The greatest vampire film of all time is no romance. It does not star beautiful people with pale skin and delicate seduction. There is no high-collared regal wear. There are rats, not bats; and there’s a rodent-like creature in monkish robes who casts monster-like shadows on brown walls. The greatest vampire film of all time is a filthy Expressionist nightmare, filled with sickly frames, and jagged teeth matching a jagged mise-en-scène.
The history of Nosferatu is an interesting and controversial one. Released by the German film studio, Prana, in 1922, Nosferatu was subjected to various legal issues from the outset. The studio never obtained licensing rights to Bram Stoker’s famous story, Dracula, and, as such, was forced to change all the names in the script. The famous Count Dracula became Count Orlok, the “Bird of Death”; and the “vampire” became “Nosferatu,” a venomous word, black like the plague that it came to represent. This was not enough to stop the ever-vengeful forces of litigation, however, and an equity order forced Prana to destroy all copies of the film forever after Stoker’s widow sued for infringement. Prana Films, itself, went into bankruptcy after Nosferatu, which turned out to be its only film. It’s only fitting, I guess, that this demon of a film live on beyond the grave. (It may be worth noting that, two years earlier, F.W. Murnau had directed a similar filmic adaptation, this one based on Robert L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, called Der Januskopf. As he did in Nosferatu, Murnau changed the names of the characters to get around licensing laws. That film was also lost, and stayed lost).
The several prints of Nosferatu that survived have lived on through multiple remasteries to become a Halloween-time staple among film enthusiasts and sophisticates. It is, as far as I am concerned, the best truly-Halloween Halloween movie of all time. What do I mean by “truly-Halloween Halloween movie?” Well, it seems to me that there are scary movies (horror films), and then there are Halloween movies, also scary, but a subset of the larger group. These are movies with quintessential Halloween overtones and characters, dealing with bats and pumpkins, witches’ brews and magic spells. Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Headless Horseman make up the pantheon of this uniquely Halloween-ish mythology. And Nosferatu, with no disrespect to James Whale’s Frankenstein or Tod Browning’s Dracula, and insofar as quality is concerned, is the best of these truly-Halloween Halloween movies.
The film deals with a dark lexicon of symbology, and pits that literature against a visual language rampant with the underpinning thematics of German Expressionism. The film’s visual scheme was directly inspired by the work of Hugo Steiner-Prag, whose illustrations accompanying the 1914 release of Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem were among the first to embrace the new Expressionist movement. Visually, we are shown a world teetering on the edge of nonexistence, as if the entire world is slipping away, the forces of gravity, and physics generally, suffocating for breath as the darkness creeps in. Yet, this is nowhere near as trippy, if you will, as the set direction of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, opting instead to keep this dream-like limbo grounded in the more realistic visuals of a German city creeping toward industrialization. But, there is no denying the deft management of shadow to blend the real with the unreal. The whole movie seems like a ghost.
And that visual thematicism brings to life the unabashed symbolism of the picture. There is no question that the threat of Count Orlok is one that, centuries before, was supposed to have washed away. But, Orlok brings with him the Black Plague, his life of seclusion is mired in infected rats and coffins, as if the entire medieval threat has prolonged itself in his care, and through him, it will reek havoc on central Europe again. This is how the terror of fantasy mingles itself in the haunting mystique of reality: the deaths and pain that surrounded the Black Plague are still at the heart of the social consciousness, yet distant enough to be but a story told to children around campfires.
The Plague, the occult, vampirism generally, none of these are told with elaboration or glorification. There is no secret who is good and who is bad in this story, and its visuals are so raw and demystified that they seem to cut against the Expressionist movement. Yet, for those within the film, such as the movie’s main protagonists, Thomas and Ellen Hutter, there seems to be no such simple distinctions. While they are not totally blind to the obvious evils surrounding them, they still seem to suffer from a profound inability to catch the visual cues that we do. This is where the seduction of Orlok comes in. It is unexplainable to us, because it should be so obvious that what is evil is evil in this profoundly visual world, but somehow, they allow this monster to descend upon them just enough to forever change their lives. It seems that the Expressionist world of Nosferatu is far less distinct to those living within it than those (us) viewing it from sofas and armchairs.
This silent-era masterpiece was directed by F.W. Murnau, a man whom many regard as the greatest German film director of all time. His other great works include the famous romance, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which he made after expatriating to the United States, and The Last Laugh, a quaint chamber-drama starring Emil Jannings. Where in The Last Laugh Murnau would develop the point-of-view shot and experiment with tracking camera movements (innovations that would forever change the language of cinema), in Nosferatu, Murnau’s most profound innovation was in set direction.
Indeed, Murnau’s use of montage is fantastic in this film, in particular the back-and-forth locational montages that we are shown between Thomas and Ellen when they are separated. But, for those detractors of montage theory, like the great Andre Bazin, it is important to note that there is more to this film’s profound visual flare than montage. The set direction is masterfully composed, so that still shots reach such planes of depth (both to the eye and mind, through literal imagery or symbolism) that we become both intellectually and emotionally involved in what is going on in the picture. There is also a sort of palpability to this movie that lends to its frightful atmosphere. I’m not sure if that is due to the fact that the only surviving prints were bootlegs or if it is due to a more calculated cinematographic approach by the film’s photographers, Fritz Arno Wagner and Günther Krampf, but there is something very haunting about the graininess of the images as presented. It’s almost like you can reach out and touch it, and feel the textures coming from the screen.
Perhaps no two images from this film are more famous than the two below:
In the first, Count Orlok sneaks up the stairs like a rat, his shadow creeping up along the wall in styles invoking the traditions of German Expressionism.
In the second, Count Orlok rises, stiff as a board, from a coffin on board a ship enroute to Wisborg. This image would one day inspire Tod Browning’s use of Dracula’s hand peaking out from his coffin lid, which would in turn inspire such things as Linda Blair’s head spinning in a full circle in The Exorcist and that one moment on the Haunted Mansion ride. This scene is but one example of Murnau’s timely application of primitive film special effects, including a vanishing spectre (invoking strains of Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage from the previous year) and the speedy flight of Orlok’s emissary on his blackened horsebound coach.
It is not just a testament to Murnau how these two images have lived through a nasty legal dispute that threatened their permanent extinction on to the present day (almost 100 years later). It is also a testament to Max Schreck, the actor who was photographed in each of these scenes. Without doubt, the role for which Schreck is most remembered is of the titular vampire in Nosferatu, since all his other film and theater roles were few and far between, never rising to the quality or historical significance of this horror masterpiece. Schreck, undeniably, had a body type and face that was fitting for the role, and he portrayed Count Orlok in an understated and rodent-like way that, upon viewing, seems like the only way that the Dracula character was ever meant to be played. All other renditions seem like trite or cliched varieties of the true Nosferatu, Count Orlok.
This movie will likely scare even less than does The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it will haunt more. And that, as a matter of personal preference, is what I prefer in a horror film, particularly one so far removed from the modern tricks of the trade when it comes to thrills. It succeeds in haunting you through a delicate mixture of literature, set direction, photography, and human motion. Its artistry is deathlike; you cannot avoid it, and you cannot help but feel subjected to it. And, while it lacks the obliqueness of some of its Expressionist counterparts, it does not fail to embrace the Expressionist movement in its own way, giving us a “dream-like” world that is as engrossing as it is artistic.
On that note, I’d like to close this review with the words of Roger Ebert:
“It is commonplace to say that silent films are more ‘dreamlike,’ but what does that mean? In Nosferatu, it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away. There is no repartee in nightmares. Human speech dissipates the shadows and makes a room seem normal. Those things that live only at night do not need to talk, for their victims are asleep, waiting.”