granach (Svengali 1927) in this film. Then again, Granach’s character Knock was essentially German Renfield, Hutter’s weird boss-turned-servant of his ‘master’ Orlok. Once media is released, the author cannot alter how people interpret their work . Even if they are the most open and accepting person, their creations can still inspire the worst of humanity if they can fit it in their worldview.
Nosferatu is not alone in that regard, with similar readings being found in the aforementioned Dr. Caligari and in 1931’s M. But it was not anti-Semitism that brought the film down back in the day. Despite Galeen changing the title, Stoker’s widow sued Prana Films for adapting Dracula without permission. The lawsuit bankrupted the company, and the court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed. Thanks to some sneaky individuals, some prints of the film managed to survive through the decades.
The film would inspire others to make their own takes on Orlok and co. Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo 1982, Grizzly Man 2005) remade it as Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1977. E. Elias Merhige (Begotten 1989) directed 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, which suggested Murnau (John Malkovich: Being John Malkovich 1999, Ripley’s Game 2002) cast an actual vampire (Willem Dafoe: Body of Evidence 1993, Spider-Man 2002) as Orlok.
There are even two more remakes in the pipeline; one by David Lee Fisher (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 2006), and another by Robert Eggers (The Witch 2015, The Lighthouse 2019). But, with Nosferatu entering the public domain in 2019, there is little stopping anyone from catching the original classic. Be it DVD, Blu-ray or even YouTube, there are plenty of options for the curious to see this classic piece horror history. Like Orlok with Ellen, it may even grab them by the heart.