One of the most interesting facts regarding the 1922 F.W. Murnau (Sunrise) directed black and white, silent masterpiece “Nosferatu,” originally titled in German “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens,” is that none of us who have copies of the movie either on VHS tape or DVD should because the film was almost wiped out of existence. The pioneering film in the silent German expressionist movement was written for the screen by Henrik Galeen (The Golem), who was interested in doing an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula,” but the Prana film production company couldn’t secure the rights to the work. Instead of abandoning the project altogether, Galeen ignored the legality of the situation and worked on the adaptation by changing character names and certain details of the story. Count Dracula became Count Orlok; the name vampire was replaced with nosferatu; the Harkers became the Hutters; Professor Van Helsing, usually prominently featured in Dracula lore, called Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) in this version of the tale, has limited involvement in Murnau’s adaptation and is relegated to teaching a class about plants such as the Venus flytrap and the similarities it shares with vampires; the name of Renfield is substituted with Knock. The scenes that take place in the novel in England were changed to Germany.
In addition, unlike the novel Dracula where sunlight only weakens a vampire, “Nosferatu” was the first time in cinema history where sunlight becomes a deadly weapon that kills a vampire. This device was primarily used so that director Murnau, who knew he was going to be sued by Stoker’s estate, could point to the difference between the ending of the book and his movie. The end result was that Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, sued in the courts to have all prints of the film destroyed and her efforts were almost successful. If not for a few people, who managed to keep prints of the movie hidden, none of us would be able to watch the film today.
The character of Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is a young married man, who is asked by his employer, the greedy real estate boss, Knock (Alexander Granach), to journey to the home of Count Orlock in order to make the needed arrangements, so that Orlock can purchase a home in Germany. On his journey, Hutter stops off at a place for the evening and receives, not only warnings about the danger he faces if he continues on his way, but a book that explains the nosferatu. Hutter laughs off the warnings as nothing more than ridiculous superstition and continues onward with the business at hand for his employer.
After arriving at Orlock’s castle, the story differs from the novel in the manner in which Hutter views the Count. Unlike Jonathan Harker in the novel, Hutter is disturbed by the Count’s appearance, which is anything but attractive; it is a subject I’ll touch on in the next paragraph. Strange things begin to occur, for instance when Hutter wakes in the morning, he finds bite marks on his neck, and then there is the fact that Count Orlock sleeps in a coffin – but the thing that upsets Hutter the most is when the count sees a picture of Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schroder) and comments that she has a pretty neck. Putting two and two together, and realizing, albeit too late, that Count Orlock is really the creature of myth, the nosferatu, Hutter gets locked in the castle while the Count sets sail for Germany and Hutter’s wife. What will become of Hutter? Is he doomed to die of starvation locked up in Orlock’s castle? Does Ellen go looking for him? Does she fall victim to the Count? Who finally does put an end to Orlock’s unnatural existence? All those questions and more will be answered for those of you who have not yet seen the film if you devote the worthwhile time it takes to watch the silent classic.
In regard to the appearance of Count Orlock, he is the antithesis of both the charismatic vampires that are often seen in movies and on television shows these days, as well as the kind featured in years past, that of the European aristocrat who oozes charm and sex appeal. No, Orlock is a monster that has a memorable physical appearance, corpselike, tall, and thin, with a bald head, claw like hands, two pointy ears and two sharp fangs that jut from the front of his mouth like a rat. The creature is unforgettably played by actor Max Schreck. What is interesting about the character is that as universally iconic as the image of Count Orlok has become to horror film fans, he only appears on the screen for less than nine of the films ninety-four minutes. As an aside the very first film ever made to feature vampires was the 1912 movie “The Secret of House No. 5” from Great Britain.
In this blogger’s opinion, what makes Murnau’s film so effective is his use of, not only atmosphere, but spot on editing, framing, mood and pacing. He builds the tension in just the right way, giving the viewer not an outright shock by utilizing blood and gore, which is non-existent in the movie, but through the use of disturbing psychological thoughts in a manner that invites the viewer to project more than what is actually transpiring on screen. While I am well past the age where I would find a film of this nature to be scary or unsettling, I have nothing, but respect for the work, especially given the time period in which Murnau employed such wonderful technical style, a time when special effects were in their infancy. For lovers of classic horror, silent film, and quality films in general, “Nosferatu” is a can’t miss.