NOSFERATU is a film that we are not mean to see. It is by no means cursed or otherwise forbidden, but rather, it narrowly escaped its own execution.
Were you to watch NOSFERATU with any knowledge of the basic plot of Bram Stoker’s book Dracula, you would very quickly assume that NOSFERATU is simply the film adaptation of that book. Though the film rights to the book were not given to director Murnau, in the end, the film’s story is essentially the same as the book. The characters, their relationships and motives, and even the various locations in both the book and the film are so very similar. Bram Stoker’s widow in 1922 noticed these similarities as well and sued the filmmakers for damages. She easily won the court case and the court ordered all of the prints of the film to be destroyed. Nearly every copy was burned, but a few narrowly avoided their fate while traveling abroad.
Thank goodness the film was not entirely lost, as it is a beautiful and influential force from the early days of cinema.
NOSFERATU, despite its lurid history, is gorgeous. Though certain scenes are still worse for ware (the best surviving prints have been restored as well as they can be), the film is breathtaking with innovative framing and camera work. I hesitate to say it was ahead of its time given the rapidly evolving film industry in the 1920s, but Murnau was clearly a leader in film techniques. While much of NOSFERATU’s success as a film should be credited to Murnau, the film also owes much of its impact to the man playing Nosferatu, Max Schreck.
Schreck’s presence as the vampire Count Orlok seems somehow bigger than the screen that contains him. Given this undeniable presence, his introduction in the film comes in the form of more of a whimper than a bang. While I would have loved to see Nosferatu’s grand entrance rival Lon Chaney’s entrance as the Phantom of the Opera as he enters the ball, Nosferatu simply waits outside for his guest, Hutter, to arrive. He looks almost alien. With pointed ears, impossible fingers, and teeth that cannot be contained by his lips, he scoots across the entrance to his castle and then abruptly stops. It is the eagerness, and paired tempering of this eagerness so as to not frighten his guest, which is unsettling. He walks with confidence, but the slight touch of desperation is what twists this performance.
The second introduction of Nosferatu occurs on the ship that is bringing him to his new home. The sailors think that they are only shipping coffins filled with soil across the sea, but when crew members begin to fall ill to a pesky “plague” that is going around they become suspicious. When only the first mate and captain remain alive, they head below deck to the cargo area to see what may have been causing the plague. As they tear into the boxes of soil, suddenly one of the lids swings open on its own. Defying gravity, the now open container reveals the previously slumbering Count, now awake and not thrilled with having his boxes torn apart. Before the audience or the first mate can begin to process how the coffin opened on its own, Nosferatu ascends upright, and is now standing straight up and staring at the sailor. This fluid, effortless movement leaves the count instantly towering over his anticipated prey. It is with this introduction that we see his supernatural abilities for ourselves. We knew Orlok was the cause of everything bad that was happening both on land and at sea, but the sudden confrontation with this undead creature is jarring.
The intrigue over Schreck and his immersive performance as Nosferatu has an aura itself. I have heard anecdotally that Schreck never appeared in another film. Schreck, in fact, was an already well-established German screen actor and went on to have a solid career after the film. It is fascinating, however, to see that 94 years after the film’s release we are still talking about the intrigue in NOSFERATU and the circumstances of the film’s resurrection. E. Elias Merhige’s fantastic film SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE further pushes us to delve deeper into NOSFERATU, to look for signs of foul play. It is almost as if we cannot believe that such a beautiful film, a “symphony of horror,” was nearly destroyed and yet, continues to be shown to this day.