100 Years Later, Nosferatu Still Casts a Long Shadow

In March 1922, German audiences got their first terrifying glimpses of one of cinema history’s most notorious vampires: Count Orlock. He is the chief antagonist in filmmaker F. W. Murnau’s renowned Nosferatu, a movie whose production story is almost as fascinating as its plot. It was the (quite unauthorized) first adaptation of the late Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which had appeared in print twenty-five years earlier. Despite the fact that Murnau and his associates (co-producer Albin Grau and writer Henrik Galeen) took many liberties with the book’s details, Nosferatu remains, I will contend, not just the first but one of the most faithful adaptations of its source material in its presentation of a starkly monstrous villain.

In Murnau’s take, Ellen gives herself up to save those around her. It demonstrates a recognition that the final power over evil derives not from greater force or strength but through a humbling act of self-sacrifice.

Perhaps too faithful. Stoker died in 1912, leaving his widow, Florence, to gain income by juggling the rights to her late husband’s intellectual property. Murnau had gotten away with a loose adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a couple years earlier, so perhaps his crew at Prana Films thought they could escape sanction. They were famously incorrect: Florence Stoker won her petition, and the negatives and prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Needless to say, some survived (more than one, notwithstanding certain cinematic legends), but the order, coupled with lavish spending, still dealt a blow to its nascent production studio.

It’s not entirely clear that Florence even loved her husband’s most well-known literary creation in the first place, and she doubtless would have cared little for Murnau’s screen version, visually inflected with German Expressionism. But for cinephiles in the past century, Nosferatu is widely regarded as a masterpiece of its era. And though its brief running time diverges substantially from Dracula, beneath the blood the book’s spine remains intact—not just legally, but thematically too.

Stoker’s novel is long and densely populated. The first of its many narrators is Jonathan Harker, a solicitor who is sent to eastern Europe to arrange real estate transactions for his unsettling host, the enigmatic Count Dracula. He eventually learns what readers have begun to suspect, that Dracula is evil (and evil of a distinctly inhuman kind). The narrative switches to several British characters, most notably Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray, awaiting his return. Dracula himself arrives in England after hijacking a ship and killing its crew, setting up shop in London. Harker, who had managed a difficult escape from Dracula’s castle, is at last reunited with Mina. The vampire-hunting “crew of light” (to use Christopher Craft’s term) is gradually assembled, with the learned Abraham Van Helsing finally establishing the Count’s vampiric nature. Armed with their new knowledge, the crew forces Dracula off English soil back to his homeland, where he is at last killed.

Murnau and his crew pare away at the extensive supporting cast, focusing on the novel’s opening sequences before diverging in plot in the final act. The film is set in 1838, and our Harker analogue is Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who is sent on a comparable real estate venture to the Transylvanian Count Orlock (Max Schreck). Orlock is terrifying to behold, and as in Stoker’s novel, Hutter soon learns himself to be a prisoner in the castle. Once the deal has been made, Orlock, like Dracula, hijacks a ship to reach his destination (here the fictional German town of Wisborg). Hutter races to get back, knowing that Orlock’s new residence is perilously close to his own, where his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) is living. Orlock follows Dracula’s route in hijacking a ship, bringing with him to Wisborg a plague that ravages the town—a plot development perhaps suggested by 1918’s influenza pandemic. Though Hutter returns and the townsfolk seek out scapegoats, it is Ellen who realizes that she can defeat the vampire by sacrificing herself and distracting him until sunrise, ensuring his destruction.

Contemporary audiences acclimated to adrenaline-packed blockbusters or intense character-driven drama may lose patience with Nosferatu, an unfortunate reality for any silent film. With a grandiose musical score providing the only sound, actors and set designers relied on exaggeration, so they are filled with heavily made-up actors gesticulating wildly in florid costumes against stark backdrops. Dialogue only appears via intertitles that necessarily pause the momentum of the movie. Simply put, one does not watch silent films either for raw action or for verisimilitude.

Stripped of coordinated sound, though, what such films excel in is imagery, and in its haunting, at times jarring, images, Nosferatu joins some of the era’s other memorable pieces of speculative cinema, such as The Student of Prague, Metropolis, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. No visual in the movie is more powerful than Max Schreck’s Orlock himself. If his movements seem slow and stilted at times and his demise clunky by contemporary effects standards, the production’s makeup provides for Orlock an uncanny aura or raw monstrosity that remains both more believable and more terrifying than the vast majority of creatures on screen today.

This take on Dracula doesn’t exactly match Stoker’s Count, whose face is “aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere.” But Schreck’s Orlock keeps the menace of Stoker’s original without the brooding sexiness that would become such a staple of later versions, from Lugosi to Lee to Langella and beyond. Even if one accepts that on some level the novel’s vampirism could be analogous to sexuality, it takes on this role in the absence of any erotic allure on the part of its eponymous villain. Dracula’s supernatural quasi-demonic status may make him seductive in a way, but he is also grotesque, both physically and spiritually.

This, then, is what I love about Murnau’s take on Orlock: he is depicted as a starkly horrific figure. To be clear, I think there can be some value in interrogating our conceptions of villainy and monstrosity, including in aspects of Dracula. As Alisa Ruddell has recently noted, to the monsters, we may be the monsters—and sometimes our monsters are really future friends. Nonetheless, the Bible presents evil as a very real (or perhaps anti-real) category, frequently depicting it in monstrous terms. Speculative literature and film have often operated on these terms, not presenting evil in the alloyed form we encounter it on the interpersonal human level but dramatically, in sharp relief. There will always be value in recognizing that we are all born “evil,” sinful enemies of God, and that, on the other side, no one alive exists beyond the potential reach of his redemption. But sometimes we also need glaring reminders of the categories themselves. In fairy tales and horror stories, we are often confronted with those extreme embodiments.

The fact is that any adaptation of Dracula which stays remotely true to its source material cannot plausibly present Dracula as a fully sympathetic figure without suffering from a terrible lapse in moral judgment. Yet this is precisely what has increasingly occurred. As I have elsewhere noted, the character of Dracula functions as a sort of cultural cipher—you can recognize what your society values by how it portrays its Draculas. As such, he has gone from dark but mysteriously attractive stranger to conflicted villain to tormented anti-hero (or downright hero). The Victorian Bram Stoker was deeply wary of his fin-de-siècle world’s moral ambivalences, including concerns about materialistic views of human nature or qualms about sexual deviance and promiscuity—ambivalences that are now assumed or even celebrated in contemporary culture. The concern, then, is not that modern adaptations wish to humanize Dracula; it is that they are taking as virtues his most dramatic vices.

Nosferatu brings us back to an age in which we could still see the vampire as devilish evil, when we could still recognize the monstrous for what it was. The film acknowledges the disturbing aspects of mundane human society too, of course—for instance, in the mass hysteria the townsfolk exhibit in the wakes of the plague Orlock brings. But notwithstanding E. Elias Merhige’s take on the film in Shadow of the Vampire, there is no redeeming Murnau’s Orlock: he is a vile, predacious creature, a reminder in black and white of what we all know viscerally, even if we may deny it intellectually—that “evil” is not just a meaningless or empty category. If he inspires pathos in any way, it is only because an implicit thirst for immortality has led him to a decayed, liminal, and ghastly existence.

In the final sequence, Ellen realizes that the town (and her husband) can only be saved if she surrenders her own life. In this way too, Nosferatu returns to its roots in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which Mina Harker is no mere damsel but plays an integral role in tracking down the Count. Even so, in the book, it ultimately falls to the male protagonists to deliver the final blow.  In Murnau’s take, Ellen gives herself up to save those around her. It demonstrates a recognition that the final power over evil derives not from greater force or strength but through a humbling act of self-sacrifice. This final moment is empowering, and it is a refreshing counterpoint to most modern celluloid Draculas, in which the moral authority of the heroes is subverted or undermined, and all moral restraint is regarded with suspicion or hostility. One can legitimately question whether, legally speaking, Nosferatu should even exist. Yet few film buffs are sorry that it has survived. It is a masterpiece of cinema from a time long past, to be sure. But it is also a relic of a day when people were not afraid to make moral judgments and make their monsters monstrous. For this reason, Count Orlock will keep rising from the grave to frighten us, haunting us in a way our conflicted, tormented modern vampires can never do.