To watch F.W. Murnau's 1922 horror masterpiece Nosferatu is to see the vampire movie before it became a trendy pop icon of commercials, jokes, skits, franchises, books and over 100 different films. Nosferatu is the greatest of all vampire films, and its surreal and haunting tone and intensity gives off the feeling as if its creators were truly in awe of its material and that the legend of Dracula was a tale they believed in. Murnau's Nosferatu isn't necessarily scary but more a film to admire for its beautiful artistry and gothic atmosphere of distorted style, lighting and shadows. There are no cheap or sudden scares in the film and instead what truly frightens us are its creepy images, its hypnotic mood and its tortured creature, who has to live through a dreaded and horrific curse. Before movie industries concentrated on sex, blood and gore, the vampire genre was a film that created a nightmarish world which seemed to come from the repressed deep-rooted psyche of the human mind. When Nosferatu was first released in 1922 the company Prana had to declare bankruptcy after Bran Stoker's widow Florence Stoker, sued for copyright infringement and won. The court ordered all existing prints of Nosferatu to be burned, but one copy of the film had already been distributed around the world. This print was duplicated over the years, kept alive by a cult following, making Nosferatu one of the first real cult films. Nosferatu is one of the key films of the German Expressionism movement which was an artistic style beginning in Germany before the first World War. German Expressionism painted a frightening and hostile landscape of abstract shapes, bizarre angles, twisted shadows and distorted sets, as it's building architecture seemed to be slightly off kilter with many of the props being painted on floors and walls to represent light and shadows that were geometrically off-balance. This odd visual look was intentional to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism, as it's unsettling sets of instability created a feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer. German Expressionism's unusual and distorted style were as unrealistic and fantastical as the legend of the Dracula story who's narrative is a good contrast to its disturbing themes of psychology, disease, madness and murder. Most people when thinking of Dracula would think of Bela Lugosi as the original vampire and even though his flamboyant and devious performance in Tom Browning's 1931 classic Dracula was legendary; Max Schreck's performance as the vampire Orlok in Nosferatu was masterful.
The opening shot shows Thomas Hutter who lives in the fictitious German city of Wisborg pick out flowers to express his love for his loving wife Ellen. His employer, Knock an estate agent says to Hutter, "Count Orlok...his Grace from Transylvania...wishes to purchase a nice house in our little town. He wants a very nice empty house. That house...across from yours. Offer him that one!" Knock then sends Hutter to Transylvania to visit this new client. Hutter entrusts his loving wife Ellen to his good friend Harding and Harding's sister Annie, before embarking on his long journey.
Nearing his destination in the Carpathian mountains, Hutter stops at an inn for dinner. After taking a seat at the table he shouts out, "Quickly...bring my dinner. I'm on my way to Count Orlok's castle!" The locals suddenly become frightened by the mere mention of Orlok's name and discourage him from traveling to his castle at night, warning of a werewolf on the prowl. He decides to spend the night at the inn and that morning when leaving grabs a book he finds about vampires and takes it along on his journey.
Later that day during his travels to Transylvania Hutter takes a coach to a high mountain pass, but the coachmen decline to take him any further than the bridge as nightfall is again approaching. A black-swathed coach appears after Hutter crosses the bridge and the coachman who suspiciously looks like Count Orlok gestures for him to climb aboard. Hutter then arrives at the castle and the property gates automatically open for him. In a creepy shot Count Orlok slowly comes out of the shadows and welcomes him to his home. Orlok tells him, "you have kept me waiting too long...it's almost midnight. The servants are asleep!"
At dinner Orlok is going over the paperwork with his creepy beady eyes while Hutter is eating dinner. Hutter hears the clock ring behind him and then accidentally cuts his thumb with a knife. Orlok quickly gets up and says, "you've hurt yourself...the precious blood!" Orlok then tries to suck the blood out, but Hutter is repulsed and pulls his hand away and backs himself into a chair and somehow is forced down on it and falls asleep.
Hutter wakes up to a deserted castle the morning after and notices fresh punctures on his neck. He attributes them to mosquitoes or spiders as he writes a letter to his wife Ellen and Hutter gives the letter to a coachman to send it. That night, Orlok signs the documents to purchase the house across from Hutter's own home and then he notices a picture of Hutter's wife. Orlok picks up the portrait and says, "your wife has a lovely neck..." Orlok then says, "I'm buying the house...that nice, deserted house across from yours."
Reading a book about vampires that he took from the local inn he at first doesn't believe in the stories. But reading it more Hutter starts to suspect that Orlok is Nosferatu, the "Bird of Death." He becomes afraid in his room as midnight approaches, but there is no way to lock the bedroom door. The door suddenly opens by itself and Orlok enters, his true nature finally revealed, and Hutter falls unconscious. That exact night Ellen back in Wisborg wakes up with visions of her husbands danger and the Harding's get her the doctor.
The next day in Transylvania, Hutter investigates the castle to get some answers. In its crypt, he finds the coffin in which Orlok is resting dormant. Hutter becomes horrified and dashes back to his room. From the window, he sees Orlok now piling up coffins on a coach and climbing into the last one before the coach departs. Hutter escapes the castle through the window, but is knocked unconscious by the fall, and awakes in a hospital. Ellen waiting for the return of her husband finally receives his letter he earlier wrote but when reading how Hutter talks about the bites on his neck; it now confirms her worst visions and fears.
When Hutter is sufficiently recovered at the hospital, he tries to hurry home, while Knock mysteriously falls under a spell of Orlok's and is committed to a mental institution. While locked up in a cell, Knock starts spouting words like, "blood is life!" The master is near!" as he then watches a spider in his web devour his prey. Meanwhile, the coffin that Orlok is in gets shipped down river on a raft with several others and is transferred to a large ship.
While this action is taking place the film cuts to Professor Bulwer who is conducting a class in Wisborg on carnivorous plants, most importantly the Venus Fly Trap and comparing them to vampires. The film again cuts back to the sailors on the ship who are now getting sick one by one; and soon all but the captain and first mate are dead. Suspecting it being the curse of the coffins they received, the first mate goes below to destroy the coffins with a hatchet while rats tumble out. Suddenly Count Orlok awakens and rises straight up, stiff and eerie and the horrified sailor jumps into the sea. Unaware of his danger, the captain becomes Orlok's latest victim when he ties himself to the wheel; having Orlok taking full control of the ship and directing the ship towards Wisborg.
When the ship arrives in Wisborg, Orlok leaves the ship unobserved, carrying one of his coffins, and moves into the house he purchased. Hutter finally arrives home and reunites with Ellen saying, "thank God you are safe. Everything will be fine now."
The next morning, when the ship is inspected, the captain is found dead with tiny holes in his neck. After examining the logbook, the doctors assume they are dealing with the plague. The town is stricken with panic, and people are warned to stay inside. Meanwhile, Orlok stares from his window across at the sleeping Ellen, waiting for the right moment for his attack.
That evening Ellen is reading the vampire book her husband took from the inn. The book claims that the way to defeat a vampire is for a woman who is pure in heart to distract the vampire with her beauty all throughout the night. Ellen finally informs her husband what she has been seeing every night as she points out Orlok who is again staring at her from his window across the street. Hundreds of people are now dying in their town because of this mysterious plaque including their friend Annie.
Because of this sudden outbreak, the fearful residents believe Knock to be involved and chase Knock after he escapes the mental institution after murdering the warden. Knock eludes the angry townspeople by climbing a roof, and escaping through the fields. He then uses a scarecrow to distract them but is eventually caught by the mob and brought back to the institution. That same night Ellen now knows what she has to do to kill Orlok so she opens her window to invite him in shortly before sunrise, but suddenly faints because of Orlok's spells. When Hutter revives her, she sends him to fetch Professor Bulwer. After Hutter leaves, Orlok walks into their home.
In one of the best shots of the film you see the shadow of Orlok walking up the stairway and the shadow of his arm stretching out all distorted as he slowly opens Ellen's bedroom door. When entering the room you see the shadow of his hands slowly come closer to Ellen as she faints once again. Orlok stands over the unconscious Ellen and becomes so engrossed before drinking Ellen's blood that he forgets about the coming day and the rise of the sun.
When a rooster crows, Orlok vanishes in a puff of smoke as he tries to flee. Knock now back in the mental institution senses this saying to himself, "the master is dead." Ellen wakes up and lives just long enough to be embraced by her grief-stricken husband when he returns with Professor Bulwer before dying in Hutter's arms.
Much of the style that Nosferatu embodied was of German Expressionism, which was one of many creative styles and movements that came out of Germany after their defeat in World War I. UFA studios which was Germany's principal film studio at that time, decided for the film industry to go private which largely confined Germany and isolated the country from the rest of the world. In 1916, the government had banned any foreign films in the nation, and so the demand from theaters to generate films led to the rise of film production from 24 films released in 1914 to a high 130 films in 1918.
German Expressionism and its aesthetics was first derived from German Romanticism and of architecture, painting, and of the stage, most famously from German set designers Herman Warm, Walter Rorhig, and Walter Reimann. Much of German Expressionism's style and design expressed interior realities via exterior realities and emotionalism rather than objectivity or realism. Many films of German Expressionism used bizarre set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The world that characters inhabit in a German Expressionism film are full of exaggerated landscapes and environments of abstract shapes, angles, shadows and distorted sets. The building architecture is off kilter, jagged and many of the props seem to be geometrically off-balance. This unusual visual look is intentional off course to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism. It's unsettling sets of instability gives the feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer.
The actor's in German Expressionism films usually wear heavy make-up, their acting is greatly exaggerated and their movements are jerky and unnatural to blend in with the stylistic and abstract environment. German Expressionistic's odd and distorted style are as unrealistic as the dilution of its main character who's narrative is a good contrast to its style as it revolves around such themes as psychology, fantasy, madness, betrayal and murder as its creators used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than realism or what was on the surface. Most films that helped categorize German Expressionism include several of Fritz Lang's silent films most importantly Metropolis and M. Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel are also considered landmarks of German Expressionism, with some critics looking at the aesthetics of German Expressionism as the early beginnings of American film-noir.
D.W. Griffith is looked at as one of the most influential silent directors of all time but I personally believe F. W. Murnau to be the greatest of all silent directors. Murnau lived from 1888 to 1931 and had made 22 films. He is known for four masterpieces which don't include the horror classic Nosferatu. Murnau's technical mastery especially in the way of effects make all of his films exciting to see. Murnau made a film called The Last Laugh in 1924 about a hotel doorman played by Emil Jannings who is devastated after losing the one job that brings him respect and happiness. That silent film purposely was made to not include any title cards so there was no reading for the audience and so the story was only expressed through visuals. Murnau then created one of the most beautiful silent fantasy films of all time titled Faust in 1926 which told the classic story of a demon named Mephisto who wagers with an angel that he can corrupt a mortal man's soul. The beautiful special effects and its large visual scope is so grand that I would compare it to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
The worldwide success of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust won Murnau a Hollywood contract with Fox, and he moved to America in 1926. Sunrise was one of his first films he made in the United States and many claim to be his greatest achievement and one of the greatest silent films of all time. Janet Gaynor won an Oscar playing a woman whose husband is considering murdering her so he can be with another woman. His last film was Tabu in 1931 which was a romance between a young fisherman and a holy maid on the island of Bora Bora Lagoon. Unfortunately Murnau was killed in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway just before its première, and his promising career was cut short at 43. If he had lived, he would have probably made several more masterpieces especially with the creation of sound just being introduced; but sadly we will never know what more he could have accomplished and what could have been.
Nosferatu was the only production of Prana Film which was a company founded in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau. Grau had the inspiration to make a vampire film because of a war experience in the winter of 1916 in which a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire and one of the Undead. Dieckmann and Grau gave Henrik Galeen the task to write a screenplay inspired from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, even though Prana Film did not obtain the film rights to the novel. Galeen was an experienced specialist in Dark romanticism (and who had previously adapted The Golem to the screen) and when writing the screenplay he set the story in a fictional north German harbour town named Wisborg and changed the character names. He added the idea of the vampire bringing the plague to Wisborg and arriving on a ship with rats aboard and used fewer characters including Van Helsing the vampire hunter.
Filming began in July 1921, and the film was surprisingly a low-budget production with Murnau shooting several of the exterior shots in Wismar and the interior shots were filmed in Berlin at Jofa Studios. Other locations that were used in the filming were the Wassertor, the Heiligen-Geist-Kirche yard and the harbour. The exteriors of the film set in Transylvania were actually shot on location in northern Slovakia, including the High Tatra mountains, Vrátna Valley, Orava Castle, the Váh River, and Starhrad. For cost reasons, cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner only had one camera available, so there was only one original negative.
Murnau followed Galeen's screenplay carefully, following handwritten instructions on camera positioning, lighting, and related matters but Murnau completely rewrote 12 pages of the script. This concerned the last scene of the film, in which Ellen sacrifices herself and the vampire dies in the first rays of the Sun. Murnau prepared carefully and there were several sketches that were to correspond exactly to each filmed scene, and he used a metronome to control the pace of the acting. The name Nosferatu was first used to refer to a legendary vampire figure by the Scottish travel writer Emily Gerard in her book The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts and Fancies from Transylvania. In some ways for Murnau to not use Bram Stoker's title Dracula was a sort of blessing. Critic Roger Ebert says, "Nosferatu is a better title, anyway, than Dracula. Say Dracula and you smile. Say Nosferatu and you've eaten a lemon."
The story of Nosferatu is similar to that of Dracula and retains the core characters—Jonathan and Mina Harker, the Count, etc, but omits many of the secondary players, such as Arthur and Quincey, and changes all of the characters' names (although in some recent releases of this film, which is now in the public domain in the United States but not in most European countries, the written dialogue screens have been changed to use the Dracula versions of the names). The setting has been transferred from Britain in the 1890s to Germany in 1838.
In contrast to Dracula, Orlok does not create other vampires, but kills his victims, causing the townfolk to blame the plague, which ravages the city. Also, Orlok must sleep by day, as sunlight would kill him, while the original Dracula is only weakened by sunlight. The ending is also substantially different from that of Dracula. The count is ultimately destroyed at sunrise when the "Mina" character sacrifices herself to him. The town called "Wisborg" in the film is in fact a mix of Wismar and Lübeck.
Nosferatu premiered on March 4, 1922 at a gala in the marble hall at the Berlin Zoological Gardens; and then two weeks later it got a wide release. Despite a major advertising campaign and many positive reviews the commercial success was hindered.
Nosferatu was the only Prana Film for the company and it declared bankruptcy after Bram Stoker's widow Florence Stoker, took legal steps to prevent the film's distribution. She believed that the copyrights of her husband who died in 1912 have been infringed upon. She sued the producers of the film for copyright infringement and in 1924 a Berlin court ruled that all existing print and materials related to the film had to be destroyed. And yet this would have happened if at the time of the judgment which was two years after the première several copies of the film had not been stashed away or duplicated. One purported copy of the film had already been distributed around the world and the film was kept alive by a cult following, making it an example of an early cult film. The ban against Nosferatu lasted until Florence Stoker's death in 1938 and so most people around the world never got to see the film until 16 years after its première.
The original score of Nosferatu was composed by Hans Erdmann to be performed by an orchestra during the projection. However, most of the score has been lost, and what we hear nowadays is only a reconstitution of the score as it was played in 1922. This is why so many composers and musicians have written or improvised their own soundtrack to accompany the film.
In 2006, the French composer Alexis Savelief finished the composition of his score for Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. His soundtrack is intended to be performed during the film by a cello octet, three synthesizers and two percussionists. Despite the constraints imposed by the cine-concert format, the score is perfectly synchronized throughout the whole film, by means of a variable click-track. Performed in first audition by the Cello Octet of Beauvais and the 2e2m ensemble directed by Pierre Roullier, the following year Alexis Savelief arranged his score for eight strings, three synthesizers and two percussionists. This version has been presented in first audition under the direction of conductor Jean-Louis Forestier.
In 2010, The Mallarme Chamber Players of Durham, NC commissioned composer Eric J. Schwartz to compose an experimental chamber music score for live performance alongside screenings of the film, which has since been performed a number of times. It is written for flute, bassoon, keyboard, percussion, viola, and electronics
Along with D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau is considered one of the key directors in introducing montage into the cinema. There are two key scenes that present these forms of simultaneous editings: First is the intercut of events of Orlok when he goes after Hutter, while the scene cuts to his wife Ellen sleepwalking and suddenly screaming which causes Orlok to stop and turn away. Another sequence is when Hutter comes to the realization of his wife's danger and races back to Bremen by coach, as the shot inter-cuts to Orlok traveling to town by sea, which these montages inter-cutting to Ellen who is impatiently waiting for her husbands return.
They're several memorable scenes in Nosferatu that have later inspired other future horror classics. One of the most infamous in the film are the scenes that involve the cargo of stacked coffins filled with the horrifying plague in which the crew members get suddenly sick and die. A sailor decides to go down below and opens the coffin with a hatchet and hundreds of rats come pouring out. Count Orlok slowly rises straight up all stiff and robotic-like which reminds me of the way Michael Myers plays dead in John Carpenter's classic Halloween.
There is a sequence in the film that doesn't have any real connection to the main story, but I believe it is there symbolically. It involves the scene of a scientist giving a lecture on the venus flytrap, “the vampire of the vegetable kingdom.” Then the scene inter-cuts to Knock locked in his jail cell as he watches in closeup as a spider devours its prey. These scenes seem to be addressing that within every living creature there is a hunter and a prey, and unfortunately when it comes to the vampire, we are the defenseless prey.
Kino Lorber has released a 'Ultimate Edition' DVD version of Nosferatu with a beautifully restored picture and newly restored 5.1 surround sound; and it has never looked or sounded better. Over the years Nosferatu has growed in stature and is considered by critics and horror fans as being one of the most important films in the world. It also has received a strong cult following, receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews by legendary critic Roger Ebert as he added it to his 'Great Movies' list and it holds a 98% fresh rating based on 46 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. It was ranked twenty-first in Empire magazine's The 100 Best Films of World Cinema in 2010.
The character of Dracula has always been a fascination with society and is a staple of horror in our culture along side Todd Browning's 1931 version, Terence Fisher's 1958 version and even Werner Herzog's wonderful remake in 1979. The themes of vampires have now become a trend in popular culture and once in a while you get something new and fresh that really enriches the legends of the vampire story like the great 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In. But what makes Bram Stoker's novel which was written in 1897 and the character of Dracula still such a popular story for modern audiences today? I believe it's the repressed sexual themes and overtones within the story that are buried deep within its strict ironclad Victorian values where sex was repressed and dangerous to society.
The character of Dracula can also be looked at as a sort of charming predator or rapist and a metaphor for the dangers of sex and of giving into your lustful temptations. The delicate way a vampire bites the neck of a woman is very sensual; and it is in some ways alluring and dangerous. It has always been said that women feel an attraction for danger and charm, as a vampire can symbolize the image of the bad boy, the one thing that is looked at as not acceptable within society. When tempted, the women in most vampire films seem to purposely fall prey to a vampire because part of them wants to be seduced by their predator, as it goes with the classic saying, "When they say 'no' they really mean 'yes'. The Victorians only cure for vampirism would be Christian morals and bourgeois values, and not necessarily holy water or a stake through the heart.
To simply describe it, Nosferatu is about the repressed fears of the psyche, the things that frighten us in our daily life: disease, madness, war, murder, as it presents these psychological dark fears within the hypnotic style of its visuals. Much of the film's composition is shot using Murnau's brilliant use of lighting and shadow, and Murnau seems to always place Orlock in the center of the frame, which is a way to heighten the tension, and to show that Orlock dominates the power of the scene and of its victims. Murnau's also a master at artificial special effects as he creates subtle tricks with the camera lens like the fast motion of Orlok's servant, the sudden disappearance of the phantom coach, the manifestation of the count out of thin air, and the use of a photographic negative to give us white trees against a bleak black sky. Nosferatu was the first of many vampire films , but no others ever came as artistic and unforgettable as Nosferatu, besides Werner Herzog's 1979 version with Klaus Kinski which was more of an homage. Murnau is a frightening classic that I admire more for its artistry, its atmosphere and its frightening images. Unlike most horror films today, Nosferatu doesn't rely on cheap scares and simple jump tactics to scare its audience, and instead uses more mood, subtle images and the dark corners of the human psyche to truly frighten us. Film critic Roger Ebert describes Nosferatu saying, "It doesn't scare us, but it haunts us. It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows, but that evil can grow there, nourished on death." Nosferatu is considered not only the very first vampire film but the grandfather of horror films as it's nightmarish visuals and surreal like atmosphere are still frightening and disturbing to this day. The horrifying character of Orlok embodies all the boogiemen that you see in present horror movies, like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, as the supernatural monsters who always seems to catch up to you no matter how much you try to outrun him. There are even particular moments when he is either walking towards one of his victims and robotic-like or rising up stiff from his sleep, where his calm demeanor and stiff body movements greatly resemble those of Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. Max Schreck not only became the role of the demonic blood-sucking creature with his rat like claws and rodent like fangs, but he embodied it, presenting a tortured creature who has to live through a dreaded and horrific curse. Nosferatu is one of the most influential of all horror films and the one that set the template for all the others that followed.