The Vampyre Chronicles: Nosferatu (1922)

In 1922, F.W. Murnau directed his gothic masterpiece, Nosferatu, the first ever feature-length version of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Dracula. Unfortunately, Murnau failed to purchase the rights to the novel before doing so, and was therefore forced to alter his story ever so slightly. He had hoped that, by changing the character’s names and moving the central location from London to Wisburg, Germany, his film might slip by unnoticed. It didn’t. Florence Stoker, the author’s widow, sued the filmmakers for the unauthorized use of her husband’s work. Ms. Stoker eventually won her case, resulting in a court order that every existing print of Nosferatu, negatives and all, be gathered up and destroyed.

Fortunately for us, they missed a few of ‘em.

Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a young real estate agent, has been sent by his maniacal boss, Knock (Alexander Granach) to the castle of Count Orlok (Max Schreck), where he must negotiate a contract that will bring the mysterious Count to Wisburg. Leaving his new wife, Nina (Greta Schrõder), behind, Hutter makes the long journey to Orlok’s castle. Once there, Hutter comes to realize the Count is, in reality, an undead monster, and must be prevented from ever leaving the grounds of his dilapidated castle. However, the Count moves quickly, and seals Hutter up in a room in the tower. Setting out for Wisburg alone, the Count plans to take up residence in an abandoned building, one situated directly across the street from Hutter’s home.

Despite the many years that have passed since its production, Nosferatu remains a truly frightening marriage of story and atmosphere. The character of Count Orlok, as portrayed by Max Schreck, is easily one of the most recognizable monsters ever committed to film. and, 80+ years later, his vampire is still the most chilling in cinematic history. When we first meet the Count, he’s emerging from a darkened tunnel to greet the newly-arrived Hutter, an initial appearance that is as sinsiter as it is shocking. Schreck’s vampire resembles a giant rat with a pair of deep, hypnotic eyes, and even the child-like Hutter, so carefree in the film’s early scenes, shrinks in terror at the sight of his host, as if suddenly sensing the evil that has descended upon him. Later that night, Hutter is cutting some bread for dinner. His hand slips, and the knife slices into his finger, drawing blood. Orlok’s eyes widen. He jumps from his seat and approaches Hutter with a crazed look in his eyes, once again causing his guest to withdraw in fear. Schreck’s performance, in this scene and all others, is positively creepy.

In 1924, Béla Balázs, a German film writer, wrote that the experience of watching Nosferatu was like a “chilly draft from doomsday”. That’s still true today. Thanks to the talents of F.W. Murnau and Max Schreck, Nosferatu remains an undeniably spine-chilling masterpiece.

12 Comments

  1. It is definitely one of the great vampire films. And it is little wonder Murnau got caught in his plagiarism. The movie does follow the novel very closely, more closely than many of the licensed adaptations!

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  2. I'm a Herzog fan, and I did like the remake. If anyone was going to fill Max Schreck's shoes, I think Klaus Kinski was just about the best choice possible! However, I will always prefer the original.

    I agree. Herzog's will make a great future "Vampyre Chronicles"

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  3. And Willem Dafoe does a pretty good job in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE – although the intent of that film was a bit different.

    There is only one Max Schreck though. A testament to this is just how many other films you've seen clips of the original Nosferatu contained within, playing on cinema screens or TV screens within the movie. Hundereds of these incidents.

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  4. This film remains amazing because of the iconic imagery that Murnau was able to capture. I personally am absolutely in love with black/white photography, and definitely the ecspressionistic(sp?) style of german films during the 1910-20s. The high contrast stylized way of photographing the elements that determine the action and plot of the film, is something that has stayed with me since I was first exposed to it, and is something that I personally can not get enough of. This film is one of the key ecsponents(sp?) of this particular wave of artistic ecspression(sp?) in filmmaking, because it has such an extremely modern element as a vampire, which could get people to see the film. That, and also the absolutely astonishing talent behind the camera. The visual effects in this film are also amazing, yet hardly worth mentioning because the visual effects of todays cinema has grown way beyond what was done in Nosferatu. This is a film I recommend to everyone, and I believe most of the DVD releases (there has been a couple) come with a soundtrack too, so it should not be that tough of a sell.

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  5. Henrik. I recommend THE LAST LAUGH, for its beautiful B&W cinematography. While it's not so expressionistic as this or Dr. Caligari, it's got some impressive 'subjective camerawork' in the closing sequences of the film. I love Murnau in general, and am kicking myslef that I've never sat down with SUNRISE, considering its reputation.

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  6. I have seen The Last Laugh (I am assuming you are talking about Der Letzte Mann?). I liked it. The subjective camerawork I guess was groundbreaking, but I definitely don't find it as aesthetically pleasing or interesting as some of the photography in Nosferatu, or Caligari, or Metropolis, or M for that matter.

    The thing that really gets my interest and makes me fall in love, is the highly staged, extremely beautiful high-contrast photography, that is prevalent in Nosferatu and others. It is so clear, so raw, so explicit yet never banal, and it goes right inside you and makes you feel something.

    If you are like me, I would recommend (he's danish I know, but he is celebrated outside of Danmark as well :P) Carl Th. Dreyer's films, where especially Ordet would be one that should appeal to you. It's probably still the most beautiful black/white film I have ever seen.

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  7. Henrik: It's interesting you mention Dreyer. My all-time favorite silent film (Nosferatu is a close second) is The Passion of Joan of Arc. Maria Falconetti's eyes speak volumes in that one.

    Kurt: I also liked The Last Laugh, especially how Murnau told his entire story visually, not even using title cards to identify a single line of "dialogue".

    And yes, definitely check out Sunrise when you get the chance. It is superb.

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  8. Carl Theodore Dreyer is a filmmaker who I have yet to delve into. Some day for sure. Like Ophuls, Ozu and Bresson. Some day I'll get lost in all these filmmakers work.

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  9. I agree that the film isn't a hard sell but only from a good print. I've seen more than my share of sloppy, sepia tinted versions that are really unflattering and remove the viewer from the experience but I completely agree that this is one of the best interpretations of Dracula.

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  10. Having just gotten back from Sunrise, I will say right now that it is probably the best blockbuster I have ever seen.

    Another convincing argument for the theory that all the best american films are made by europeans :P.

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