Nosferatu: A Breath of Fresh Air
Eve O’Dea - University of British Columbia
A century after its release, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), remains a masterpiece of German cinema and expressionist horror. Based heavily on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu follows Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a young German real estate agent, on his journey to the mysterious land of Transylvania to conduct business with the elusive Count Orlok (Max Schreck), leaving his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) behind in their sleepy hometown of Wisborg. After a night at the Count’s castle, Hutter becomes convinced of Orlok’s malicious motives as a bloodthirsty vampire. In the dead of night, Orlok begins to make his way to Wisborg for Ellen’s neck, spreading chaos and hysteria in his wake.
Thematically, Nosferatu sits comfortably amongst its expressionist peers, such as Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and Orlacs Hände (1924), and Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Within this compelling genre, Nosferatu stands out as a masterfully composed arrangement, at no point lagging or rushing but rather playing out at a consistently hypnotic pace. Murnau has managed to present a fantastical tale as reasonably possible, both through precisely controlled cinematic techniques and setting the film amongst the natural world, unchained from the constraints of a movie studio.
An opening title card introduces the story by referring to ‘my hometown of Wisborg’. We cut to a wide, almost a birds-eye-view shot of a German town. In the foreground, a church spire cuts the screen in two. In the background pedestrians move about the streets, past brick-and-mortar houses and shops. Compare this to the introductory scene of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. The narrator begins his tale by reminiscing about ‘The little town where I was born’. We iris-in to a painted backdrop image of around a hundred houses literally stacked on top of each other, bending like rising flames. It resembles something from a children’s book, completely disregarding the laws of physics or gravity. It looks nothing like anything that exists in real life, so we can leave it behind, along with our fear, at the movie theatre. In 1922, European audiences of Nosferatu would have been especially horrified to see a hometown so like their own at the centre of this horrific tale. On their way home from the theatre, they may have hesitated before turning the corner. Today, it presents like a historical document, avoiding any excess of drama or extravagance to remind us that it’s only make-believe.
During Hutter’s voyage to Orlok’s castle, he treks through the Carpathian Mountains, ignoring several warnings from superstitious locals. By filming this region as is, without amplification, Murnau manages to heighten the tension with the mere rustle of a leaf, forcing us to consider what lies underneath. Rather than roll, the mountains stab upwards, as if desperate to break free from their tectonic restraint. This only prepares us for Orlok and his castle, each as if moments from crumbling, clinging desperately to their last signs of life. We hold our breath at the sight of this decay, lest something should topple over. This geographical range does not need to be enhanced by dramatic close-up, or replicated as a painted, highly defined backdrop. The simple presentation of this land midway between day and night, accompanied by this ghastly story does more than enough to produce feelings of unease and anxiety. In lieu of claustrophobia often elicited by the densely designed sets of expressionist cinema, Nosferatu evokes dread from exposure. Here, there is nowhere to hide. Murnau’s masterful depiction of the natural world makes us think twice about our next stroll through the woods.
Nosferatu’s influence appears in countless allusions and remakes. Its shadow has been present throughout the last century of vampire cinema, with filmmakers both German and international using it as the basis for their own projects. German director Werner Herzog took a stab at the property in 1979 with Nosferatu The Vampyre, casting his frequent collaborator Klaus Klinski in the title role. Robert Eggers, director of modern horrors The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) has expressed interest in remaking it as well. As silent films go, it can easily be approached by non-aficionados, transcending a century of evolving tastes to effectively send chills down your spine in 2021. The choice to use real world settings instead of glaringly artificial film sets allows the film to transcend the cinematic universe and exist as a sort of myth, prime for further artistic inspiration.
Though in fact a prominent actor in both film and theatre, Schreck’s low visibility in American entertainment has led to speculation surrounding his identity. So convincing was his performance that legends persist that he was in fact an actual vampire. Such a theory was the basis for E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a fictionalized retelling of the making of Nosferatu that suggests that Schreck, played by Willem Dafoe, was able to accomplish his iconic performance due to being an actual creature of the night. This theory also popped up in the fifth season of American Horror story, in which Murnau, transformed by Schreck, in turn transforms silent film legend Rudolph Valentino. Both Orlok’s physical appearance and Schreck’s performance have remained effective one hundred years later. Orlok does not remains hidden in the shadows until a big reveal that ultimately leads to disappointment, his arrival on screen is almost matter of fact. Hutter looks at him with a curious eye, but not immediate terror. The skilled makeup artistry feels neither dated nor overblown. Though overtly inhuman, we are permitted to consider for just a moment whether something like Orlok could exist in the real world. In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, in which Hutter tries to take shelter from his ghoulish host in his bedroom, Orlok appears in the coffin-shaped doorframe, walking slowly towards the camera and his terrified prey. Given the realism of the surroundings, we forget that there is any sort of barrier between us and what appears on screen, and we recoil.
At his best, the films of Murnau play like musical arrangements. With titles such as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), his American feature debut, it is easy to believe that this was his exact intention. More than any of his other films, Nosferatu moves at a constant pace. It is not dragged down by any superfluous subplot, nor is any moment brushed over. Its unwavering rhythm practically hypnotizes, as we, like Orlok’s victims, become ensnared in its mesmeric trap. From the very beginning, it grabs you, and for ninety minutes, you are under absolute control.