Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (A Symphony of Horror) 1922, Directed by F. W. Murnau
We’re going way back this week, all the way to the 1920s and the heart of the Silent Film era. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu isn’t only one of the first adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it isn’t just one of the first horror films, it is also one of the most influential films of all time. But one of the things that makes it hold a lot of its creep factor, even almost one hundred years later, is the ways that the vampire has maintained his hold on the human imagination, working as the manifestation of some of our biggest fears. For many, the vampire conjures up images and trepidation of sexual desire and depravity (well before they were sparkly, that’s for sure), or even the type of spiritual draining that some people can effect in us. But one of the most pervasive fears that the vampire has represented over the years is that of contamination, be it in the purity of bloodlines, fears of immigration, or, in the case of Murnau’s film, literal plague; the vampire works to play on the fluidity of the body—something we frequently think of as somewhat impermeable and self-contained.
Murnau’s film, working from a screenplay by Henrik Galeen, follows Stoker’s novel pretty closely, so much of the story will not come as a surprise to those who are already familiar with the most famous bloodsucker in history, though the character names are different (and a Van Helsing counterpart does not appear). See, Murnau and company, including the production studio Prana Films, didn’t bother to get the copyright to Stoker’s material, and subsequently were sued by Stoker’s widow on behalf of his estate, bankrupting the studio and making it impossible for the film to turn a profit. Most tragically, however, is the fact that the court ordered all copies of the film to be burned as part of the settlement. But thankfully for us, there was one copy circulating that wasn’t destroyed, and so what we have available now is cobbled together from the copies of copies of copies that were made so that this wonderful film could be preserved. And a lot of love has come into putting this film back into working order—the version I have seen on Netflix Instant has a few placards at the beginning detailing the kind of attention and care that went into keeping this great work alive, after years of hiding underground.
So the story itself isn’t much different, but all of the names have been changed to protect the copyrighted: Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) leaves his lovely wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder), despite her foreboding that something bad will happen, to travel to the Carpathian mountains at the behest of his boss, the creepy Knock (Alexander Granach), to help the mysterious and wealthy Count Orlok (Max Schreck) purchase a home in their quaint town of Wisborg. Hutter, a jovial and easy-going sort of fellow, isn’t deterred by Ellen’s fears, nor is he worried when the locals he stays with on his trip warn of a werewolf (unconvincingly played by a rogue hyena) who terrorizes the night woods, and he certainly isn’t deterred by the creepy book he finds in his hotel that cautions readers about the threat of the vampire (that also causes nightmares). He also isn’t put off by the fact that the men who he has hired to drive him to Orlok’s castle refuse to take him all the way, and leave him to fend for himself up the mountain. He certainly thinks it is strange when the terrifying recluse Orlok licks the blood off of his thumb when he cuts himself at dinner, and when he wakes to two identical bite marks on his neck (mosquitoes, surely!) but he doesn’t really catch on until he spies Orlok packing for his move to his new home in Wisborg—just across the street from Hutter’s home with Ellen.
You see, packing for Orlok includes six boxes of Carpathian dirt (not to mention Orlok’s body, and a handful of rats). Orlok’s boxes are loaded onto a ship and as they travel over the sea, the captain and all of his crew are mysteriously killed on the voyage. Their deaths are attributed to the plague, supposedly carried by the rats, but we know that Orlok’s nighttime movements are much more nefarious. And while all of this is going on, Ellen has been back in Wisborg acting very strangely, as has Hutter’s boss, Knock (who is clearly the Renfield character here). Hutter, after escaping from the castle, returns home to find everything in shambles, and he turns to the mysterious book about vampires from the hotel to help find the answers to saving the people and home that he loves—and the answer is genuinely shocking, even still.
The film does a wonderful job of making us understand where the fear of vampires might come from, and how deeply rooted that dread is in our subconscious. But what makes this film even more remarkable is the way it is shot: Murnau and company only had access to one camera at the time, so everything was shot just once—there was only one negative, which makes the entire production seem that much more fantastic, and great shots, like the ghastly pale face and hands of the black-cloaked Orlock seeming to hover in the space of a pitch-black tunnel, seem that much more miraculous. As is standard with many silent films, the acting can seem over-done at times, and the music (at least in my opinion) can tend towards to the too-upbeat and jangly, where something more somber might’ve helped carry the mood better. But even then, there are parts of this film that can help you see just how much this film has influenced the modern horror that we all know and love.
Next Installment: A Tale of Two Sisters