- Director: F.W. Murnau
- Writers: Henrik Galeen, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
- Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach, and Ruth Landshoff
- Accolades: Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 (#19)
- Where to Watch: Free Streaming on Hoopla or Kanopy (library apps), Free Streaming (with ads) on Tubi, Stream with subscription on Amazon Video or the Criterion Channel, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV
Nosferatu was not, by any stretch, the “first horror movie,” but it is one of the earliest that is still widely seen today, and it is also probably the first really popular vampire movie. Ten years before Bela Lugosi played Dracula, it invents many of the elements that would be used in that later movie. Its grasp of cinematic language seems far beyond what you might expect from a 1922 silent film, yet it maintains a sort of innocence. It’s not so much trying to “scare” its viewers, and it certainly won’t scare modern viewers unless you have an extreme phobia of rats. Rather, it delivers a sense of building dread, of decay and death. If silent movies are, by definition, more “dream-like” than talking pictures, Nosferatu is like a nightmare where the people being killed can’t scream. It is not an accident that the full name of the original release was Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. In English: Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors.
In structure, Nosferatu is actually extremely similar to most versions of Dracula, and that is less an accident than this movie shamelessly ripping off a popular book. Bizarrely, the producers seemed to think that just changing some character names would be enough to get them past any copyright concerns. This was the first movie to be produced by “Prana Film,” a new German studio that intended to produce supernatural and horror-themed movies, run by an “occultist-artist” named Albin Grau. It turned out to be the studio’s only movie, because Bram Stoker’s widow Florence sued the crap out of them over this movie and won. Now that Dracula’s in the public domain, some prints you’ll see of Nosferatu have the names of various characters changed to those from Stoker’s novel in the title cards. Keep in mind, if you get one of these, that this isn’t how it was originally. When the movie came out, it featured “Count Orlok” terrorizing “Thomas Hutter” and his family. But the version I watched on Amazon Prime had “Count Dracula” and “Jonathan Harker.”
As such, the story is likely familiar, though modern viewers will find much to interest them regardless. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent to Transylvania by his weirdo boss Knock (Alexander Granach), to assist the local “Count Orlok” (Max Schreck) in buying a house in Bremen (changed from London in this German version). He finds that the locals are terrified of Orlok, and won’t go anywhere near his castle. The carriage that comes to meet him is run by a guy who never shows his face and moves in crazy fast-motion. It’s super creepy, actually. The big difference, other than this being a silent movie, between Orlok and the traditional Dracula is in his appearance. He is shriveled and hunched, his fingers are more like claws, and instead of the now-traditional sharp canine fangs he has two weird little ones at the front of his mouth, like a rodent. It has been asserted that Nosferatu in this movie is an anti-Jewish figure. He is the feared other, which at the time in Germany often meant Jews, and he has some of the exaggerated features we sometimes see in malicious caricatures of Jews, like his long, hooked nose. But when we look at the life and work of the director, F.W. Murnau, that this was done intentionally seems unlikely. More likely is that he wanted to make someone who felt like a “frightening other,” and when people wanted to do the same thing to Jews they used many of the same characteristics.
Anyway, back to the movie. Hutter is attacked by Nosferatu (his line about “I have two strange holes in my neck. What could they be? Mosquitoes?” makes us snicker today, but keep in mind that vampires weren’t actually a thing yet when they made this), in a scene intercut for dramatic effect with his fiancee back home feeling like something is wrong. This is one of the first examples of a montage like this being used to raise tension in a modern sense. He then rushes back home to Bremen, while at the same time Nosferatu travels there by ship. The scenes on the ship are among the most memorable of the movie. The crew dies one by one and believes the plague is on board. The First Mate looks in the hold, and Nosferatu suddenly rises up, stiff as a board, in one of those classic horror shots that drove audiences wild when they first saw it. The First Mate jumps overboard in terror. The Captain then ties himself to the steering wheel. The next thing we see, the ship pulls into Bremen harbor, eerily quiet (somehow this comes across even in a silent movie). The locals investigate and discover the dead body of the Captain, still tied to the wheel, and nothing else but swarming rats. “The plague is here,” one man yells, “stay in your homes!” This was 98 years ago.
In the end, Nosferatu’s reign of terror is ended when Hutter’s fiancee sacrifices herself in order to keep the vampire out “after the Cock’s crow.” The sun passes over him and he disappears in a whiff of smoke, in what is again a surprisingly successful special effect. The final sequences in which he stalks the citizens of Bremen, and the fiancee in particular, are among the masterpieces of German Expressionism, a film movement to which Nosferatu solidly belongs. There are shots in which we only see Nosferatu’s shadow, claw-like fingers outstretched and clutching, and others in which he seems to move in ways no human possibly could. He feels more like an actual supernatural entity than almost anything else you’ll ever see in a movie, partly, I’d guess, because, in a silent film, there’s nothing to break his spell or explain him away. That uncanny feeling in every frame of Schreck in this movie served as a jumping off point for the 2000 movie Shadow of the Vampire, in which the director Murnau (John Malkovich) is so desperate to film “the most realistic vampire movie” that he casts Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who is in fact an actual vampire.
Murnau eventually directed 21 films over a career that lasted only 14 years, though only 12 of these survive to the present (the number of early silent films now completely lost is a fascinating topic for another time). He went into the German movie industry immediately after World War I, in which he served as a fighter pilot in the German Air Force. Nosferatu was his first feature to make a huge splash, but he followed it up with more successes. The biggest of these was Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), which pioneered “point-of-view” camera work, and, perhaps even more revolutionary, contained no “intertitles” whatsoever, as Murnau believed the images on screen should tell the story whenever possible. He became so well-known that Fox gave him a huge contract to come over and direct there. He made a handful of films there, including Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which often makes the Top 10 on “Greatest Movies” lists. Unfortunately, Murnau died in 1931, at the height of his success, when his Rolls-Royce crashed into a telephone pole on the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara.
Nosferatu is a horror movie from a time when no one had yet realized that you could scare viewers automatically by having things jump in from the sides of the frame, like pushing a button. Instead, it is more about anxiety, the anxiety about sickness and death that haunts us even now. Roger Ebert once wrote that “it seems to really believe in vampires.” And why not? Producer Albin Grau supposedly had the idea to do a vampire movie while fighting in World War I, when a Serbian farmer told him that his own father was a vampire. In Germany after the war, maybe it did feel like just about anything terrible might be true. And maybe sometimes it still feels that way.