Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror (Eine Symfonie des Grauens) 1922

 Director: F.W. Murnau

"NOSFERATU! Does this word not sound to you like the midnight cry of the Deathbird? Take care in saying it, lest life's images fade into shadows, and ghostly dreams rise from your heart and nourish themselves on your blood."

We love this film. F.W. Murnau's nightmarish masterpiece sees the loathsome Count Orlock bring fear and pestilence to the town of Wisborg. Here's everything you need to know about the troubled history of this first (unofficial) screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and several reasons why, even after 90 years, Murnau's mythical vampire refuses to stay dead...

Wisborg, Germany, 1838: the clerk Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer Knock to arrange the purchase of a local property for his client Count Orlok. Knock promises Hutter generous rewards, the only cost being "a little effort, some sweat, and perhaps... a little blood." Hutter hopes to ease his wife Ellen's sense of dread by leaving her in the care of his friends, the shipowner Harding and his sister Ruth.

When he reaches the Carpathian mountains, Hutter's blithe manner is disturbed by an Inn-full of villagers living in obvious fear of Orlok, and by an old book on vampire lore he finds in his room. Obliged to make the last part of his journey alone, he is met by a sinister black-shrouded coach that carries him at breakneck speed through the forest to Orlok's castle. Hutter is alarmed at his host's cadaverous appearance, and later recoils in disgust when Orlok tries to suck blood from a cut on his finger. The next morning, he wakes with two tiny bite-marks on his neck... The Count's true nature soon becomes clear to Hutter, but he can only look on helplessly as Orlock loads earth-filled coffins on to a cart, bound for Wisborg where Ellen waits anxiously for her husband's return...

The Empusa carries Orlock and his unholy cargo across the Black Sea, as one by one her crew falls victim to a mysterious plague. The contagion spreads; evil omens foretell the Count's arrival in Wisborg. Harding and Ruth are shocked to find a sleepwalking Ellen calling out: "I must go to him. He's coming!"... Professor Bulwer lectures his students on the vampiric qualities of nature... Knock is committed to an insane asylum, where he feasts on flies and cackles, "Blood is life!"... and Hutter, escaped from the Count's castle, races home to his loved ones even as the Empusa drifts into the harbour, its crew all dead and it's hold carrying a pestilence more deadly than anyone can imagine... 

1: "The Death-ship has a new captain..."

The vampire's shadow rises, talon-like fingers upraised. It falls on Hutter's throat and he begins to feed. Hundreds of miles away, Hutter's wife bolts upright in bed, wide-eyed, arms outstretched. As she cries out, "Hutter!!!", Orlock rises from his feast, and peers over his shoulder. For a moment, it's as though he and Ellen are connected, across the miles, across the gulf between life and (un)death; then he turns away, the door to Hutter's room swinging closed behind him. Ellen swoons, the spell broken. 

There are many lyrical moments like this scattered throughout Nosferatu, collectively elevating the film above the ordinary. Ninety years on, it still has the power to raise shivers in the spines of the unwary, and critics and fans alike routinely decorate it with phrases like "undisputed masterpiece". Over the years, Murnau's vampire has been exhumed and examined countless times: Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', from which Nosferatu borrows its narrative, is one of the most expansive and potent of modern myths, and itself draws on a centuries-deep well of lore and legend. But that's not to say that another descent into the crypt would be fruitless: there are many things of value we can gather up from the cursed but fertile earth on which the vampire sleeps...

2: "...A While Still 'Til Sunrise..."

F.W. Murnau
" --'And who's the director?' -- 'We've managed to get Murnau.' -- 'Indeed! Nosferatu is in good hands then -- good luck!' "
(Albin Grau - "Vampires", 1921)

Nosferatu was F.W. Murnau's eleventh film, and showed that his fine arts background had adapted itself rewardingly to the new medium. Many still regard him as Germany's greatest film director, despite a career that lasted little longer than a decadeMurnau, a tall (6'11") and elegant Westphalian with an aristocratic manner, had sought the company of artists and poets from an early age but only after the war did old theatrical acquaintances such as Conrad Veidt draw him into the film business. Veidt appeared in two of Nosferatu's predecessors, both now lost: Satanas (1919) and Der Januskopf (1920), an unofficial adaptation of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' that gave Bela Lugosi his first film role.

There's a lot in Nosferatu to suggest that here was a fully matured talent with an assured grasp on the art of storytelling. Look how he repeatedly shows us gothic arches looming oppressively over the characters: the camera tricks - stop-motion, negatives, undercranking - that draw us into the disjointed nightmare world of the vampire: and the stunning natural landscapes which, as historian Lotte Eisner wrote, gave Nosferatu an authentically Expressionist quality "achieved without the aid of the least artifice." Murnau had been directing films for just over two years.

(Nosferatu premiered at a masked ball in the Berlin Zoological Gardens in March 1922, and that was where the trouble began. Sources suggest that initial responses to the film were mostly favourable and may have kept struggling producers Prana-Film afloat had some anonymous critic not sent a copy of the programme to Bram Stoker's widow Florence. It's unclear whether or not Prana-Film ever asked Florence Stoker's permission to adapt 'Dracula', but she was incensed either way, and wasted no time in trying to destroy the vampire that had leapt unbidden from a vault to which she thought she had the only key.)

3: The Breath of Life

Knock's correspondence
Behind the scenes, other hands than Murnau's were at work. Albin Grau, whose modest credit in the film reads 'Costumes and Sets', was effectively the production designer, art director and co-producer. Grau's was the initial inspiration for Nosferatu, prompted by a wartime encounter with a Serbian peasant whose village was allegedly threatened by an actual vampire in 1884. Grau was also one of Germany's most prominent practitioners of occult magic. He and Enrico Dieckmann co-founded Prana-Film with the specific intention of producing occult-themed films, of which Nosferatu was the first and last.

Prana-Film took its name from the sanskrit word roughly translated as "breath of life", named after a publication of the Theosophical Society which Grau had formerly written for. Grau (under his ceremonial name Frater Pacitus) was head of the Grand Pansophic Lodge in Berlin, established by his associate Heinrich Traenker around the time that Nosferatu was in production. It became the largest occult group in Germany and had strong links with the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), which was headed in the UK by the "Great Beast" Aleister Crowley.

Throughout Nosferatu we see glimpses of its creators' esoteric leanings, remembering that writer Henrik Galeen was himself a member of the Order of Rosicrucians. We might question the origins of the (fictional) book seen on-screen that provides the film's narrative backbone, its author identified only with three crosses; or the meaning of the authentically esoteric symbols in Knock's correspondence, and what this implies about the nature of his relationship with Orlok... In his book The Satanic Screen, Nikolas Schreck points out that Nosferatu was one of the very few films subject to "genuine magical influences" and blended vampirism with Satanism in a way that wasn't revisited until the 1970s.

(Florence Stoker, fiercely protective of her husband's legacy and struggling financially, started a legal battle that dragged on for years. Prana-Film was in receivership by June, leaving proposed titles like PaganiniThe Swamp Devil, and Dreams of Hell unmade and Stoker without recompense. She carried on regardless and by 1925, succeeded in having all existing prints of Nosferatu, then in the hands of the receivers, destroyed.) 

4: Shadow of the Vampire

Max Schreck
"Why him, you monster? Why not... the script girl?"
"Ah, the script girl. I'll eat her later."
(Shadow of the Vampire, 2000)

Another mysterious figure associated with Nosferatu is its lead actor Max Schreck, about whom we still know relatively little. E. Elias Mehrige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000) addresses the unanswered questions about Schreck's background by putting forward the theory that Schreck was an actual vampire recruited by Murnau in the interests of authenticity. Mehrige wasn't the first; Ado Kyrou's 1963 book Surrealism in the Cinema asserts that "No-one has ever been willing to reveal the identity of the extraordinary actor whom brilliant makeup renders absolutely unrecognisable", asking, "Who hides behind the character of Nosferatu? Maybe Nosferatu himself?"

The truth is slightly more prosaic. Schreck (German for 'terror') was assumed to be a pseudonym; it's actually the gaunt-faced actor's real name. Schreck, born in 1879, cut his theatrical teeth (so to speak) with Max Reinhardt's company in Berlin. Reinhardt later introduced him to Murnau, who immediately saw him as an ideal Count Orlock. Today, it's the only role he's known for, though he worked with Murnau again in The Grand Duke's Finances (1924) and appeared in over 40 films altogether.

Nosferatu's troubled history and Schreck's natural reclusiveness have both fed into legend over the years. But unlike many silent stars cast aside with the coming of sound, he continued to work on both stage and screen during the thirties. His last film, Die Letzten Vier von Santa Cruz, was released in March 1936. Schreck had died of a heart attack a month earlier. His condition is not believed to have changed since.

(But Count Orlok proved difficult to keep down. A stray print had made its way to the Film Society in England, which again Stoker tried to suppress. Universal began negotiations to acquire the film rights to Dracula in 1928, and they gave permission for Nosferatu to be shown. It was met with general indifference.)

5: Into the Land of Thieves and Spectres

The salt warehouses in Lubeck
"The raftsmen didn't know what kind of unholy cargo they were conveying through the dale..."

The closing chapters of Stoker's Dracula see Van Helsing's group of vampire-hunters chase the Count across Europe to his Transylvanian lair. In July 1921, Murnau and a small crew embarked on a mission of their own to capture location footage on Prana-Film's limited budget.

First call was at Lubeck, 170 miles north-west of Berlin, which stood in for the fictional Wisborg of 1838. Here, the town's old salt warehouses doubled for the building Orlok purchased from Knock. All the other locations, the funeral procession in Devenaustrasse, Hutter's home, the narrow alleys where Knock was chased by angry townsfolk, stood within half a mile of each other. In late July, they travelled forty miles east to the sea port of Wismar, where the opening high-angle view of 'Wisborg' was shot from the tower of St Mary's church. One day, the crew placed an ad in the local press asking for 30-50 live rats; the following day, the ad was replaced by one for a ratcatcher. A ship named the Jurgen was towed across the bay to the island of Poel, doubling for the ill-fated Empusa. Next came List by the Danish border, for Greta Schroeder's scenes on the sand dunes.

After a break in filming the crew decamped to Prague, where Albin Grau swapped vampire tales with a former war comrade, they moved on to the Tatra mountains to film the Transylvanian scenes. Grau noted: "The Nosferatu actor cut a ghostly white figure that the locals observed with horror and avoided like the devil!" By mid-August they were in Vratna, in present-day Slovakia. The imposing castle at Oravsky Podzamok became Orlok's home. Local raftsmen were recruited to ferry coffins down the river Waag, and the crew stumbled across the ruins of Trencin castle, which appears at the very end of Nosferatu after the vampire's death. Murnau and crew returned to the studio in Berlin and filming was completed by the end of October.

(Meanwhile re-edited pirate copies of Nosferatu were screened in Europe under the name The Twelfth Hour. Others surfaced in New York and Detroit, which Universal dutifully gathered up and destroyed after the rights were finally purchased in 1930. Florence Stoker passed away in 1937; Nosferatu remained silent.)

6: Der Untergang Des Abendslandesmenschen

Hutter discovers the hidden horror
of the vampire
"[The Germans] were slipping a yellow armband over the arm of the vampire's coat. When they finished, they picked the thing up and carried it to the roof's edge. It looked like a spitted pig. The yellow armband had two interlocking triangles, like the device on the costumes William S. had worn when he played Ben-Hur on Broadway. The Star of David."

Howard Waldrop's 1976 short story (quoted above) sees cowboy heroes William S Hart and Broncho Billy fight Nosferatu with six-shooters full of wooden bullets in a flickering silent-movie version of Bremen. A group of uniformed Germans - Martin, Hermann, Josef, Ernst and Adolf - turn the situation to their own advantage. The story ends as the cowboys slink off for some well-earned rest, and burning synagogues light up the night sky.

As has been pointed out in the past, Count Orlok in some ways resembles a twisted, anti-semitic caricature of a Jew, whose only desire is to literally bleed us dry - with hooked nose, bushy eyebrows and rat-like teeth, suggesting an association with vermin that would become horribly pertinent with the advent of the Nazi's final solution. While it's both simplistic and inaccurate to attribute any kind of actual anti-semitic intent to Nosferatuit's a testament to the power and breadth of the vampire myth that it can conjure up these kind of associations. 

Given the socio-political attitudes of the time, it's possible to see how such a stereotype would resonate. As Brian Solomon points out in a recent post on The Vault of Horror, "The parallels between vampirism and European anti-semitism go back much further than Nosferatu, and were in fact part of the continental zeitgeist for centuries." The vampire is an all-purpose scapegoat, an evil personification of the Other, which in post-WW1 Germany could symbolise the Jew, the Slav, or the oppressive French government which, thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, brought a plague of ruination on the German people from abroad. 

(A print of Nosferatu was acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1947. Its characters were renamed after those from Stoker's Dracula, a trait passed on from other prints in Paris and Berlin. The vampire resurfaced once more in the 1960s, when a condensed version was shown as part of the 'Silents Please' series on American TV. )

7: "They Observed In Horror Nature's Mysterious Ways..."

"I must go to him. He is coming"
"But all his films bear the impress of his inner complexity, of the struggle he waged within himself against a world in which he remained desperately alien."
(Lotte Eisner, 'The Haunted Screen' 1952)

Though he made several films dealing with the supernatural, Murnau had no particular affinity for the genre: horror, drama, romance, comedy, all were part of a diverse body of work. If we were to look for any kind of unifying theme, we might find an element of paranoia, of strong relationships endangered by corrupting, unstoppable outside forces. In Nosferatu, this idea is complicated somewhat by the strong parallels between the corruptive force (Orlok) and the protagonist, Hutter, suggesting that they are less different than we might assume.

Murnau could net help but struggle with his homosexuality in a country that had some of the most oppressively homophobic legislation in Europe at the time. The vaguely bohemian circles he moved in were among the few where his sexuality would have at least been tolerated if not exactly encouraged. He welcomed the move to America in 1927 for similar reasons. Jim Shepherd's fictionalised biography of Murnau, Nosferatu In Love, paints him as a man troubled by self-hatred, and feelings of guilt over the death of a close friend (or lover?) during the war. Who might Murnau identify with most - hero or vampire?

Dracula is commonly interpreted by excitable types as a multi-layered metaphor for the uncontrolled (usually female) libido, but in Nosferatu, the male relationships are the most intriguing. Most conspicuously, from the time Hutter falls prey to Orlok, the two men act almost as mirror images of each other... Ellen, perceptive from the beginning, seems to recognise this even before they return. When she cries out in her sleep "I must go to him. He's coming", it's not clear which one of them she means. In the end, Ellen focuses her attention solely on Orlok, sending Hutter on a fool's errand while she ends the vampire's reign of terror simply by refusing to put up a fight. Significantly, and in stark contrast to Stoker's Dracula, the horror is not overcome through violent suppression, but through passive acceptance. 

(In 1972, Blackhawk Films finally made a full-length version for collectors. Since then, diligent research has discovered more and more complete prints. To the gratification of Nosferatu's many fans, the version we can see today presents the tenacious Count Orlok's exploits pretty much in their blood-curdling entirety. It's fortunate perhaps that Florence Stoker was cremated, otherwise she might still be turning in her grave.)

Some information taken from 'The Haunted Screen' and 'Murnau' by Lotte Eisner: articles 'Six Degrees of Nosferatu' by Thomas Elsaesser, 'Vampires' by Albin Grau and 'Nosferatu At 90' by Brian Solomon on The Vault of Horror blog: and supplementary information from the Eureka DVD below. Thanks are due.

End Credits:
Max Schreck (Graf Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroeder (Ellen, his wife), G.H. Schnell (Harding, a shipowner), Ruth Landshoff (Ruth, his sister), Gustav Botz (Prof. Sievers, the town doctor), Alexander Granach (Knock, a property agent), John Gottowt (Prof. Bulwer, a Paracelsian), Max Nemetz (Captain), Wolfgang Heinz (1st Sailor), Albert Venohr (2nd Sailor), Heinrich Witte (Asylum Guard - uncredited), Guido Herzfeld (Innkeeper - uncredited), Karl Etlinger (Bulwer's Student - uncredited), Hardy von Francois (Hospital Doctor - uncredited), Fanny Schreck (Hospital Nurse - uncredited).
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen, adapted from 'Dracula' by Bram Stoker, Costumes and Sets: Albin Grau, Photography: Fritz Arno Wagner, Music: Hans Erdmann, Producers: Albin Grau and Enrico Dieckmann.
Prana-Film, Germany
Running time 94 mins.

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