Monsters and Matinees: The Cinematic Miracle of ‘Nosferatu’

The Cinematic Miracle of ‘Nosferatu’

An overprotective widow looking out for her husband’s masterwork – and her bank account. A disastrous miscalculation by filmmakers that brought down a fledgling studio. A legal order for the destruction of an artistic work.

That should have been the end of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent vampire film Nosferatu. Yet somehow, this movie that should have been lost to us forever, has survived to celebrate its 100th anniversary while being hailed as a masterpiece for its artistry, atmosphere and unsettling imagery.

Here’s the story.

In Nosferatu, Count Orlok (Max Schreck) is not the romantic figure we are used to seeing in vampire films. Instead, he is a terrifying, demonic sight: tall and emaciated with pointy ears, rat-like teeth and hands like claws. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

* * * * *

Weeks before Bram Stoker’s celebrated Gothic vampire novel Dracula was published in 1897, the author had the foresight to have a dramatic reading at London’s Lyceum Theater that would protect its stage rights. After his death in 1912, his widow, Florence Stoker, took it upon herself to protect all rights to the novel, including film.

A decade later, she learned that a German vampire film called Nosferatu was made without requesting the rights to Dracula. Unable to afford the expenses, she enlisted help from the British Incorporated Society of Authors for this legal battle.

It’s not clear why the studio Prana Films did not seek the film rights before making Nosferatu. (They were later given for the stage starting in 1924 with Hamilton Deane, and screen with Universal Pictures in 1930.)

Perhaps the filmmakers thought adding “From the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker” in the opening credits would be enough. Or that the many changes from the novel including locations, names and vampire characteristics made it clear that it wasn’t a direct adaptation of Stoker’s book.

The opening credits of Nosferatu included this acknowledgement to Bram Stoker’s novel, but it was not enough to stop a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

But the film was clearly inspired by it as is obvious by this description: A young real estate solicitor travels to a far-off castle where its inhabitant, a count, is feared by villagers. He falls victim to the count, who travels by sea with his coffins filled with Transylvanian earth to the solicitor’s village where death follows.

The lawsuit mulled about in the courts for anywhere from three to seven years, depending on sources. Though Florence Stoker didn’t receive the financial settlement she wanted, the legal fight resulted in bankruptcy for Prana Films and the order for all copies to be destroyed. Somehow – thankfully – that didn’t happen.

“Had Nosferatu not survived, the entire trajectory of fantastic filmmaking could well have been materially altered – and greatly impoverished,” wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert.

Making Nosferatu

Prana Films was an independent film company formed in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau to make movies with occult and supernatural themes. (Prana is the Sanskrit word for “life force.”) Because of those legal issues, Nosferatu would be its only film.

Grau was an occultist and artist who heard vampire tales in Serbia where he was a soldier in World War I. A farmer is said to have told him his father was one of the undead, sparking Grau’s interest in making a vampire film. Another story is that Grau was fascinated by watching a spider literally suck the life force out of a victim, as a vampire would. (You’ll note a similar scene of a spider and its prey in Nosferatu.)

Grau, also a graphic artist, first worked with Murnau designing advertising and poster art for the director’s 1920 film Journey Into the Night and brought him on for Nosferatu.

This screenshot from the documentary The Language of Shadows is one of the storyboards made by Albin Grau for Nosferatu. It shows Grau’s influence on the film from the look of the vampire to the scene where he carries a coffin in the village.

While Nosferatu is considered Murnau’s masterpiece, Grau’s imprint is all over the film. In addition to producing the film, Grau used his artistic talents as a set designer, storyboard artist and in creating the ghastly makeup for Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck). He also designed the extensive advertising for the film.

The film was adapted by another occultist, Henrick Galeen, who had written two Golem films, The Golem (1915, which he also directed) and The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920).

Changes from Dracula to Nosferatu

For Nosferatu, Galeen moved the story from 1890s London to Bremen, Germany during the plague of 1838. It was an astute change as the deaths in the film would be blamed on rats infesting the village with disease, thereby feeding on the audience’s real fears of plagues and the 1918 worldwide flu pandemic.

In Nosferatu, Hutter (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) is the film’s equivalent of Bram Stoker’s original character of Jonathan Harker. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Count Orlock replaced Count Dracula. Van Helsing and Lucy were among the discarded characters. Jonathan Harker and Mina became Thomas Hutter and wife, Ellen. Herr Knock was the name of Hutter’s creepy boss who served extra duty as a Renfield-like character who becomes insane after Orlok’s arrival.

The Count Dracula in Stoker’s book is well described as a tall, old man with a large white mustache, bushy eyebrows that almost form a unibrow, deep red lips and coarse hands with hairy palms and long, fine nails cut to sharp points. In movies starting with Bela Lugosi in the Universal original, Dracula was usually handsome, suave and seductive.

Count Orlok was none of that, instead carrying the repulsive look of a rat. His cadaverous body (a possible inspiration for Slender Man?) is topped by a thin, distorted face. Two long middle upper teeth added to the ratlike appearance. His baldness accentuated distinctive pointed ears, and his elongated arms had hands with horrifically long nails that curved like claws. He moves so painfully slow that it is somehow worse than if he had super speed.

Other notable changes go beyond Orlok’s appearance. He casts a reflection, which is startling to anyone used to the big scene where the vampire’s reflection is not in the mirror, giving away his identity.

The vampire casts a shadow In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, leading to magnificent imagery such as the monster on the stairway. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

He also throws a shadow that Murnau masterfully uses for imagery that still haunts a century later. Most famous is Orlok’s shadow as he walks up the stairs to Ellen’s bedroom, his spindly fingers growing in horrific length as his hand reaches out to open her door.

Both counts must rest by day, but in Stoker’s novel Count Dracula was only weakened by the sun. The sunlight, however, can kill Orlok as it would do for a century of screen vampires who followed. This “death by sun” element seems to have been a big influence on later films. Those who argue that Nosferatu doesn’t deserve credit for that because it was out of circulation for a while, are forgetting the film was viewed on its initial release and in showings throughout Europe after all copies were thought to have been destroyed.

The film plot

Young Thomas Hutter’s boss Herr Knock receives a note from Count Orlok who wants to buy an empty house in their village. Anticipating a “tidy sum” for the sale, Herr Knock chooses a vacant building across from Hutter’s home and sends him off to make the sale.

The journey to Orlok’s castle goes through the famed Carpathian Mountains where the count’s name horrifies villagers. Adding to the uneasiness is the book Of Vampyres Terrible Phantoms and the Seven Deadly Sins that Hutter finds in his room and nervously laughs off. Big mistake.

Finally at the castle, he dines with Orlok who quickly shows his true nature when Hutter accidentally cuts himself. The next morning, Hutter finds two “mosquito bites,” as he calls them in a letter to Ellen, on his neck.

From across the ocean, Ellen (Greta Schroeder) can feel her husband is in danger in Nosferatu. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Night 2 at the castle is even worse when, in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, Hutter opens his bedroom door to see the demonic Orlok. As Hutter is attacked, Ellen senses her husband is in danger and screams out for him from across the sea. Orlok, who formed a telepathic connection to Ellen after seeing her photo, can feel her emotions.

Hutter awakens to a living nightmare with Orlok loading coffins for his journey to his new home – and Ellen. To escape, he ties sheets together and climbs out the window, but falls and is delayed by a short hospital stay.

Murnau builds tension by cross-cutting the journeys of Orlok by sea and the weak Hutter by foot and horse. Somehow, they arrive at nearly the same time. The slow arrival of Orlok’s ghost ship into the harbor is an ominous sight, made worse once it’s discovered no one is on it. Written logs of rats and the “danger” of a plague are enough for the villagers to panic. Doors are marked for death and a quarantine is in place. The fear is underscored by a parade of coffins being carried down streets.

Ellen, who reads a book about Nosferatu (a vampire), realizes that the “plague” is Orlok and that only an “innocent maiden” can destroy the vampire. She willingly sacrifices herself to save her husband by drawing the vampire to her. Murnau helps the audience believe this selfless act with earlier scenes of her devotion, including one where Ellen keeps a vigil by the cold sea looking for her husband while she’s surrounded by crosses in the sand. It is another of Murnau’s haunting images.

Unlike most vampire films, Nosferatu does not focus on Orlok attacking people, nor sucking blood. Though we see the fear on the faces of Hutter and sailors, it’s only with Helen that Orlok is shown in “vampire mode” and that is mostly in shadow.

How and what to watch

Like so many classic films in the public domain, it’s easy to see Nosferatu, especially if you don’t care about quality. But you should care and get the best film experience you can. Look for an official release of the movie, especially since restorations are available.

The bluish tint signifies that this scene in Nosferatu is set at night, allowing Count Orlok (Max Schreck) to disguise himself as a coachman to bring Thomas Hutter to his castle. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Hopefully when you do see Nosferatu you will see it with its original “tinting,” a technique used in silent films to depict time of day. For example, yellow means daylight; a soft golden/amber glow signified candlelight; pink was dawn and blue was night. Watch how carefully this is done. As Hutter walks into his room with a candle, the room is bathed in amber; when he blows out the candle the color immediately switches to blue to signify darkness.

Kino Lorber released multiple versions of Nosferatu including an “Ultimate Edition” of the film in 2007 from a restoration done in 2005-06 by Luciano Berriatua on behalf of Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, a foundation located in Wiesbaden, Germany to preserve his films and other German movies. A  Deluxe Remastered Blu-ray edition was released in high-definition in 2013 and can be bought or watched on the digital platform Kino Now as well as other digital services.

Berriatúa also made a 60-minute documentary on Murnau with a focus on Nosferatu that is called The Language of Shadows. It goes into fascinating depth on the film’s locations with maps and comparisons clips and photos from the film to locations as they looked when the documentary was made in 2007.

Willem DaFoe starred as actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire.

More to watch

Need more Nosferatu? Here are three options that all use the original look of Count Orlok.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Werner Herzog directed a nearly shot-by-shot remake of the 1922 classic for his film starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz.

Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1997). This original television miniseries directed by Tobe Hooper modeled the look of their vampire, who had the unassuming name of Burt Barlow, after Count Orlok. The image alone made it hard to watch for some of us.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000). A fictionalized movie about the making of Nosferatu that posits the idea that Max Schreck (played in the film by Willem DaFoe) was a real vampire. It is directed by E. Elias Merhige.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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One Response to Monsters and Matinees: The Cinematic Miracle of ‘Nosferatu’

  1. I can’t with horror movies, Toni, so Nosferatu won’t be on my watchlist, but I greatly enjoyed your interesting post! (As long as I quickly skimmed past the pictures!) I can see why this film is so highly regarded.

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