‘Nosferatu. That name rings like the cry of a bird of prey. Never speak it aloud.’
Almost 100 years ago in Germany, a vampire came out of the darkness of his castle for the first time to greet a frightened audience. A picture that still haunts cinema today.
Nosferatu is indeed what nightmares are made of.
Cinema took its first real steps during what is called the silent era, from 1894 to 1929. This period has been extremely prolific and decisive for it has shaped cinema as we know it today. In fact, many crucial movements were born at that time, Classical Hollywood, French Impressionism (or first avant-garde) and German Expressionism. Our vampire belongs to the latter, along with other classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Metropolis (1927) or The Golem (1920).
German Expressionism started before the First World War, and has extended its influence over fields of arts like architecture, painting and most importantly cinema, for it is where German Expressionism is the most striking – characterized by very peculiar, theatrical acting, a claustrophobic ambiance with bizarre scenery and a somber, dreamlike atmosphere.
From 1922, and directed by one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, F.W. Murnau., Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, to give it its full name) is one such film.
Perfectionist, Murnau enjoyed using images of nature, playing with the light and has always been very inspired by paintings, particularly those of Caspar David Friedrich.
The producer, Albin Grau, designed the sets, the costumes (inspired by the Biedermeier period), the promotional materials (he did all the drawings himself) as well as Nosferatu’s iconic appearance – which has truly make the vampire immortal.
Moreover, Grau was also a strange character: fond of occultism, he was a member of the magical order Fraternitas Saturni (The Brotherhood of Saturn). It is no surprise, then, that lots of hidden occult references can be found in the film.
Nosferatu himself is played by the mesmerizing Max Schreck, whose name really does mean fright in German. Very tall, he was considered as a giant at the time and perfect to play the intimidating vampire.
Although we do know he had a productive film and drama career, we know little about him and his personal life. However, it is possible to catch a glimpse of his enigmatic personality through his contemporaries’ testimonies: according to them, Max Schreck lived in a ‘remote and strange world’ and found pleasure in loneliness and long walks through forests.
Murnau was really keen to maintain a realistic setting in his film, nature having an important role to play. For this reason, he took the whole crew on a journey to Eastern Europe, and especially Slovakia, with the High Tatra Mountains in the background. All the exteriors have been shot there as well as in Germany and on the island of Heligoland. Nosferatu’s den is actually Orava Castle in Slovakia.
The plot is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; as the budget was tight, Murnau found a solution to avoid paying copyright fees: he changed certain points in the story, as well as the places and the names of the characters. That is why he decided to shoot the film in Slovakia and Germany, instead of Transylvania and England where the story takes place in the novel. Furthermore, there is a major difference between the movie and the novel: it is actually Nosferatu that created the myth of the vampire that get burned by the sun, Dracula being only weakened by it.
Unfortunately, Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, who was still alive at that time, of course recognized the work of her late husband and sued the studio, Prana Film (whose name bears another esoteric reference). As a result, the studio went bankrupt and all the copies of the film were destroyed. All? Obviously not. Some of them mysteriously reappeared in 1937, after Florence Balcombe’s death.
The fact that Nosferatu is still considered as a masterpiece nowadays is truly incredible and revealing, even though some earlier films had already featured a few vampiric figures, Nosferatu is viewed as the first of the genre and paved the way for vampires in cinema.
In my opinion, this movie is literally hypnotizing. There is something strange and uncomfortable about it; the claustrophobic feeling grows even bigger in this film, as if we ourselves were in a coffin. Nosferatu’s movements are slow, he has this rigid stature and his eyes seem to look straight into your very soul. All these features make him appear unnatural and monstrous – he who comes from nowhere.
The atmosphere is dark, eerie, nightmarish, even ethereal. The theatrical, poignant acting and this constant look of horror on the actors’ faces leave the viewer uneasy, disturbed.
Last year for Halloween, I went to a Nosferatu screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, I remember having heard people laughing at the vampire. For a modern audience, I understand that it can indeed be difficult to be afraid of a vampire they surely find grotesque. However, let us be serious. Look at him. Would you really like to encounter such a disturbing figure in the middle of the night, in a deserted alley?
Slovakian natives who helped out the crew during the shooting of the film would not go anywhere near Max Schreck when he was in full makeup and costume.
Nosferatu is not the handsome, refined vampire gentleman of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Nosferatu is an abomination coming from a bygone age.
There have been many remakes of the original Nosferatu:
A stunning and sinister remake directed by Werner Herzog came out in 1979, called Nosferatu the Vampyre, with French actress Isabelle Adjani and the long-term professional partner of Herzog, Klaus Kinski playing a melancholic, moving, even lonely vampire.
In 2000, E. Elias Merhige came up with an original idea for his surprising and delightful horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire: a fiction on the shooting of Nosferatu. The movie revolves around an actual legend that says that Max Schreck was a real vampire. The great John Malkovich plays an irascible and authoritarian Murnau and Willem Dafoe gives us a vibrant portrayal of a pathetic and fascinating Nosferatu. A perfect duo.
As for Nosferatu itself, the movie is now in the public domain (i.e. it’s copyright has run out, and is now free for everyone) and thus can be found everywhere on the Internet.
If you are interested in vampire movies (or movies in general) watch this gem. Give it a try, even if it might appear very old-fashioned. Set aside your preconceptions about old films and let yourself get carried away by the atmosphere. It is a classic that truly deserves to be remembered, for Nosferatu’s shadow still lurks in the dark and plays with our primal fears, somewhere deep into our hearts.