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It comes down to the shadows; always has and always will. Horror hides from us in the unknown and unkempt, the terrifying and tantalizing, locked behind an impenetrable darkness that holds our deepest fears and regrets. But sometimes that darkness is released upon a world that just isn’t ready for what lies within. Such is the case with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the silent classic that begat vampires upon the public in ways still felt today. Nearly 100 years has not quieted its brooding charms and ethereal dread.
It is a film that was almost lost forever; Bram Stoker (author of Dracula)’s widow got very litigious and all prints were thought to be destroyed. However, some did manage to make it out of Germany, and this foreboding art drifted across the world, landing in the US some seven years later, safe from persecution.
What persecution, you ask? Well, Murnau wanted to make a film of Stoker’s novel, but couldn’t get the rights; instead, he changed the characters’ names, a bit of the lore and story, and rolled on with the production, resulting in one very angry widow.
But the changes Murnau and writer Henrik Galeen (The Golem) make cut much deeper than cosmetic; they bring an outright, palpable terror to the film that other adaptations lack. But first, let’s spin a yarn:
It is 1838 in Wisborg, Germany. Thomas Hutter (Guatav von Wangerheim) is given the task by his real estate employer, Herr Knock (Alexander Granach) to take papers to Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in Transylvania, as he wishes to purchase a house in Wisborg. As a matter of fact, he wants the house right across the street from Hutter, conveniently picked by Knock. Hutter leaves behind his wife Ellen (Greta Schroder) and begins his trip; he stops at a local inn for food and lodging, and when he mentions Orlok, the locals cower in fear and warn him against visiting the castle.
Determined, Hutter continues his journey, but his driver reaches an impasse and will not go on to Orlok’s; instead, Orlok’s carriage brings him to the castle, where he is greeted by the Count himself. During dinner, Orlok notices a picture of Ellen and becomes smitten with her; at night he bites Hutter to keep him hostage so he can make his way to Germany to be with Ellen.
Upon witnessing Orlok asleep in his coffin, Hutter (with handy help from a vampire guide he took from the Inn) believes Orlok to be a vampire, and when he sees him climb into his coffin before being loaded on the carriage for Wisborg, he’s sure of it. Hutter’s escape attempt lands him in the hospital, and when he awakens, he takes off by steed for Wisborg, hoping to beat the Count, who is traveling by ship. Alas, Orlok has time on his side and powers at his disposal. Powers that reach from beyond the grave to terrorize a town…
Nosferatu is 97 years old, and yet retains every bit of its hold on an audience—for those willing to go along for the ride. There are some who are adverse to the earliest works of the screen; the silent film, with its place card dialogue and sepia hues, seems like a relic of the past best left to university film study classes for dissection, not enjoyment.
This is, of course, absurd. Every film, good or bad, is intended to invoke a response from the viewer, whether it is sadness, joy, or fear. Nosferatu was intended to scare its audience, and certainly did so at the time. But it’s more than an antique to be studied; it lives and breathes, pulsates and quivers through shadow play and the grotesque visage of Orlok himself. This is not the romantic version of Dracula, with the flowing cape and sexual overtures of Lugosi or Langella, nor is it the burning rage of bloodshot-eyed Lee. No, Schreck’s Orlok radiates pure dread.
Standing 6’3” and lording over his costars, Schreck cuts through the dark in his imposing trench coat and piercing glare, his pointed ears marking him as otherworldly. The black embraces him and accentuates his angular features, while the light exposes them to a world unready; it’s no wonder when making the Salem’s Lot (1979) miniseries they opted for the Orlok look for vampire master Kurt Barlow. He’s an apparition straight from hell.
That’s not the only difference from future adaptations of Stoker’s novel, however; while Van Helsing is seen as the Good to Dracula’s Evil, he’s nowhere to be found here. There is no one to lead the charge against Orlok; Hutter is on his own. There are two different professors in the film, but neither is an effective protagonist against the dark forces, merely props of exposition. With Hutter left to his own devices, the audience is left vulnerable as to the outcome; how can he possibly stop that which is already dead?
By veering away from the source material just enough, Murnau was able to create a fable at odds with the staid nature of its origins while adding indelible images that still resonate: Orlok’s silhouette framing the walls of the castle; his dinner with Hutter; Orlok’s passage to Wisborg (all of it); and his defeat by the dawn of a new day.
Despite the ultimate vanquish of Orlok, Nosferatu is not uplifting or even heroic; instead, it dares you to look death in the eye and find nothing but dread in monochrome staring back at you. May it live forever.
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