"Nosferatu - doesn’t this name sound like the very midnight call of death ? Speak it not aloud, or life’s pictures will turn to pale shadows, and nightmares will rise up to feed on your blood".
Pretty strong words, and that’s just a quote from one of the opening cards on this silent classic from 1922.
Historically, this in an important film, the first appearance of Dracula on screen, though nobody was supposed to know that at the time, and the first vampire movie. The background to this film would make a great movie in itself.
Director Friederich Wilhelm Murnau filmed this in 1921, casting enigmatic German actor Max Schreck as Count Orlock. It has often been assumed that "Max Schreck" was an assumed name, "Schreck"actually being literally the German word for "terror". Strange but true, it was the actors’real name. He stood 6’2’’ and was skeletally thin and bald. Murnau himself considered Schreck’s features to be ugly enough for the role that the only appliances he had as makeup on his face were pointed ears and fake teeth, along of course with a liberal amount of shadowing around his eyes. Disturbingly, he never blinks during this film. Not once. If the name "Max Schreck" seems familiar - it was also the name given to Christopher Walken’s villain character in "Batman Returns" (1992)
For his script’s source material, Murnau’s writer Henrik Galeen looked no further than Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" which had been published 24 years earlier in 1897. The plot was identical. Names and locations were changed, but that’s about it. However, that wasn’t quite enough to spare them the wrath of Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence. Word reached her two months after the film’s release in March 1922, and she promptly brought an action for the infringement of copyright of her late husband’s work. The production company, Prana, made a succession of appeals - all of which failed miserably with the result that all prints of the movie were ordered by the court to be destroyed. Luckily, Prana had managed to sell the negative abroad and this is the only reason we’re able to watch and appreciate Nosferatu today, otherwise it would’ve been lost forever.
The story doesn’t end there though, because it reappeared in London with a few changes in 1925, when the Widow Stoker was again able to prevent it opening, and yet again, in 1928. It successfully reached American screens the following year. It seems that you really can’t keep a good man down. Just about the only country NOT to screen the film was Sweden, where it was banned for excessive horror content until 1972.
So how does the film look to today’s audience ? Actually, I think it’s stood up to the test of time very well. "Queen" regarded it highly enough to incorporate clips in to their "Under Pressure" video. The performances are way over the top as one would expect from a silent film where the actors all seem to be in full-on pantomime mode and subtlety seems to be a lost art. The cinematography is excellent, with most of the exteriors shot on location in the cities of Lubeck and Wismar where they can still be seen virtually intact and unchanged today.
There are several releases of this film available today, the review that follows is of my copy, released by 23rd Century. Naturally there was no "day for night" photography available in 1921and lighting techniques of the time didn’t lend themselves to proper night photography, so I believe some of the other versions have the night scenes tinted blue to avoid confusion. Also, in my version the cast credits show the actors’ names against the names of characters from Bram Stoker’s book - even though throughout the film’s narrative these names disappear in favour of Galeen’s names. Therefore in the movie Count Dracula becomes Graf Orlock, Jonathan Harker becomes "Hutter", Van Helsing becomes Professor Bulwer, Renfield becomes "Knock" and so on. I imagine this is due to the original print being one of the ones altered to try and appease the wrath of Florence Stoker before Prana eventually went bankrupt.
The film’s full title is "Nosferatu - eine Symphonie des Grauens" which translates to "Undead - a Symphony of Terror" which to delicate nineteen twenties sensibilities as distasteful a title at the time as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was in 1975.
We open with a picture of domestic, married bliss. Hutter and his wife Ellen. She seems a little dour in comparison with her husband, who has an unsettling Joker-type grin on his face most of the time. But if you think Hutter’s bad, wait until you see his employer - a house agent called "Knock" who, as the card tells us, is the subject of much gossip. I can see why. He’s a little whimsical in the brain pan to say the least.
Knock has been approached by Count Orlock from Transylvania, who wants to buy a house in their town. Knock suggests that Hutter go and visit the good Count and sell him the deserted house (which incidentally looks like an abandoned factory) which stands opposite Hutter’s home. As Hutter leaves for Transylvania, Knock’s parting shot is " Have a quick journey into the Land of Phantoms" Yes, Knock has a bit to learn about effective staff motivation. In fact, communication between Hutter and Ellen doesn’t seem much better as he tells her ""I may be away for several months - away in a country of ghosts and robbers". She’ll sleep well then.
In his defence, the next card reads that he gives "the grief stricken woman into the care of his friends".
On Hutters’ arrival in the Carpathians, the local peasants at the inn where his coach has stopped for the night advise him not to continue on his journey. Ominously, outside a wolf prowls. At least, I think it’s SUPPOSED to be a wolf. In fact, it’s stock footage of a hyena which as far as I’m aware aren’t indigenous to Eastern Europe. Though to be fair, when Universal made "Dracula" in 1930, they showed Armadillos scurrying in his castle, a long, long way from home in South America - so who knows ?
As Hutter prepares to bed down for the night, his choice of bedtime reading seems as strange as his continual leering grin. He reads "The Book of the Vampire" which includes the passage "Nosferatu, a name that ringeth like the cry of a bird of prey - speak it not aloud". Cheerfully, he goes to sleep and he’s still laughing the following morning.
It’s sunset when he arrives as close to the castle as his driver’s willing to go. Hutter is dumped in the middle of nowhere because, as the coach driver tells him "Here begins the Land of Phantoms". He has no option but to continue on foot, until he is met by another coach, travelling abnormally fast due to the method of under cranking the camera. At this point, the film turns negative for a sequence denoting, I presume, a journey through the Land of Phantoms. He is dropped off at the entrance of Castle Orlock, where he’s met by the spindly, scarecrow-thin figure of Count Orlock himself. He looks like a cross between a bird of prey and a spider. He doesn’t seem to walk, but rather glide along the floor as he closes in slowly. That movement, coupled with the weird unblinking stare I mentioned earlier and the extensions on his fingers making them appear like talons has an unsettling effect. Any doubt that Orlock’s appearance is anything less than iconic can be dispelled by pointing out the identical make-up used on Reggie Nalder as the vampire "Barlow" in the Tobe Hooper version of "Salem’s Lot" and the recurring vampiric big bad "The Master" in the first season of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer".
"You are late, young man. It is almost midnight, my servants have all retired" says Orlock, steering Hutter toward a sumptuous meal. He almost gives the game away when Hutter cuts a finger open while slicing some bread "Blood, your precious blood". All the time, there’s something predatory in Schreck’s performance here, especially when he asks that Hutter stay up with him for a while "During the day, my friend, I truly sleep the deepest sleep".
The next morning, there’s no sign of Orlock, so Hutter explores his new surroundings and takes some time out to write a letter to Ellen, complaining about the mosquitoes. He thinks he’s been stung by two of them close together on his neck. The next evening, while conducting some business transaction with Hutter, the creepy Orlock sees a photo of Ellen and remarks "Your wife has a beautiful neck". He agrees to buy the house opposite theirs.
In his room that night, Hutter reads a passage about neck-biting in the Book of Vampires, but it’s too late. He is trapped as Orlock glides with menace into his room. Simultaneously as Orlock attacks Hutter, Ellen wakes up, feeling her husband’s plight empathetically. She calls out to her husband -instantly, Orlock seems to pick up on this link. This saves Hutter’s life.
The next morning, Hutter explores the lower reaches of the castle (why doesn’t he just escape ?) And discovers Orlock’s coffin. As if he needed any MORE hints, Hutter now realises Orlock’s true nature. Later, he sees several coffin-sized boxes filled with native soil loaded on to a cart. Fearing for his wife’s safety, he fashions a rope made of blankets and escapes, though is injured in the attempt. He is found by a family of peasants who believe that his rantings about coffins filled with earth are the result of a fever. (Those peasants are so deep in to denial !) The boxes are loaded on to the good ship "Varna" which is infested with an abnormal amount of rats and is headed for Bremen.
Meanwhile, Professor Bulwer is lecturing on carnivorous plants and demonstrates a Venus Flytrap, describing it as "the vampire of the vegetable kingdom" though exactly what his point is never made clear. Orlock’s approach is causing poor old Knock’s mental instability to degenerate in leaps and bounds. His decline is such that he’s locked in a cell, eating flies and considering upgrading to spiders. His repetitive mumbling of "blood is life" probably won’t secure him an early release either.
Ellen receives a letter, apparently from Hutter, saying he’s on his way home. This is intercut with scenes showing Hutter thanking and leaving the peasants having recovered sufficiently to resume his journey, while on the Varna the sailors begin to succumb to a "fever"and in an effective early f/x shot we see a defenceless sailors’ reaction to a semi transparent Orlock. It doesn’t take long for Orlock to get through the crew. Soon, only the captain and first mate are left. The captain decides to settle matters with an axe, and as he attacks one of the coffins in a truly repugnant scene, we see that it is literally bursting with rats. Behind him, Orlock rises from his coffin in a visually striking scene. He doesn’t sit up or manoeuvre himself. His whole body rigidly levitates ninety degrees from laying down to standing up in one smooth action. The captain escapes and jumps overboard, leaving the first mate to his fate.
Back home, Ellen says "I must go to him - he is approaching" in an ambiguous scene. Both Orlock and Hutter arrive at the same time, so who is she meeting ? As the Varna approaches the town harbour, Knock watches from his cell window.
Orlock leaves the ship, crawling with rats. Under his arm is a coffin. The authorities investigating the strange occurrence of a ship with no living soul on board conclude from the logs containing details about the fever that the plague is upon them, especially with all those rats. They put the town into quarantine, paranoia grips the town as the death toll increases.
Ellen reads the Book of Vampires. It it she sees that basically the only way to counteract the spread of vampirism is for "A woman pure in heart make the vampire forget the cock’s first crowing. Of her own free will would she have to give him her blood". This she resolves to do, and feeling Orlock’s presence close by, she sends Hutter out to fetch Professor Bulwer (who has absolutely nothing to do in this film apart from show a Venus Flytrap to an admiring crowd). She sets her trap as the shadow of Orlock’s elongated fingers appear on a doorknob then they reach over her body, clutching at her heart. He makes his attack as the cockerel crows. The sun rises and he disappears in a wisp of smoke.
Knock announces to nobody in particular (he’s alone in his cell) "The Master is dead"....but Ellen has made the ultimate sacrifice. She dies in Hutter’s arms while the redundant Bulwer looks on.
I can’t help but wonder what F.W. Murnau would’ve made of the fact that almost 90 years later his film is still being watched, despite all the legal difficulties it endured. Sadly he died in a car accident in Santa Barbara in 1931.
Copyright © 2010 - 2011 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.