Cinematic vampires are established – along with most of the finest horror filmic ideas – in Murnau’s iconic and masterful silent epic
Director: FW Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck (Count Orlock), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroeder (Ellen Hutter), GH Shnell (Harding), Ruth Landshoff (Ruth Harding), Gustav Botz (Professor Sievers), Alexander Granach (Knock), John Gottowt (Professor Bulwer), Max Nemetz (Captain)
Dripping with menace, a ghastly figure rises to spread his influence across the whole world. In a similar way, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu has wormed its way into the public consciousness, with its iconic film-making beauty, laced with menace and horror – and its iconic vision of the vampire as a creature of disgusting, animalistic viciousness still carries a ghoulish impact on vampire movies today. Murnau’s film is an extraordinary piece of bravura film-making, a breath-taking example of pictorial beauty, crammed with nightmarish imagery that cements itself into your brain.
If the plot sounds familiar, you share the view of Bram Stoker’s widow. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is arrives in Transylvania to finalise a land deal with Count Orlock (Max Schreck). But, staying in Orlock’s terrifying castle, Hutter starts to dread that his nocturnal, deformed host with the long teeth and nails might have more to him than meets the eye. Orlock wants to move to Hutter’s home in Wisborg to put himself out in the world – but increasingly also due to his fascination with a picture he finds of Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder). Leaving Hutter imprisoned, Orlock (coffins and rats in tow) climbs on board the Demeter and sets sail. Any wonder Florence Stoker sued?
It’s nearly a miracle we even have Nosferatu today. Florence Stoker won every single court case she ever fought against the filmmakers, with the verdict almost invariably being that the negative should be destroyed. Thank goodness we do have it though, as this is not only the finest adaptation of Dracula ever made but also a landmark horror film whose reputation has only grown. Murnau created a film that is darkly insidious, worming its way inside your head just as Orlock inveigles his way into Wisborg, marking forever everything it touches.
It’s remembered often as the height of German Expressionism: but really Murnau’s film is one of classical, painterly beauty. Although he can certainly use the power of montage effectively when he wants to – witness the thrilling cross-cutting as both Hutter and Orlock race back to Wisborg, one by sea, one by land – Murnau’s real power here is in his compositions. Few people could shoot vistas – be they town or country – with soulful searchingness like Murnau. From its opening shot of the Wisborg square, through its haunting visions of the Transylvanian countryside (shot with slow pans that drip with unease), this is a film that finds unsettling tension in the beauty of our surroundings. Throw in compositions inspired by painters like Caspar David Friedrich and (in a group of scientists gathered around a corpse) Rembrandt, and Nosferatu takes its place in the story of art.
But it also has a place firmly in the story of terror. That’s due, above all, to the terrifying design of Orlock himself. Played with a rigid unknowability by Max Schreck – the mystery of what motivates Orlock remains exactly that – Orlock looks like something out of the deepest reaches of our subconscious nightmares. Rat like, wizened, with ghastly elongated nails and teeth and a stillness that feels both hunched and rigid all at once, he is a natural predator. It’s surely no co-incidence that he resembles the rats that travel with him in the Demeter, and the interpretation of his attacks by the townspeople link us to what this spirit is: death itself, unreasonable and unstoppable.
Murnau often frames him in arches and doorways, as if he was constantly positioning himself in coffins. There are innumerable flourishes to cement the awful terror he carries. In one sinister sequence, he seems to rise, utterly straight and rigid, from his tomb. He appears to a sailor on the Demeter like a nightmarish transparent figure. Hutter opens his door at night in the castle to see Orlock standing outside, like a wolf waiting to strike. In one chilling sequence, the camera watches up from the hold of the ship as he haltingly walks, framed by the rigging, to consume the unseen ship’s captain. Ellen will stare out of her window at night to half see him in an upper corner of the building opposite, watching her. Orlock’s claws reach into everything from The Exorcist to BBC adaptations of MR James ghost stories.
There is seemingly nothing human about him. At night he transforms into a wolf – and Murnau went to great lengths to secure not a wolf, but a hyena as this night-time abomination, its twisted, grinning features and distinctive face reminiscent of Orlock’s own dreadful form. What motivates him? We are given no insight into what might influence or inspire him, the way we are with Dracula. Unlike Dracula he lives alone in his castle – no brides for company here. His victims are consumed and die: none turn. He expresses no interest in the wider world and seems focused on people solely as commodities to consume.
The one difference might just be Ellen. As Orlock goes to kill Hutter on his final night at the castle, Ellen awakens thousands of miles away in Wisborg, as if she knows her husband is in danger. And Orlock seems to sense it too. In a beautiful example of cross-cutting, Ellen is at the right of the frame starring to the left in Wisborg, while Orlock is at the left of the frame starring back to the right in Transylvania. It feels like they are looking at each other, even though of course they can’t be – and it forms a link between them whose motives are kept deliberately unclear. Does Orlock want to consume or ravish Ellen? Is she repelled or intrigued by this monster? While the film downplays the sort of sexual fascination that later Dracula films (and the novel itself) would play to the hilt, there are touches of it there (not least in the strangely chaste marriage between the Hutters).
Murnau experiments beautifully with the burgeoning language of cinema. The frame is given a tint at every shot to tell us when in the day we are: daylight is tinged in yellow, dusk and dawn in red and Orlock moves freely in the blue-tinged night-time. The camera is frequently fluid. There are some quite gorgeous – and terrifyingly unsettling – shots of the Demeter sailing, seemingly uncrewed, at sea (its sails filled with Orlock’s monstrous breath) then drifting controlled but abandoned into Wisborg harbour. As Hutter rides to Orlock’s castle the screen shifts to photo negative, as if he is crossing some terrifying boundary. Only one invention doesn’t pay off today: to Murnau, sped-up film was disjointed, unsettling and terrifying. To us it’s Keystone’s Kops stuff: watching Orlock’s carriage speed around is likely to raise a surprised titter, rather than a gasp of terror.
Other elements of Nosferatu have also not aged as well. The acting is frequently performative and stagy and varies wildly in style. Von Wangenheim and Schroder strike poses, Granach’s Renfield-like Knock goes wildly over the top. Shreck’s work is often done by the make-up, although his chilling stillness carries strength. It also takes surprisingly little from Dracula in terms of themes: any references to technology, the key weapon against the count, are dropped – even van Helsing is turned into a clueless dolt; the Lucy Westerna figure is little more than an extra; the victims are almost exclusively men and the response to Orlock’s ”plague” is medieval terror not modern reason.
But Nosferatu rides above this because it is such a chilling, elemental film about death and oblivion. It can only end with that as two characters are absorbed into a dance of death that closes the film (Murnau even stages what looks like a literal dance of death at one point, as enraged townspeople chase an escaped Knock, convinced he is to blame). The association of Orlock specifically with a plague, rather than a homicidal or sexual threat, is telling: this is vampirism as a destructive danger that strikes without reason, and leaves nothing (not even a dark afterlife) in its wake. It feels like a very post-World-War-One vampire story, where whole communities are left destitute by a terrifying event outside of their control.
Nosferatu looks simply sublime, and is the work of a master-director using his craft for the first time to make something truly unique, magical and genre-defining. Horror would wear a different face after Murnau’s masterpiece: a drained, pale, toothy grin that stares fixedly at us from across the void of our nightmares.