It is difficult to imagine film without sound. The modern theater-going audience has become reliant upon dialogue and sweeping musical scores as integral pieces of the cinematic puzzle. But in the heyday of film, sound was limited, if it was available even at all. Movies of the silent era were forced to rely almost exclusively on acting, cinematography, and set design to create the filmmaker’s desired atmosphere.
No film was more successful at silently evoking emotion from an audience than the German expressionist classic, Nosferatu.
Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors
Released on March 4th, 1922, Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (A Symphony of Horrors) tells the story of Count Graf Orlok, a vampire whose story is very similar to Dracula, only more German.
Thomas Hutter is a real estate agent in the imaginary town of Wisborg, where he lives with his wife, Ellen. Hutter’s boss sends him off to Transylvania where he is to have real estate paperwork completed by Count Orlok who is buying a house in Wisborg. Upon arriving at Orlok’s castle, the two have dinner, during which Hutter cuts himself. Orlok tries to suck the blood from Hutter’s wound, but Hutter pulls away in disgust.
The next morning, Hutter awakes with puncture wounds in his neck. He brushes them off as insect bites and finally has Count Orlok sign the documents.
After reading a book about vampires from the local inn, Hutter begins to put the pieces together, suspecting that Orlok is, indeed, a vampire. While exploring the castle, he finds a room with a coffin and Orlok inside, sleeping (like vampires do).
Later that day, from a window in the castle, Hutter sees Orlok loading coffins onto a cart. Orlok climbs into one and is taken to a ship where he will be heading to his newly purchased home in Wisborg. Hutter escapes the castle by jumping from the window and promptly loses consciousness. He awakes in a hospital, but eventually is well enough to return home.
While on the ship, Count Orlok drains the captain of his blood and when the ship arrives in port, he enters the town, with his coffin. And no one notices. After discovering the body of the captain and other passengers, the town decides that it must be the plague and panic ensues.
Orlok moves into his new home, which happens to be directly across the street from the Hutter’s and he promptly gets his creep on by spying on Ellen through a window. Ellen has stolen the vampire book from her husband and learns that the only way to end Orlok’s reign of terror is for her to distract him all night with her beauty, so she invites Orlok over and decides to take one for the team, allowing him to drink her blood. Enamored by Ellen’s beauty, Orlok loses track of time and when the sun rises, he is turned to dust.
“Nosferatu was a technically ambitious film. Its use of stop-motion is highly recognized as the most effective of its time…”
Behind the Scenes
The word, “nosferatu”, is presumed to be Hungarian-Roman in origin and loosely translates to “vampire”. Albin Grau, filmmaker and owner of the film studio, Prana Film, began obsessing over the idea of telling a vampire tale on the big screen in 1916. He was inspired by a story he was told by a Serbian farmer who claimed that his father was a real-life nosferatu.
Grau enlisted screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, to write the script for the film. He was sure Galeen would be more than capable of capturing his vision as he had also written the screenplays for fellow expressionist films, The Student of Prague (1913) and The Golem (1920), which are held in similar esteem as Nosferatu.
Max Schreck (The Tunnel) stars as Count Orlok. Nosferatu was Schreck’s most famous film role, but he had a prolific career in German theater. The film also stars Gustav von Wangenheim (Woman in the Moon) as Thomas Hutter and Greta Schroeder (Paganini) as Ellen – Seine Frau (his wife).
Nosferatu was a technically ambitious film. Its use of stop-motion is highly recognized as the most effective of its time.
Nosferatu is often regarded as one of the most influential films of the German expressionist movement. Metropolis (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) provide good company as further examples of German expressionist films.
But what exactly is expressionism and how does Nosferatu qualify?
Expressionism was first recognized as an artistic movement in the visual arts and in poetry. The movement began to take hold of cinema in the early 20th century, but gained a great deal of traction after World War One. One of the most famous Expressionist pieces is The Scream by Edvard Munch, which is actually cited as the inspiration for Count Orlok’s appearance in Nosferatu. (You can totally see it, right?)
One way an expressionist film can be identified is by its set design. Nosferatu, for instance, utilizes a number of outdoor landscapes that speak to its Romantic influences. As the film progresses, the storyline becomes increasingly ominous which is reflected in the movie set. We move from the realistic beauty of the landscape to the surreal darkness of the castle. It is obvious that film sets of this era were heavily influenced by the visual art movement of Expressionism.
Expressionism is also created by the use of sharp angles, stark differences between darkness and light, and surrealist, fantastical characters. Nosferatu hits all of these marks. Even Count Orlok’s appearance reflects expressionism, with spindly fingers, and pointed ears.
The use of shadow in expressionist film is hugely important and used to full effect in Nosferatu. One of the most iconic scenes in the film involves Count Orlok creeping up the stairs in the Hutter’s home, where all you see is a perfectly formed shadow and the eeriness of his full silhouette as he reaches out his creepy, claw-hand.
“We are incredibly lucky to still have access to the film, today…”
The story of Nosferatu lends itself well to Romantic Expressionism because it was, in fact, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s romantic novel, Dracula. In an attempt to avoid legal repercussions, Murnau changed the setting of the story from 1890’s London to Germany in 1838; specifically, an imaginary town called, Wisborg. He also changed character names (Count Dracula is Count Orlok) and rather than Count Orlok siring vampires in the way of Stoker’s Dracula, he kills his victims.
Filmmaker and founder of Prana Film, Albin Grau, had sought the rights to Dracula through Stoker’s estate, by way of his widow, Florence Stoker. He was denied in 1916, but continued his work, in spite of this, believing that the changes made to the story would be enough to avoid a copyright lawsuit.
They were not.
Florence and Bram Stoker’s estate sued Prana Film for copyright infringement after the film debuted in 1922. Prana Film lost in court because, well, Grau and Murnau used the name Dracula to refer to Count Orlok in early versions of the film (which is pretty dumb, no?) and there was no denying the fact that Nosferatu was derivative of Stoker’s, Dracula.
Not only was Prana Film forced to close, but the court ruled that all copies of Nosferatu be destroyed, but at that point, the film had been distributed around the world that obtaining all of them in order to destroy them was impossible. We are incredibly lucky to still have access to the film, today.
Legacy of the Vampire
Nosferatu’s influence remains omnipresent in Hollywood. Aside from directors like Tim Burton and Werner Herzog citing Nosferatu as a major source of inspiration, the film also helped to establish a (now) classic vampire trope: bursting into flames in the sun. This artistic choice was in direct conflict with the original idea presented in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where vampires walked freely in the daylight, only suffering energy loss.
Nosferatu remains a massive part of modern pop culture. In 1979, Werner Herzog released a remake (more of an adaptation) of the film entitled, Nosferatu the Vampyre. The year 2000 saw the release of Shadow of the Vampire starring John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck. The film implies that Max Schreck embodied the character of Count Orlok so well because he was not just portraying a vampire, he actually was one.
Robert Eggers, who received a great deal of critical acclaim for his directorial debut, The Witch, is set to direct an upcoming remake of Nosferatu. Even the Nickelodeon cartoon, Spongebob Squarepants, has paid homage to the film (check out the clip, here). Nosferatu is now part of the public domain, which means it is no longer subject to copyright laws. The entire film is available to view for free on Youtube, so everyone has easy access to this iconic horror film.
Have you seen Nosferatu? Do you agree with its masterpiece status? Let us know in the comments or discuss with fellow fiends in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group!