In its centenary year, we take a critical look back at the first Dracula film and the movie that kickstarted gothic horror as we know it.
There’s no questioning the importance of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror. It’s one of a handful of pioneering films that effectively invented the horror genre, the first proper Dracula movie (even if it gives its central character a different name) and a film that remains as visually extraordinary today as it ever was. In a world of lost movies, it’s remarkable that we can watch it at all and we should all thank the gods that copies survived the court order for its destruction after the makers lost their copyright case against Bram Stoker’s widow, who was very pissed that someone would dare to film her husband’s novel without having obtained permission or paid for the rights. It was an open-and-shut case, to be fair. There’s a certain irony that the one F.W. Murnau film that was ordered to be destroyed has survived while many of his earlier, legally uncontentious films are now all lost. This is, of course, his most important work by a long way – not necessarily his best film (though it might be) but the one that has the most historical significance simply in terms of what came afterwards. I’m not for a moment suggesting that without Nosferatu we would have no Dracula movies, because that’s clearly laughable – but the film set a certain template that would run through gothic cinema for years afterwards, consciously or otherwise. In fact, as the classic interpretation o Dracula played itself out with endless movie incarnations, so the film’s unusual and ghoulish vampire would be increasingly influential, from Salem’s Lot to 30 Days of Night; today, the idea of the vampire as a virus that infects society seems all the more unnerving and contemporary, in a pandemic world. Of course, the film was made in the wake of the Spanish Flu and such fears were probably still very much ingrained in the consciousness of filmmakers and audiences alike.
However, I would suggest that claims of the film’s greatness and continuing ability to terrify have been somewhat over-egged. People now seem to watch Nosferatu through the rose-tinted glasses of history rather than with any sense of honesty. It’s understandable, but it perhaps sets less committed viewers up to be disappointed because the film is far from the flawless masterpiece that some suggest. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot about this movie that is very impressive even now. It contains several scenes that are incredibly eerie and creepy and the ideas – the original ideas rather than the ones lifted from Stoker, ironically – are fascinating. But there is also plenty that, even by the pantomime demands and technical limitations of silent cinema, are frankly laughable and baffling. I believe I’ve seen (and reviewed) enough silent cinema that no one will dismiss my comments as those of someone imposing modern production standards on a film that is now a century old. The simple truth is that Nosferatu contains some shockingly bad performances and questionable moments that damage the film and we do it no favours by deliberately overlooking them.
The first hour or so of the film follows the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula fairly closely though, of course, it changes all the names in a rather feeble attempt to skirt around the copyright issues. I’ll let you fill in the original character names from the novel in the following synopsis. Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his rather ghoulish looking employer Knock (Alexander Granach) to visit Count Orlok in Transylvania, ostensibly to help the Count purchase a house in Wisborg, Germany (“the one across from your house” suggests Knock). The Transylvanian locals warn him of vampires and werewolves when he mentions Orlok’s name, but he continues anyway. The Count turns out to be a cadaverous, bat-eared character that even the most determined estate agent might think twice about having as a neighbour – his habit of sucking the blood from his guest’s cut finger is also a clue that he’s not quite right, and sure enough, Hutter finds him sleeping in a coffin a couple of days later. That night, he sees Orlok loading coffins onto a wagon and hastily departing the castle. Left imprisoned in the castle, Hutter escapes by leaping out of a window, a fall that incapacitates him for a while before he can continue his journey home. Meanwhile, Orlok’s coffins – filled with earth and rats – are loaded onto a ship heading for Wisborg. During the voyage, the crew are killed off one by one, and on arrival in the city, Orlok’s vampiric plague rapidly starts to spread.
The final act of the film sees it diverting from Stoker in interesting ways. The juxtaposition of Orlok and the rats that seem to surround him brings to mind the Black Death, and the Count quickly becomes a barely seen figure in the background as a seemingly unstoppable plague spreads throughout the city. It’s surprising that more vampire films haven’t explored this metaphor – it seems instead to have been taken up by the zombie movie. Thus the film – rather ironically – sets another precedent for the Dracula movie by essentially throwing out large chunks of Stoker’s novel in order to go its own way. The book is, of course, essentially unfilmable and even the most determinedly faithful adaptation has tended to drop of combine characters, switch events around and rework the ending. Had Nosferatu featured this originality and divergence from the narrative earlier, perhaps the claims that it was an original work might have had more validity – though we can perhaps argue that had Nosferatu not been ordered destroyed, there would’ve been no motivation to save it and it might be as lost as Murnau’s other work. It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it?
There is much about Nosferatu that continues to impress. Not least of these is the Count himself, as grotesque a creation as you’ll ever see. Played with an almost supernatural stiffness by Max Schreck, this is as far from the urbane, attractive Dracula that we see in most films as you can get. He’s genuinely a creepy figure, his rat-like fangs, pointed ears and talon-like fingernails making him as otherworldly as you can imagine. In a way, he’s perhaps closer to the aged Count first seen in the novel, but grotesquely exaggerated – this Count is not simply old, he’s cadaverous and monstrous. For all its visual power, this interpretation doesn’t quite work narratively in the early scenes – Hutter seems far too relaxed in the company of such a sinister and sub-human character – but later, he becomes one of the most unsettlingly weird monsters in film history. The shots of Orlok stood statically, moving slowly and unnaturally, rising vertically from his coffin and casting grotesque shadows on the walls are rightfully iconic, memorable and still terrifying. Dracula here becomes a demonic figure, overseeing the destruction of a community as a mysterious, almost invisible presence. The film feels very modern in these moments – Dracula is almost like a virus, spreading through the community unseen, leaving death and sickness in his wake. the character of Dracula became increasingly diluted through familiarity and the desire of filmmakers to make him either a romantic, tragic figure or a comic creation – Count Orlok is neither of those things and even now feels like a genuinely horrific monster that resembles the grotesque vampires of folklore than the urbane figures of literature.
The pacing of the film is impressively brisk too. It’s vastly superior to the plodding and static 1931 Bela Lugosi movie in terms of its horror and pacing – admittedly, that’s not a great achievement as the Lugosi film is one of the most static and stilted movies ever made. Nosferatu also beats that film visually, Lugosi’s magnificently gothic castle aside. The location shots in this film are impressive (more so now that the narrow streets and ramshackle buildings seem so distant a memory and removed from our idea of the real world) and the scenes on the doomed ship are very impressive. Visually, Nosferatu deserves all the credit it gets.
But the film is marred by some remarkably terrible acting – Granach is pretty laughable as Knock, though at least he’s supposed to be insane (the fact that he looks only slightly less creepy than Orlok doesn’t really help the situation, it must be said), while von Wagenheim is awful as Hutter and Greta Schroder ineffectual as Hutter’s wife Ellen – it’s hard to imagine why Orlok would be so keen on her, quite frankly, as she’s both dull and frumpy and never gets to express anything remotely resembling a personality. There’s also the question of whether she would qualify as the pure maiden needed to defeat the vampire (one of the film’s original folklore twists), given she’s a married woman. Acting in old movies – silent movies especially – is often a challenge for modern audiences, the pantomime exaggeration, the technical limitations on productions and the theatrical influence on actors feel far removed from modern cinema. In this case, though, it’s notable just how bad these actors are – and how weak their characters are – even within the context of the time; indeed, within the context of the film itself. Schreck, for example, still shines with a genuinely scary performance that shows that less can be more.
Worse still are a few bizarre decisions by Murnau, most notably the speeded up shot of Orlok loading his coffins on the wagon. I suspect even the most serious-minded audience will guffaw at this needlessly ridiculous moment, which even in 1921 was the stuff of comedy, and unfortunately, once you set an audience off laughing, it’s often quite hard to pull them back. Adding a moment of slapstick in one of the film’s seminal moments – a scene that ought to be genuinely nightmarish – seems a remarkably bad choice.
The film’s ending, while famed, is also rather weak. It’s not the feeble anticlimax that ends the Lugosi film perhaps, but it remains weak and unconvincing nonetheless. Count Orlok goes out with a whimper rather than a bang, literally fading away. While the horror movie was still a pretty new invention at the time, it still seems an odd choice and renders the power and corrupting influence of the vampire that we have previously seen a bit pointless. If all it took to kill the most monstrous plague on mankind was to distract him until the sun came up, his earlier victims must have been kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. In the case of Dracula, much like rock stars, it’s better to burn out than fade away.
It may seem that I’m being overly harsh on the film when I say that these negative aspects prevent it from being the masterpiece that so many people claim it to be. But I’m not saying that Nosferatu isn’t a worthwhile, generally impressive and important film. I’m not even saying that it isn’t, by any standards, a great film. It’s just that it is far from perfect and these are moments that people will spot, believe me. If you’ve hyped a film excessively, the flaws become much more important – perhaps even a deal-breaker – for new viewers. I suspect that most people would appreciate it more if they saw it without the weight of history creating expectations that it simply can’t match. The reputation of the film is perhaps its worst enemy because, like many a classic film that has somehow gone beyond criticism, it can never really live up to the ideals that it has been saddled with.
However, if you are going to watch the film – and you definitely should if you have any interest in cinema – you should be careful about which version you watch. The very nature of the film’s history has somewhat removed any copyright from it and as with any film that enters the public domain, it has often been seen in shoddy, scratchy, incomplete prints. There are a lot of poor quality, beaten-up and shortened versions out there that you can watch for free, but it’s worth looking out for the remastered edition on Blu-ray, which manages to restore some of the film’s original potency. Scenes are tinted, missing intertitle cards replaced and the original score re-recorded. This version is probably the best the film has looked (and sounded) since its original release, and you’ll enjoy it a great deal more in this version than in some ropey online version, believe me.
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