This article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov 2022 print issue of Filmhounds Magazine.
No one was supposed to remember F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). At least, not if Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, succeeded. Though Murnau and his team never secured permission to adapt Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, they nonetheless included a title card that read “From the Novel Dracula by Bram Stoker” at the start of the film. That particular admission led to a lawsuit, which Florence won. Her terms? All copies of Nosferatu were to be burned. Yet, much like its fiendish namesake, Nosferatu defied death through two surviving prints. In the century that followed, Nosferatu has entrenched as a horror benchmark, its shadow seeping into the deepest corners of film history.
Story Beyond Stoker
For those needing a refresher, Nosferatu centers on young real estate broker Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder). Hutter’s boss Knock (Alexander Granach) sends Hutter to Transylvania to court wealthy recluse, Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Driven by greed, Hutter traipses to the mountains leaving Ellen with friends. Ignoring all manner of warning signs, Hutter settles into Orlok’s abode. Rapidly, Orlok reveals himself as a creature of the night and sets sail to take over Hutter’s home. Chaos and tragedy ensue.
Even for the admission that screenwriter Henrik Galeen worked from Stoker’s text, the finished Nosferatu screenplay bears only a passing resemblance to Dracula. Beyond topical adjustments that include changing names, such as Harker to Hutter or Dracula to Orlok, and relocating the action to Germany, Galeen’s story shifts the frame from gothic romance to depraved folklore. Slashing subplots and all manner of characters including vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, Galeen’s work establishes a parallel tone to the gothic one championed later by Dracula (1931).
Along the way, Galeen and Murnau create a string of tropes and lore that have evolved into commandments of vampire stories. For one, when Hutter arrives in Transylvania he stops at a pub and announces his intention to visit, causing the pub to fall still in horror. That beat, of an outsider ignoring the clear fear projected by locals, is repeated everywhere from Hammer Horror to From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). The idea exists in Stoker’s work, but Galeen and Murnau transform it into an archetypal point of no return.
Most dramatically though come their additions to defeating Orlok. While Stoker gives the grand finale to Van Helsing, Nosferatu places the burden on Ellen’s shoulders. It is her “maiden virtue” that can entrance the vampire, and keep him occupied until the “morning light” kills him. Both these ideas, that of the heroic sacrifice and sunlight killing vampires are whole-cloth additions. Furthermore, both have grown into genre staples, the combination cropping up in Near Dark (1987), Blade II (2002), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), to name a few.
Portrait of a Vampire
Beyond the narrative additions, Orlok’s visage, as embodied by Schreck and sensational make-up, introduces a vision of vampirism that continues to define the aesthetics of the monstrous. Nine years later, Bela Lugosi injected the seductive, arch-vampire into the cultural conversation. Between the two, we can classify just about every screen iteration as owing lineage to one or the other. Brides of Dracula (196) and Interview with a Vampire (1994) the latter. Salem’s Lot (1979) and Petyr of What We Do in the Shadows (2014) to the former.
All the same, Orlok’s design forces a confrontation with the anti-semitism inherent in Stoker’s source text. In the novel, Stoker describes Dracula as having an “aquiline” (read: hooked or bent) nose, “bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion,” and “massive” eyebrows. Each of these is easily connected to anti-semitic caricatures of Stoker’s era. In translating much of his vision to the screen, Murnau and Galeen, who was Jewish himself, preserve a measure of Stoker’s bigotry.
Therefore, considering variations on Orlok’s appearance, it is notable to see how later channelings shift features. Petyr of Shadows and Kurt Barlow of Salem’s Lot evoke Orlok with their pronounced teeth, pointed ears, and pallid skin. However, both have smaller noses and lack Orlok’s frizzy, bushy hair. The Count’s influence is unmistakable, but in most iterations, even Werner Herzog’s direct remake Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), the bloodsuckers are transmuted into forms more batlike than Stoker’s initial text. Murnau and Galeen stepped partially away, and the ensuing decades have done the rest.
Building the Vampiric Aesthetic
Murnau was a bastion of the German Expressionist movement, and so brings the tenets of that cinematic school of thought to Nosferatu. Defined by chiaroscuro lighting, set design molded to enhance and reflect a character’s emotional state, and an embrace of the fantastical, the movement lends itself towards horror. German filmmakers such as Murnau, Robert Wiene, and Fritz Lang were some of the first to embrace the genre, and so Nosferatu, alongside Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), established the standard.
Within Nosferatu, this results in a film that capitalizes on expressive shadows, towering locations, and a nightmare logic to continuity that sets the world on edge. Take the sequence when Orlok stalks Hutter during his second night in the castle. Hutter retires to bed, but shortly after awakens and peeks out his door. Down the impossibly long hallway, framed under a massive arch, Orlok’s pale figure rises from the darkness. Murnau injects a cross-dissolve that jump cuts closer, fully unleashing Orlok’s deadly stare. It is, frankly, terrifying.
It only continues from there, as Orlok enters the room while Hutter cowers under the covers. The Count’s disembodied shadow bleeds over Hutter in pristine detail. That shadow serves as an appetizer for the film’s most famous shot: Orlok’s elongated shadow creeping up the stairs toward Ellen near the film’s close. That dread and expressionistic directing permeates every frame of Nosferatu and sets the standard for the vampire film as a playground for vivid direction.
Murnau’s choices, as well as those of his intellectual compatriots, crafted a baseline for horror. After fleeing the Nazis, Murnau’s friend and collaborator Karl Freund worked as a cinematographer in Hollywood where he shot Dracula, further entrenching the vampiric aesthetic Murnau birthed in Nosferatu. Turn on any vampire story, be it art house like The Hunger (1983) or a blockbuster commodity like Underworld (2002) and you can trace stylistic components back to Nosferatu one shadow at a time.
An Unrelenting Legacy
Nosferatu remains a cinematic cornerstone one hundred years into its life. Orson Welles noted Murnau and other German Expressionists as key inspirations for Citizen Kane (1941). Val Luten’s too-short career drips with pools of light and shadow Murnau would no doubt have loved. Earlier this year, the newest Scream (2022) featured a towering Ghostface shadow alluding to Orlok’s jagged frame. Long after anyone who touched a frame of its film stock has descended into the dirt, we still turn to Nosferatu to understand cinema. Orlok may have been felled by the light, but it is through that luminous glow that Nosferatu lives on into its second century as art and legend in one.