In which a vampire’s shadow terrorises our sleeping moments and we learn there’s no horror like that of being trapped within our own nightmares.
Nosferatu is one of those films that has long since transcended its original purpose of entertaining audiences to become an icon of cinema. It’s the type of film that fans know everything about, from its influence to its incredible imagery, without having to see it. I suspect that many don’t bother to watch it in full at this point, which is a shame.
It’s not been more than a few years since I first saw Nosferatu at the Tyneside Cinema here in Newcastle. It was playing with an orchestral score that hadn’t been heard for eighty years (as my brother heard me excitedly claim over and over again as I waited for the day to come around). The experience of seeing it at the cinema left a wonderful memory with me, the kind that it’s easy to slip into when mesmerised by daydreams of the past.
For this review, I watched the film again on the small screen. It’s a lesser experience and I feel particularly so for silent films where the atmosphere of an audience adds so much.
Released in 1922 and directed by the German silent cinema legend FW Murnau, Nosferatu is an adaptation of Dracula, with name and places ever so slightly changed to avoid copyright issues. Despite this mild effort, Bram Stoker’s estate successfully sued and the film was ordered destroyed. Thankfully copies survived and we can still enjoy it today.
I’ll discuss the plot of Nosferatu now, so please do go watch it if you haven’t already.
Although the story is unmistakably Dracula, Nosferatu makes a few changes and streamlines many characters from the novel. The main (human) character is Thomas Hutter, sent to Transylvania to meet Count Orlok who wants to buy a house in Germany (which always seems the wrong way round to me but it was the 1800s).
On his travels, Hutter meets an early incarnation of a now familiar trope, terrified locals and a coachman that refuses to drive him all the way to Orlok’s castle. The Count is instantly creepy, there’s no sign of the later smooth and charming Draculas here, at one point Thomas cuts his thumb and Orlok attempts to suck the blood out.
Ever the professional, Thomas continues and closes a deal on the house opposite his. It’s here that Orlok sees a picture of Thomas’s wife and comments on her “lovely neck”. Later, Thomas begins to suspect the Count’s true nature and narrowly escapes an encounter in his own room at the castle.
Count Orlok sets sail for his new house in Germany and Thomas rushes home to protect his wife. In a haunting episode, the crew of the ship carrying Orlok’s coffin are killed off one by one until it arrives with only the dead Captain still onboard tethered to the ship’s wheel.
The locals blame the plague for events on the ship and a string of deaths that begin to spread across the town. With the Count now surrounded by fresh meat and seemingly unstoppable, Thomas’ wife Ellen learns of a way to kill him by distracting him long enough for the sun to rise – but in doing sacrifices her own life to the vampire.
What strikes me most about Nosferatu is the technical achievement of creating such a lasting series of images and iconic moments. Many of us are familiar with the monstrous look of the Count, so at odds with slick-haired Dracula, and the horrifying thought of his slender shadow creeping up our stairway to our bedrooms at night.
As Roger Ebert notes in his 1997 review, this vampire is an inhuman creature, cursed rather than delighting in his immortality:
“Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being; the art direction by Murnau’s collaborator, Albin Grau, gives him bat ears, clawlike nails and fangs that are in the middle of his mouth like a rodent’s”.
Just as impressive as the Count’s design are the scenes where Thomas travels across Transylvania, we get a real sense of the desolate and isolated location that Orlok seeks to leave for more populous areas. Equally, the slow murder of the ship’s crew as they unwittingly transport their killer to his new home is agonisingly tense.
I recommend watching Nosferatu, if at all possible, with an audience in order to feel the same fears and relief as those around you. At home, it’s still a powerful film but once heighted in all ways through a collective experience.
Let me know what you think by joining the conversation on Twitter.