If you’re looking to create a good tagline for this classic horror movie, it would have to be “Banned in Sweden for 50 years!”. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1972 when audiences had already seen much worse in theaters over the years. Nosferatu won’t seem as horrifying to modern audiences, but this is nonetheless a landmark achievement that made director F.W. Murnau famous.
Thanks to stubborn rumors surrounding lead actor Max Schreck (elevated in the film Shadow of the Vampire (2000)), Nosferatu has attained a mythical quality. Still, it’s perfectly brilliant even without the myth.
Looking for a house in Wisborg
The year is 1838, the city Wisborg, Germany. Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his employer, Knock (Alexander Granach), to Transylvania, which is the home of a Knock client, Count Orlok (Max Schreck). The mysterious aristocrat wishes to buy a house in Wisborg and Hutter’s job is to present the contract and return with Orlok’s signature. Once in Transylvania, Hutter is warned by villagers who claim that a werewolf has been seen near the count’s castle. Still, he makes it to the count’s home in one piece and is welcomed by the eccentric Orlok who has prepared dinner for his guest. Hutter accidentally cuts his thumb at the dinner table and is startled when Orlok more or less charges at him, hoping to lick his blood. That becomes the first of many strange and eerie incidents that has Hutter wondering what kind of place this castle is…
Nature playing a key role
The story was of course inspired by Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, but since the filmmakers couldn’t obtain the necessary rights a few minor changes had to be made. Including the title. Stoker’s widow was however not fooled. She sued and according to the settlement all prints and negatives of Nosferatu had to be destroyed. Copies did survive, though.
The story may in fact be the weakest part of the film, particularly the abrupt ending, but so much else is downright fascinating. Nature plays a key role; along with cinematographer F.A. Wagner, Murnau captures stormy clouds and trees tormented by the wind. Some of the shots are inspired by naturalistic paintings. The team also preferred to shoot much of the film in actual locations rather than create all the action in a studio. So, the castle is real (it’s in the Carpathians) and so is the odd building in the fictional town of Wisborg that Orlok buys (it’s actually in Lübeck). Many other effective scenes are filmed in places like Rostock, Sylt and Wismar. They become part of the legend – and so does Max Schreck. The actor was reportedly so “ugly” that he didn’t need much makeup, and in fact his performance is at its best whenever he’s absolutely still, being filmed from below by Murnau who makes him look as imposing as possible. No other actor has quite matched his “Dracula”; it is still a genuinely frightening, possibly anti-Semitic, creature who looks like a rat. Murnau cleverly makes a point out of it, as this vampire surrounds himself with rats and his deadly influence on Wisborg is represented by the plague.
Less interesting perhaps are the Hutters, the married couple who fall prey to Orlok’s scheme (the only reason for his obsession with Ellen (Greta Schröder) seems to be that she has a lovely neck). Granach is more fun as Knock, the Renfield of this “Dracula” version, who’s about as insane as they come already in his first scene.
When the time came for Hollywood to make their (legal) version of “Dracula”, they looked to Germany and Nosferatu for inspiration. The Expressionist filmmakers of the time were instrumental in helping Hollywood mature artistically. Few did a better (and darker) job of that than F.W. Murnau.
Nosferatu 1922-Germany. Silent. 94 min. B/W. Produced by Enrico Dieckmann, Albin Grau. Directed by F.W. Murnau. Screenplay: Henrik Galeen. Cinematography: F.A. Wagner. Art Direction: Albin Grau. Cast: Max Schreck (Count Orlok), Alexander Granach (Knock), Gustav von Wangenheim (Thomas Hutter), Greta Schröder (Ellen Hutter), Georg H. Schnell.
Trivia: Original title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Remade as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).