After failing to secure the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow to adapt “Dracula”, producer Albin Grau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen charged forward with their film adaptation anyway - changing some names, dropping some characters, and condensing the action. The result was a story different, but altogether too similar “Dracula”. Florence Stoker sued and won, and a court order to destroy all copies of the film was largely carried out. Fortunately, enough prints survived to allow us to experience this gothic masterpiece for generations. NOSFERATU, easily the greatest of the silent Horror films, was made when cinematic technique was in its infancy, and yet 90 years later it still weaves its spell. Weather it be director F.W. Murnau’s expressionist direction, the creepy locations, or the striking, ratlike appearance of Max Schreck, NOSFERATU contains images that have become an indelible part of our culture’s DNA.
F.W. Murnau was the perfect choice to direct the worlds first feature-length vampire film. Murnau directed NOSFERATU in the fashionable ‘expressionist’ style - making extensive use of shadow and long, held shots that seem to draw the tension out forever. Murnau also insisted on shooting much of the film’s first act on location - a move that was extremely rare at the time. It turned out to be a good choice, though, as the early sequences of NOSFERATU have an eerie realism about them that was lacking in most expressionist-style gothic films - amplifying the horror by placing it in the real world. Another point that is commonplace today that was new at that time was the idea that the supernatural villain actually was supernatural. Most supernatural antagonists during this era would, at the end of the film, be revealed to be charlatans or criminals perpetrating a hoax. Making your vampire an actual vampire and not just some con-man in disguise was quite a new thing in film - and very, very scary to audiences back then.
Most frightening of all was the characterization of Count Orlok, the film’s vampire. NOSFERATU is that still-too-rare horror movie where the vampire is actually a physical monster. Count Orlok is a verminous bringer of death and disease unadorned by charm or sexuality. The filmmakers made the inspired decision to associate Orlok more closely with rats than bats, thereby eliciting a level of disgust in the audience that the more traditional association with bats never quite achieves. The make up-up effects, designed and applied at a time when make-up effect artists didn’t really exist, were amazing. With his large, pointed ears, nose, and fingernails, Max Schreck’s physical transformation is nothing short of astounding even by today’s standards. Schreck’s look and performance are so other-worldly that subsequent storytellers have played with the notion that Schreck actually was a vampire - an idea brought wonderfully to life in the 2001 film “Shadow of the Vampire”.
NOSFERATU was original in its time and in many ways, it is still original today. It is interesting indeed that in an age of hyper-sexualized, fetishized vampires, we have to go back nearly 100 years to find a monstrous vampire - one that men did not want to become, and that women did not want as their boyfriend…
NOSFERATU fun facts - The concept in popular culture that sunlight is lethal to vampires was begun by this film. This idea was brought into the script in order to further differentiate it from “Dracula”, where sunlight simply weakens the vampire. This is the very first time in which a vampire is killed by sunlight.
NOSFERATU was banned in Sweden upon its release in 1922. The ban was not lifted until 1972.
Orlok - “Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”
Orlok - “Let us chat together a moment, my friend! There are still several hours until dawn, and I have the whole day to sleep.”
Horseman - “We will go no further. Here begins the land of phantoms.”