According to cinema history, following the release of Nosferatu, the Stoker estate once again sought legal action, which almost resulted in the very extinction of the film. The film was effectively withdrawn from distribution and over time, nearly all existing prints of the text were destroyed. Luckily for fans of cinema (horror and otherwise) a few prints survived, but at a price. There are countless versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu which differ in length – ranging from comparatively short running times of just over one hour to slightly longer versions which run to a respectable 94 minutes. The difference in duration is accountable by whichever of the varying rescued reels of the film text was used for print transfer. Similarly, there is variation in the orchestral scores that accompany this silent film, again ranging from the original score to more modern compositions.
In the climactic scene, Count Orlock dissolves to nothingness in the rays of the sun. It would have been a true tragedy had the same thing happened to this film. Cinema history would be a poorer place had this worthy classic not survived for today’s and future generations.
Why We Heart: Nosferatu - A Symphony of Horror (1922)
By Andreas Charalambous - 3rd November 2013
There are times when a product or brand emerges that defines a particular culture and commands instant recognition – McDonald’s, the iPod, Coca Cola, etc. While it might seem an odd device to discuss branding and marketing when the subject at hand is a silent film from the dawn of horror cinema, F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is based on one such instantly recognisable image. The antagonist in the film originates from a pivotal horror literary text containing a character that did for the horror genre what Mickey Mouse did for cartoons and Superman did for comic books. I am of course referring to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Since the creation of Nosferatu, there have been countless films starring Count Dracula, but it was not always this easy to commit the Prince of Darkness to celluloid. Director F.W Murnau was involved in a bitter legal battle with Bram Stoker’s widow in order to create the world’s first Dracula film – one in which he had no success.
The Stoker estate continually refused to grant Murnau permission to adapt the Dracula novel to film. In order to sidestep this legal obstacle, the determined director performed some rudimentary (if transparent) name and plot substitutions. Count Dracula became Count Orlock, England became Germany, and the production of a seminal silent horror film was underway.
Modern viewers approaching the film for the first time will find few surprises, as it closely follows Stoker’s now familiar novel (in some instances, to the word). However, I would recommend this film as one of the original examples of vampyre cinema. Although most who have seen any Dracula film through the ages will instantly recognise Nosferatu’s plot, I implore the viewer to bear a few things in mind before dismissing it as a redundant viewing experience:
Firstly, it is important to remember that this is indeed the first interpretation of Stoker’s Dracula novel. Considering cinema was a fairly new medium and thus the photographic technology was very crude, you cannot help but admire Murnau’s efforts. Secondly, this film was a real labour of love for its creator. Not only did he risk the wrath of the authorities in its creation, but ultimately laid the foundations for Stoker’s novel to become a success. Ironically, it was only after this film had been viewed by the theater-going masses that the undead Count’s name captured the public’s imagination, leading to wave after wave of cliché riddled Dracula films and products. One wonders what state the Dracula franchise would be in today had it not been for the appearance of its Teutonic predecessor?
As mentioned previously, the plot of the film is fairly familiar to fans of the genre, but the real pleasures are to be found in marvelling at the way it was made and the beauty of its symbolism and photography.
Having made clear that the storyline is nothing not seen in one form or another in later Dracula films (keep an eye out for the ‘similarities’), let us examine the film itself. Murnau’s effort starts in the director’s homeland, Germany – Bremen to be precise. Hutter (Gustav Von Wangenheim), a real estate agent is assigned by his employer to travel to a remote castle in the Carpathian Mountains to meet with a prospective buyer of a secluded property in town. As he travels by horse-drawn coach, he makes a stop at a local inn, where all its inhabitants express their fear and discomfort when Hutter explains his business. Dismissing their warnings of vampirism as sheer superstition, Hutter is determined to complete his mission, and when the driver of the coach refuses to take him to the castle, the Count sends his own transportation. Upon meeting the Count and sealing the deal, Hutter realises that not all is as it seems and attempts to cut his stay with his host short and race back to Bremen. Unfortunately, Hutter is held at the castle against his will and witnesses first-hand that his enigmatic client is indeed something a lot more sinister. Eventually, the Count sets sail for his new home. The ship’s cargo? A stack of coffins. Hutter also makes his escape and enters the race to get to Bremen before the Count.
The arrival of the Count and his coffins in Bremen coincides with a devastating outbreak of the plague. The townsfolk come to the conclusion that there may be a connection to this with the Count. Hutter’s beloved, Ellen (whom the Count expresses an interest in) learns of the Count’s sinister behavioural patterns and the conclusion is reached that he is indeed a vampyre. She discovers that the only way to stop a vampyre, is for a good woman to distract him so that he stays out of his coffin past the first cock's crow. Her sacrifice not only saves the town but also gives rise to the buried sexuality in the ‘Dracula’ story. This marked the first time in history, literary or otherwise, that the rays of the sun would prove lethal to a vampire.
As Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee would later timelessly portray the “legitimate” Dracula - both with merit - Max Schreck bought an equally influential portrayal of his Count. His Orlock is a sinister rodent-like creature, complete with pointed ears, rat-like fangs and spindly long fingers who creeps around in the darkness of night. Although this film contained extreme plagiarism of the original novel, the manner in which it was filmed, highlighting the stunning visuals, was an unusual and pioneering effort considering how new a medium cinema was in the 1920’s. Filmed in the same gloriously artistic wave of German Expressionism as other films of the same era such as 1920’s Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligarias (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Metropolis (1927), this text is an absolute pleasure to view. Sharp-angled scenery and shots of sinister shadows abound. (One shot of the Count’s shadow creeping against a wall, and another of the Count’s rigid form rising from a coffin have become iconic to horror cinema imagery).
This film announced the swinging of artistic momentum from Romanticism to Expressionism, with the clear presence of the macabre, sinister and the Gothic. As Orlock’s vampyre represented the positioning between life and death, love and murder, so too this film positions itself between art and moving image. Although the tale would eventually be given a modern manifestation in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht’ (1979) with Klaus Kinski as the Count, it is one of those films, such as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which one can only imagine enjoying in the glory of black and white (or in this case, sepia). There is something about the warm tones and the flicker of the picture which make the viewer appreciate that they are watching a piece of cinematic art and history.
But again, this was almost not the case.