Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888 - 1931) was a major German filmmaker in the 1920s and one of the prominent early exponents of German Expressionism in film. His most famous and representative film was Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors, 1922), which was adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), but he is also remembered for The Last Laugh (1925), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), and Tabu (1931). One of my interests in reexamining Murnau’s masterpiece is to compare some of its features to Werner Herzog’s reverent remake, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). In this case, each successive adaptation seems to have made improvements over its predecessor. But first, some background about the original filming is in order.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a Gothic horror story set in contemporary London, and it gradually gained fame over the years. Murnau and producer/production designer, Albin Grau, were unable to obtain the rights to film the novel from Stoker’s widow, so they made alterations to the plot and to the names used in the story and proceeded with the filming, anyway. Thus, for example, the characters Count Dracula and Jonathon Harker in Stoker’s novel became Count Orlok and Thomas Hutter in Nosferatu. But the changes were far greater than merely the alteration of names. In the original Dracula, and also in Tod Browning’s authorised remake, Dracula (1931), the story describes a pitched battle between two almost equally matched characters: a representative of darkness, Count Dracula, and a representative of modern science, Doctor Van Helsing. In the end of that original story, Van Helsing succeeds in killing Dracula by stabbing him in the heart. So it’s something like a slam-bang adventure story, only one involving a vampire. Nosferatu, on the other hand, is more cosmic, more haunting and is much closer to the disturbing specters that inhabit our nightmares. Unlike Count Dracula, who is a suave, smooth charmer of women, Count Orlok is a deformed, repulsive rat-like character, signifying pestilence. In addition, the Van Helsing character (Doctor Bulwer) is now diminished to insignificance in Nosferatu, and he is no match for Count Orlok. Orlok is not simply a resourceful adversary, but more an abstraction of horror, an unstoppable force of evil. But Murnau also added an additional key innovative feature that was retained by subsequent purveyors of vampire lore: the vampire is destroyed by sunlight. Thus Orlok is darkness, itself.
Despite all these changes, which all led to enhancements over Stoker’s version, the intended effect was not achieved. Stoker’s surviving widow went ahead and sued Grau’s production company, Prana Films, for copyright infringement and won. The stupidity and inequity of “intellectual property” laws, which burdens modern society and contributes to the oppression of ordinary people everywhere, showed its ugly face again. Prana films went into bankruptcy, and all available negatives of Nosferatu were destroyed. Fortunately, there were some bootlegged prints still out there, and a few of them survived. The diminished condition of modern prints of Nosferatu reflect the difficulty of making reconstructions from the surviving prints that have been found.
The story of Nosferatu begins not in late 19th century London, but in Germany and is said to describe the Great Death of Wisborg in 1843. This fictitious city is thought to refer to the northern Hanseatic German city of Wismar, but some English-language translations of the titles say that the setting is in Bremen in 1838. The titular adjustment to 1838 may be an attempt to match history more closely, since there was a real plague that swept through northern Europe in 1838. In the beginning we are introduced to Thomas Hütter and his wife, Ellen, enraptured with each other in marital bliss. An eccentric housing agent, Knock, assigns Hütter to travel to distant Transylvania and arrange a property purchase in Wisborg with Count Orlok. Hütter sets out, and when he gets to Transylvania, he stops at an inn and orders a meal. Villagers in the inn warn him about evil spirits in the region and advise him that he should not travel at night. In his room he finds a book about vampires and reads a few pages, but he scoffs at such superstitions and falls to sleep. (Some reviewers have complained that a nocturnal scene showing disturbed animals contains the technical error of including a hyena, which would be unnatural to this geographical area. But to my eye, that animal shown is a jackal, and so it could well be native to that part of Europe.)
The next day he sets out, but the driver of his coach stops at the “edge of the land of phantoms” and will go no further. So Hütter continues on foot. Soon he is offered a lift by a mysterious coachman, whose coach proceeds at an unnatural speed to Orlok’s castle and arrives at midnight. He immediately meets the ghoulish-looking Count Orlok, who offers him a late-night snack. The next day, Orlok sees a photograph of Hütter’s wife, Ellen, and expresses great admiration for the beauty of her neck. (You get the idea that this guy Orlok is not someone you want turn your back on.) The photograph, incidentally, probably would have been rather unusual for 1843, since the daguerreotype process was unknown to the world before 1839.
It is midnight again, and Hütter reads more from the vampire book, which he had taken with him to Orlok’s castle. He is now getting pretty suspicious about Orlok and bolts his door, but Orlok is able to make doors open by themselves and enters. Hütter faints with fear, and at the same time back in Wisborg, Ellen wakes up in the night and senses danger. This is an early example of parallel action and cross-counting, which Murnau used effectively throughout Nosferatu. Ellen screams, and this seems to deter Orlok from his apparent intention of sucking Hütter’s blood and causes him to retire from the room.
The next morning Hütter tries to escape from the castle, but discovers that the doors are locked. He fashions a makeshift rope from his sheet and descends from his window, but he is injured in a fall and is taken to a local village inn to recuperate. Meanwhile Orlok has taken a wagon full of coffins and had them loaded onto a boat on the Black sea.
At this point the film cuts to a demonstration of a Venus flytrap and a polyp that Professor Bulwer is presenting to some of his students. This seems to have no connection with the rest of the events in the story, other than to offer us a reminder of Nature's mindless ruthlessness. We then return to the coffin-laden ship, where successive members of the crew are dying from a mysterious illness. There is now a three-way cross-cutting parallel action going on: (a) Nosferatu (Orlok) with the ship, (b) the now-recovered Hütter racing back to Wisborg, and (c) shots of Ellen.
With 25 minutes to go in the film, the ship enters Wisborg’s harbour with noone left alive. The town officials discover the ship’s log about the dead sailors and correctly surmise that they are now about to suffer a similar fate: the plague has come to the city.
Hütter has also made his way back to Wisborg by this time, as well. Ellen, secretly reading from her husband's vampire book, learns that the only way to kill a vampire is for a pure woman to detain him until the cock’s crow signals the vampire-destroying light of the sun -- “of her own free will she would have to give him her blood.” Deciding to sacrifice herself, she tells her husband to go fetch Bulwer, and while he’s gone she offers herself to Orlok. He comes to feast on her blood. There is now more parallel action involving (a) Orlock and Ellen, (b) Thomas fetching Bulwer, and (c) the townspeople chasing after Knock, whom they believe to be a vampire and the cause of their plague.
As we expect, Orlok stays too long, and the cock crows. Orlok and Knock both die. Ellen regains consciousness, but then dies in her husband’s arms.
The entire second half of Nosferatu is essentially different from Dracula, and in my view it is superior. The Orlok character is now more disturbing than Dracula. He’s not a Roman Catholic devil figure, such as in Dracula, which is somewhat dangerous, to be sure, but still containable and more or less limited in scope. Here in Nosferatu, in contrast, Orlok embodies a distinctly Protestant concept: a pervasive force of evil and devastation.
Murnau’s cinematography and production values were undoubtedly monumental in 1922, but a few words need to be said about the viewing experience of Nosferatu today. Foremost in importance is the running speed of the film projection. If you see an 80-minute version of the film today, you are undoubtedly seeing it presented at an inflated speed, which can be ruinous to your appreciation of the film. In contrast to modern day projection speeds of 24 frames per second in the US (25 frames per second in Europe and elsewhere), camera shooting speeds for silent films were mostly 16 frames per second. It is true that theaters and projection houses would often project the films at somewhat higher speeds in order to get people out of the theater more quickly. But elevated running speeds can create a ridiculous agitation to the character movements that destroys the necessary suspension of disbelief. There are DVD versions of Nosferatu that run at 94 minutes, which suggests that they are running at an effective 17 frames per second, and that speed would correspond to a realistic presentation of the film. I recommend that you restrict your viewing of the film to the 94-minute version. You are also advised to turn off any musical accompaniment that may come with a DVD. Although silent films in theaters were many times accompanied by organ or piano music (at big city theaters, this could even be an orchestral accompaniment), this music was primarily to cover theater background noise. Unless very skilfully done, the music is unlikely to suit the film, and you are better off without it. Even with these precautions followed, however, you may still find some of the acting histrionics in Nosferatu hard to take. Though I'll concede that silent screen acting needed to be overtly gestural to convey mental states, both the roles of Hütter and Knock are irritatingly exaggerated for my taste. On the other hand, Max Schreck is excellent as Orlok/Nosferatu, and he gives a lesson in how to be menacing but still under control. In addition, some of the camera effects, such as the stop-action speedup of the coach in the forest, may have been spectacular to audiences in their day, but they don’t evoke any sense of disturbance when I see them now.
It may be useful to close with some commentary from a past film festival that reflects on some of the philosophical implications of Nosferatu :
Murnau’s Nosferatu, the film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, is like Dreyer’s Vampyr, one of the truly expressive horror films. Bela Belazs spoke of its “glacial draughts of air from the byond.” Murnau and his cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner, developed all sorts of ticks soley for the purpose of rendering horrors – strips of negative film depicting forests as a maze of ghostly trees set against a black sky and the dark phantom vessel speeding with full sail over a phosphorescent sea. Yet, unlike most films of that time, Nosferatu was filmed mostly in natural settings, away from the studio. Murnau used all that nature had to offer to obtain his images, a technique that further suggests Dreyer. Wagner’s skilful use of unexpected camera angles and suggestive editing seems to give jerky movements to a phantom coach which bears the young traveller off to the land of the undead. Murnau, even more proficiently than his contemporaries, invested inanimate objects with sinister connotations. Here, as in many other cases, the philosophic Germans are super-sensitive to the dread of nonbeing. A vacant room, innocent in itself, becomes, in the hands of the Expressionists, horrifying due to its absence of people.The relative achievement of Murnau in 1922 was considerable, but Herzog made some improvements on that work that make his own contribution the superior viewing experience today. His view, as you might expect if you know Herzog, is darker.
The ending of Henrik Galeen’s script, which differed from the book by having the monster destroyed by the power of love, may seem ludicrous to “sophisticated” audiences now, but it is consistent with its own Romantic terms. The Germanic fear of the destruction of being through, on the one side an unleashing of chaotic and tyrannical authority in order to keep the dark forces in check, has manifested itself again in our culture and gives German horror films a renewed fascination. It might be added that the thrill of experiencing the dread of non-being (and the consequent positive awareness of one’s own existence) which is today available through the taking of drugs, we experienced in the 1920s through the watching of films like Nosferatu.
- M. Purvis and R. K. Wood, German Expressionist Film Festival, 1970, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.