Originally published on this site here, in Italian.
Original title: Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie Des Grauens
Aka: Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror
Produced by: Prana-Film G.m.b.H.
Directed by: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
Written by: Heinrik Galeen
Cinematography: Günter Krampf; Fritz Arno Wagner
Special Effects and Make-up by: Albin Grau
Music by: Hans Erdmann (original score, now partially lost)
Running time: approximately 95 minutes (2013 restoration by the Murnau Foundation)
WARNING – THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS+
The story of Nosferatu is the story of a pirated film, an immortal character, an ambitious production, a visionary director. It is also the story of the very first film based on Dracula.
Nosferatu was born in a very particular production context. Prana-Film G.m.b.H., founded in Berlin in 1921, was a German production company that wanted to specialize in the production of films linked to the occult and spirituality (nomen omen: “prana” is the Sanskrit word for ” spirit”). A young and ambitious film studio.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, on the other hand, was an already established German director, perhaps the best of his time: he had already directed nine films (including The Head Of Janus, transposition of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, actually lost) when he was contacted by Prana to direct Nosferatu.
Heinrik Galeen, for his part, was also in the midst of his screenwriting career: he had directed and written the first Golem in 1915 and the second in 1919. In a few years, then, he would write Waxworks and direct a remake of The Student Of Prague.
Under the direction of Albin Grau, founder of the company and a passionate occultist1, Prana then sought to obtain the rights of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel on which the film should have been based.
At the time, Stoker had been dead for years, but his widow was still the rights holder. As Bela Lugosi would have shown years later2, Florence Balcombe was perhaps not so inaccessible, but for some reason the negotiations went badly.
The leaders of Prana then used an always good trick: they changed names and setting in the script and started the production anyway. As soon as it came out, the film was punctually seized and burned, contributing to the failure of the Prana itself (which will close its doors in 1923).
Only one copy was saved3, and that’s the only reason we can see Nosferatu today.
As said before, the production of the movie was based on the change of names: and in fact Harker becomes Hutter, Mina becomes Ellen, Dracula becomes Orlok and so on.
And indeed Florence Balcombe Stoker had every reason to ask for the seizure of the film.
But there’s something else.
The Galeen-Murnau duo in fact, under the direct supervision of Grau, made a very different film from Stoker’s Dracula. Nosferatu is a film that, yes, talks about a real estate agent who is sent to sell a house to a foreign nobleman, and the foreign nobleman is, yes, a vampire; and scientist (who is not Van Helsing but Prof. Bulwer), yes, will side against the vampire.
But the analogies between novel and film, which are evident and numerous on paper, diminish considerably at the first viewing: Nosferatu appears in fact as a fully German, continental film, more in line perhaps with The Student Of Prague than with Dracula itself.
Some examples. The plague unleashed by Orlok, besides being absent in the novel (and in the subsequent filmography, among other things) directly refers to continental Europe and to Germany in those years, to its economic crisis ready to generate the monsters of Nazism. There are also numerous references to the expressionist movement, to the themes of doppelgänger and psychoanalysis which, although present in Stoker (and Stevenson, after all), have their first true scholars in Freud and Jung, who flourished in that cultural koinè that had been 19th century Central Europe.
Let’s proceed with order. The real estate agent Hutter (Gustav Von Wangenheim) leaves his sweet and devoted wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) at home to go to work. To him who brings her a bunch of flowers Ellen asks, saddened, why he killed them. Here is the heimat, the “home” which carries with it the concept of the welcoming and reassuring feeling, of a family picture that the vampire will surely send into pieces.
Hutter is at work, and the man who Stoker’s readers would call Renfield and whose name is Knock (Alexander Granach), the head of Hutter, sends him to sell a house to Count Orlok (Max Schreck) and gives him a contract full of strange signs.
What are those signs?
There seems to be no answer so far. According to the esotericist Wolfgang Kistermann it could be a coded language4. It may be true, but it could also be “simply” a code that only Knock and Orlok can decipher, a code with which the Vampire, the Evil, communicates with his followers. A detail absent in Stoker, and doing of Prana and its esoteric ambition, and in any case a noteworthy invention.
However, Hutter sets out to sell an old ruined house to Count Orlok. The journey is indeed similar in its unfolding to Stoker’s novel (the village where everyone trembles at the mere mention of the castle, the coach strangely resembling the vampire).
But we slowly discover that there are significant differences.
We have already seen some of them, in truth: Knock could be Renfield, but he is not and will not be Renfield in the course of the film if not for some grimace and some eaten fly, for example.
And also the structuring of the characters is different from that of the “originals”: Dr. Seward (who perhaps merges with Van Helsing in Prof. Bulwer) is missing, Godalming and Quincey Morris are missing, there is no vampire Lucy. There is an extra couple of characters, Harding (Georg Heinrich Schnell) and his sister Ruth5 (Ruth Landshoff). Dracula’s wives are also missing.
It will be rightly said that films have always cut and modified the subjects from which they take their inspiration, also due to the film’s length and cost requirements. It is true, but this is a special case.
And that’s because Nosferatu simply does not aim to what Dracula was aiming for. The messages and the subtexts, although sometimes similar, are indeed very different.
Dracula made his strong point in the sexual metaphor: the Count would be the erotic ideal forbidden to men and women who lived in an extremely severe age from the point of view of costumes like the Victorian one, or in any case the representative of a totally different way of life. And Dracula is a novel of 1897, released less than ten years after the crimes attributed to Jack the Ripper and with a gestation that started roughly at the time of the aforementioned crimes6: another possible narrative subtext, which this time leads the reader to the crime news of the time.
Nosferatu is not interested in this, or at least not just in this. First of all, Count Orlock does not seem to be led by seduction but by pure predation, and indeed it’s him who will be seduced by Ellen. And while Dracula has three wives (probable reminiscences of the Ottoman domination of Wallachia), Orlok is completely alone.
And while Nosferatu carries the plague in his coffins full of mice, Dracula is himself, albeit metaphorically, a plague: it will not be the disease, but the crimes committed by him and Lucy to bloody London; and besides this plague worthy of crime news, the transgression personified by the vampire is a metaphorical plague, a plague that insinuates itself into the social system, marking the end of the Victorian way of life.
There’s a common theme, the theme of the double, but even here with big differences.
Both Dracula and Orlok, in fact, are the doubles of something. The point is to understand of what.
Dracula is the double of a whole world: a puritan and fundamentalist world that the vampire unhinges with sensuality, transgression, the call of blood and of repressed impulses.
Orlok, on the other hand, is rather the double of a very specific individual, that is the protagonist Hutter. And this can be observed both in some shots, like the one in which Hutter sees the Count sleeping in the coffin almost as if reflecting in a mirror, and in some supernatural powers of Orlok, who approaches Hutter by opening the castle doors with what appears to be the power of thought (or maybe, according to Freud, the whole castle is a thought, the inside of Hutter’s mind?), or finally in the arrival of the two in Bremen/Wisborg7, which is shown with a cross-cutting.
This Hutter/Orlok binomial also manifests itself in the sleepwalking and telepathic phenomena involving Ellen. On closer inspection, in fact, Ellen perceives her husband and the vampire in the same way, and a possible explanation for this could be precisely that Hutter and Orlok are the two sides of the same coin or at least two beings spiritually related to her8.
Ultimately, Dracula is a supernatural being like Orlok, but a minimum more prone to the “romantic” and to a “sociological” analysis: it is in fact a symbol of the new and the different, of the transgressive.
Orlok, on the other hand, appears as an abstract, phantasmatic entity, whose very places of residence are closely linked to its permanence on this world9, but still “individual” in its symbolizing the other face of an individual and only of that: something that exists and does not exist, spiritual but carnal, and yet (unlike Dracula) capable of impacting directly, with its mere presence, on the entire territory in which it intends to settle.
Technically, the film is something phenomenal, from the magnificent first shot to that of the sleeping Count in his coffin, to that of the numerous other coffins in which the victims of the plague rest, transported along the streets of Bremen/Wisborg.
The acting is full of strong moments managed with great skill. In particular Orlok is a singular character: sometimes intimate, as when he reads the dinner contract with Hutter; other times theatrical, like when he looks at Ellen from the windows of his ruined house. His gait like a reptile gives a good idea of an Evil that has nothing human. His shadow has rightly become a horror icon of all time.
Ellen, on the other hand, is a character played realistically in her own way, and even the sequences in which her ESP faculties appear are handled in a way that could be seen even in today’s movie without too many problems. After all, Greta Schröder was an experienced actress and had already had the opportunity to work with both Murnau and Galeen in previous years.
Hutter may seem like the most highly charged character, at least among human characters. It is true, and yet this was the way of acting of the era, especially with regard to expressionist films. This acting, however, does not conflict too much with the nature of the character, indeed.
The effects deserve a point on their own.
First of all, the makeup of Max Schreck, perfect enough to create the doubt that the actor (whose name is translatable as “Maximum Terror”) was really a vampire10.
Here is another big difference with the novel.
In fact, in Dracula the vampire is a being that resembles a human being in every way, and so it will remain even in the subsequent filmography, which will make it even more seductive and fascinating. In Nosferatu, instead, Orlok is singular also in his appearance: he has elongated and pointed ears, is almost completely hairless, wears a long coat that sometimes seems to be sewn on him, moves like a reptile, is prey to primordial impulses and carries the plague.
In short, Orlok looks like some kind of mouse (see the poster above) and, like his four-legged counterparts, is capable of carrying diseases and death with him.
It is also noted, among other things, that Dracula is able to move in the sun, being only weakened by sunlight (a bit like an insomniac who, remaining awake at night, could find himself more tired and sensitive to light during the day), while Orlok will be defeated precisely by the solar rays. Ironically, it was Nosferatu, the clandestine film, who introduced into Cinema the idea of the vampire who dies if hit by sunlight!
Still about effects, the detachments on repertory images showing a carnivorous plant and a polyp intent on predation are worthy of note. They are not exactly special effects, but as such they are basically treated in the film.
Other interesting effects are those of the closure of Orlok’s coffin before the transport and of the opening of the ship’s hatch upon his arrival in the port of Wisborg. In this case Murnau used the stop motion, a technique that has never really gone out of fashion and that, however, if today can turn up some noses, was fully consistent with the possibilities of the time.
About cinematography, someone could turn up their nose in some scenes, in particular those which (since Orlok cannot move during the day) should be set, and therefore shot, at night.
These scenes were in fact shot directly during the day: so Orlok transports by day his coffins from the ship to the house he bought from Hutter, for example, even though from a narrative point of view the scene is set at night.
Now, those who now turn up their noses have every right to do it and cannot be prevented. However, it should be remembered that shooting outdoors at night was a problem until quite recently, a problem that has also been raised with the advent of color (if you look at certain Italian but also Hollywood pepla movies, for example, you will see how many “night” shots are actually simply darkened).
If the viewer will make the effort to understand that at the time this was probably the maximum possible, then he will also understand that these scenes are well integrated in the rest of the film and that cinematography has no problem.
Having given this look at various aspects of the film, what makes Nosferatu a masterpiece admired still today?
It’s a legitimate question.
The answer is partly in its production history, that of a clandestine, pirated movie, condemned to the stake and miraculously arrived to us.
In addition to this (which already consecrates it as a cursed movie) is the uniqueness of his character: apart from the remake by Werner Herzog, another remake being produced11 and the Shadow Of The Vampire by Mehrige, no one has ever managed to to recreate on the screen this anomalous and modern vampire, apart from tributes and references (among many, Pet Sematary, The Return Of Cagliostro, Coppola’s Dracula).
It is also the first film based on Stoker’s Dracula, something that, masterpiece or not, makes it fit into any filmography on the subject anyway.
Above all, however, it’s the test of time to make Nosferatu a masterpiece.
We can watch Nosferatu today as in 1922, and the more we watch it the less it looks outdated. Some caricatured aspects, like the character of Knock, do not look bad in front of any Renfield neither of any horror movies’ “crazy character”. The vampire in the coffin is perhaps one of the most disturbing ones even today. The direction is always at excellent levels, sometimes very modern (it seems easy to say, but let’s remember: it’s still a 1922 film, and it’s quite easy to find in those films errors or even significant mistakes, perhaps due to technical or economic problems, independent of the skill of the operators and linked rather to the cost of production, to logistical issues or to the use of tools, all things considered, recently introduced). Schreck’s make-up is perfect in its disarming simplicity. The plot is classic and taken from a first-rate source. Psychological, esoteric, political, social, comparative readings with other films and artistic disciplines are possible and the film lends itself to it without forcing.
For all these reasons, and for a thousand others that it would be impossible to deepen in a review shorter than a monographic essay, Nosferatu is a masterpiece: it must be watched, and then watched again and again.
And since we have to watch it, it’s appropriate to write a little note about the versions on the market today. Even today the old versions12, of lower quality and duration than the new ones, circulate, while a restoration by Luciano Berriatúa in 2007 and a last one in 2013 (both commissioned by the Murnau Foundation) were followed by several different editions.
Is still lacking, at least officially, a restored version with intertitles or title cards in Italian.
However, if the main purpose is to learn to know this masterpiece of silent Cinema, it must be said that more or less all the versions can go well, considering also the not excessive price of the older ones and their vintage taste, also given by translations that are different from the original.
Tone, Pier Giorgio. Espressionismo Tedesco. La breve grande stagione del cinema degli anni Venti analizzata nei suoi procedimenti tecnico-formali. Dino Audino Editore, Roma, 2009
Colonnesonore.net – http://www.colonnesonore.net/contenuti-speciali/dossier/4318-la-musica-nel-muto-parte-terza.html (last visit 25/09/2017)
English Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dracula (last visit 26/09/2017)
English Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nosferatu (last visit 27/09/2017)
English Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visborg (last visit 27/09/2017)
French Wikipedia – https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prana_Film (last visit 26/09/2017)
Horror.it – http://www.horror.it/a/2012/06/bela-lugosi-metamorfosi-di-un-attore/ (last visit 27/09/2017)
Il Cinema Ritrovato – http://distribuzione.ilcinemaritrovato.it/per-conoscere-i-film/nosferatu/ (last visit 27/09/2017)
Plagiarism Today – https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2011/10/17/dracula-vs-nosferatu-a-true-copyright-horror-story/ (last visit 27/09/2017)
The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/movie-conspiracy-theories-truth/nosfearatu-star-max-schreck-really-vampire/ (last visit 27/09/2017)
Variety – http://variety.com/2016/film/news/doug-jones-nosferatu-remake-1201753137/ (last visit 28/09/2017)
The Language Of Shadows – Luciano Berriatúa (2007)
- The Language Of Shadows – Luciano Berriatúa (2007).
- Which in some old Italian editions is called Annie.
- It is in Bremen in fact, and not in Wisborg, that the old DVD editions set the story. Wisborg is actually an imaginary German city: the real Wisborg would be a complex of fortifications near Visby, Sweden. About this issue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nosferatu and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visborg.
- On the theme of the double see Tone, Pier Giorgio. Espressionismo Tedesco, p. 100.
- It must be said that even Stoker had thought, then discarding the idea, to make the castle of Dracula collapse after the death of the vampire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dracula.
- It seems that the first to spread this legend was the Greek director Adonis Kyrou: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/movie-conspiracy-theories-truth/nosfearatu-star-max-schreck-really-vampire/.
- The “Bremen” ones, which we talked about at note n. 7.