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.