Vampires are funny creatures in Gothic lore. They’re very subjective in their looks; they can be everything from suave and debonair to repulsive and slimy, to smoldering and sparkling to just plain comical. Or all of the above. Either way, as we all know, they have fangs and they drink blood.
Bela Lugosi is the guy who set the yardstick of how we think of vampires, of course, but he isn’t the only one who has made an impression. In a way, the 1922 film, Nosferatu beat him to the punch. Today’s Dracula films might look very different if this film’s history had been something other than it was. It is, of course, based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Sort of. There was a heavy dash of kleptomania involved here.
The story begins in 1838, with a warning not to say the word, “Nosferatu,” because it just might bring on nightmares. Heh, heh, too late. Nosferatu is hardly Macbeth, but nice try, guys.
Nosferatu’s basic premise sticks pretty closely to Stoker’s original plotline, at least the first third of it. Only instead of starting on Jonathan Harker’s journey to Dracula’s castle, it takes us to the small village of Wisborg, where Hutter (Gustav Von Wagenheim) lives in peaceful bliss with his wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder). The two of them spend their days billing and cooing when they’re not playing with the cat and frolicking in the garden.
Hutter works for a real estate agent named Knock (Alexander Granach), who sends him on an intriguing assignment. A mysterious fellow, Count Orlock (Max Schreck) in the Carpathian mountains wants to purchase an abandoned house that just so happens to be across the street from Hutter and Ellen’s house. He has very specific terms for the sale that he wants met.
The assignment is going to be a pain, possibly literally, but also very lucrative, which makes it all better, right? Of course, right. Anyway, despite misgivings on everyone’s part, Hutter goes far away to the land of the phantoms and leaves Ellen with friends, Harding (Georg H. Schnell) and his sister, Ruth (Ruth Landshoff).
Hutter and his horse clipclop into the Carpathians in no time, and stop at an inn for dinner. Like the stereotypical German, he heartily tosses back his first drink and asks for his meal to be brought forthwith because he has a business deal to close. When he mentions that his client is Count Orlok, everyone in the inn draws back in horror. Le gasp is almost audible, which is pretty remarkable for a silent film. The innkeeper and his wife insist that Hutter stay the night because the werewolf is prowling the area. It’s really a hyena, but what of it?
The next morning, Hutter sets off for Count Orlok’s, and on the way he’s met by a stagecoach with a mysterious driver. Actually, it’s Count Orlok and he’s about as mysterious as a neon sign, but he speeds Hutter through the countryside to the castle. There are some really cool special effects in this scene, as the horses run unnaturally fast and the film looks like a print of the negative.
Count Orlok makes a great show of meeting Hutter, at least a great show for a guy who slinks around with his clawed hands firmly at his sides. While Hutter eats, Orlok looks the contract over about the house and is anxious to sign. It has to wait, though, because the sun is coming up and Orlok must sleep. For his part, Hutter dozes in a chair by the fire.
The next morning, he writes a letter to Ellen about how thick the mosquitos are. Two of them gave him side by side bites on his neck during the night. He also explores the castle, where he finds Orlock sleeping in a coffin in the dungeon.
Back home, Ellen is tortured by intense dreams about Hutter, seeing him sleep while a mysterious creature creeps in and out of his room. She’s so into the dream that she sleepwalks onto her balcony, where Harding and Ruth find her and bring her back. They have the doctor in, but there’s nothing he can do. Ellen spends her days sitting on a bench looking out at the sea and pining for Hutter. She’s not too far off, as this is exactly what’s happening.
Since the contract is signed, Orlok gets ready to leave. He loads up a cart with coffins full of dirt, and sticks an empty one on top, which he climbs into himself. Then he and his horses speed off to the docks to meet a freighter that’s waiting to take him to Wisborg. Seeing his chance to escape, Hutter pulls the tried-and-true method of tying bedsheets together and climbing out the window, after which he wanders the countryside in delerium and wakes up in a hospital, traumatized from his ordeal. Naturally, he tries to get back to Ellen as soon as possible, where they have a rapturous reunion.
Knock, in the meantime, is the Renfield character of the film. He has gone insane and been committed to an asylum, where he grabs at spiders and talks about “the master.” Orlock must have made him insane by telepathy.
There is still the problem of Count Orlok living right across the street from Hutter and Ellen. The town has been put on lockdown because a ship has come into the harbor filled with dead sailors, and the authorities are afraid whatever killed them will spread.
Ellen is tortured because Orlok stares at her through the window, not to mention she’s reading one of Hutter’s books about vampires. On the plus side, the book does give her a way of defeating Orlock: Entice him to stay outside by offering him a drink. Dawn breaks, and voilá…no more vampire. Ellen has a choice to make.
Yeah, no stakes through the heart or strings of garlic for this crowd, and not a crucifix in sight.
There’s an excellent reason for that: F.W. Murnau was a Theosophist and very much into the occult, including Egyptian mythology. His film company, Prana, was formed in 1921 to further their pushing occultism and Theosophy. Naturally, the Christian angles of the Dracula story, which are featured pretty heavily in much of the novel, were excised, and their absence leaves odd little voids.
Despite the missing canonical elements, the film is an enjoyable one. Its Dracula is not the elegant fellow in evening dress, but a human rat who repulses everyone who sees him. For us today, he’s not the most menacing Dracula, (my vote falls between Gary Oldman and Bela Lugosi), and even sunlight doesn’t really faze this guy. The scene in which Orlock moves into his Wisborg pad was filmed at two o’clock in the afternoon. And it’s funny that Orlock sails into Wisborg when Hutter was easily able to ride to the Carpathian Mountains. Such howlers are few and far between, though–the movie hits very few false notes. The highlight for me was that Prana used real locations for exteriors of the film, some of which no longer exist.
Nosferatu was Prana’s only film. Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, was the executor of Stoker’s estate, and her lawyers successfully sued Prana for copyright infringement. Conveniently enough, Prana declared bankruptcy in order to avoid paying the fines. Stoker also ordered all copies destroyed, but fortunately for film history, a few prints survived.
I very much got taken in by Nosferatu. It’s a well-made film with great pacing, albeit a few goofs, and innovative special effects. What’s funny is that Prana Films was basically the Asylum Films of nineteen-twenties Germany, except that they were mooching off of Stoker’s novel instead of a current blockbuster. The only difference is that Asylum movies will never be classics. Nosferatu is a quick and gripping ninety-odd minutes.
A new Origins post is on the way. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you again soon…
The Language of Shadows – Murnau: The Early Years and Nosferatu. Directed by Luciano Berriatua. Narrated by Thomas Lang. Filmoteca, 2007. Film.