Tonight I’m going to watch Nosferatu, the silent German expressionist horror film that is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I watch this film around Halloween time every year, and I’m always amazed at how well it’s held up and indeed how frightening it is, despite now being over 91 years. The original Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau and starring the bizarre Max Schreck as Count Orlock (the Dracula character), is as chilling an exercise in cinematic horror as any film made in the nine decades since it first terrified audiences in 1922.
The story of the film should be well-known especially to anyone who’s read Stoker’s original 1897 novel. When Murnau and company made the film in the 20s, they couldn’t get the rights to license the novel, but they stuck as close to it as possible while changing the names–a strategy that later got them sued after the film came out. Here the Jonathan Harker character is called Hutter, from the fictional town of Wisborg, Germany, who is sent by his employer, a real estate agent, to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious Orlock who is a vampire. In the meantime, Hutter’s wife suffers a strange wasting illness. Ultimately Orlock appears in Wisborg, triggering an outbreak of plague which he uses as cover to hunt his victims. Although Nosferatu dispenses with the Van Helsing character (a fresh approach), Orlock is ultimately destroyed by Hutter and especially his wife.
The scary strength of Nosferatu is its dark romantic imagery. You could expect a movie about vampires to be quite Gothic, but Murnau pulls it off with a mise-en-scene quite superior to almost every other Dracula film ever made, including the Bela Lugosi version. You’ve probably seen some of these images before; they’re almost ubiquitous now.
The darkly romantic vision goes beyond the depiction of the monster. The film takes place in the 1830s, thus presenting us with a vision of 19th century Germany which had all but vanished by the time the film was made. It was filmed in Wismar, on the Baltic Sea, and also in Lubeck. With some notable exceptions, most of these buildings were destroyed during the Second World War.
Nosferatu’s “Germanness” is one of its most hypnotic qualities, both its depiction of the vanished Germany of the 1830s, and the creative heyday of the Weimar Republic in which it was made. Along with The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu represented the pinnacle of German expressionist art that flourished in the years following World War I. This was a fragile milieu. After the Weimar Republic was overthrown by the Nazis in 1933, German expressionists were repressed by the state, and a great movement in art was destroyed. By then Murnau himself was dead, killed in an automobile accident in 1931. Max Schreck died in 1936. The movie company that produced Nosferatu never made another film. It went bankrupt to avoid paying damages to Bram Stoker’s widow.
That lawsuit almost robbed future generations of the film. A court in Germany ruled that every print of the film must be destroyed. Only one survived. If not for that one print, no one who hadn’t seen the film in its original release in 1922 would have enjoyed it. The survival of this masterpiece was a very near thing.
If you haven’t seen Nosferatu, you owe it to yourself. It’s terrific. The film is now in the public domain (ironically, considering the copyright issues surrounding its release), and you can find any number of copies on DVD or streaming. I personally prefer the 2002 “Symphony of Horror” restoration. It may be old and silent, but Nosferatu still scares me every time.