Long before they began to sparkle, vampires rampaged through folkore as creatures to be feared and despised, not fawned over by high school girls. Neither charming nor handsome, they preyed upon the living and drained their life essence, wreaking havoc long after death. These are the monsters that inspired F.W. Murnau and his cast and crew at the legendary UFA studio in Weimar Germany.Nosferatu (1922) holds the dual distinction of first Dracula adaptation and first unauthorized knockoff. Though screenwriter Henrik Galeen pulled the story directly from Stoker’s novel–and acknowledged as much in the credits–Stoker’s estate had never blessed the production. Changes were made in order to avoid litigation: Count Dracula became Count Orlok; Jonathan and Mina Harker became Thomas and Ellen Hutter; the Count’s new home moved from England to Germany. These thin alterations proved not enough, however, to avoid a court order that destroyed all but a few copies. Fortunately, the film lived on in death much like its protagonist.
Count Orlok is no Romeo or Lothario. Wide and flat ears frame his bald head, much like the wings of a bat. His fangs grow from his front teeth, much like the bite of a rodent. His gnarled fingers serve as warped talons. No brandy by the fire or nights at the opera for this Count; he feeds on his neighbors without benefit of romantic foreplay. For proponents of Dracula as invasion literature, Nosferatu serves as Exhibit A. Orlok is a deranged and misshapen foreigner come to prey upon the civilized world. Max Schreck delivers a classic movie monster with mannerisms and physicality that leap off the screen without the aid of dialogue. In fact, his silent predation adds to the creep factor. The remaining actors, well, let’s just say playing to the back row was still a thing in that era and leave it at that. The melodrama adds to the fun. Murnau employs every film resource at his disposal: purple-tinted frames to indicate nightfall, angular sets with looming shadows, cranked-up speeds and reverse exposures to indicate the supernatural. And, at 92 minutes, it never overstays its welcome.Plenty has been said about this classic silent film. It’s horror, first and foremost, a counterweight to the swashbuckling count of Dracula Untold. Murnau is my favorite of the German Expressionist directors, though his output ended abruptly with a car accident at 42. At least he also gave us The Last Laugh, Phantom, Faust and Sunrise, the latter of which I’ve already spoken. UFA’s influence on horror can’t be overstated. Hitchcock learned his craft there before returning to England. Others like DP Karl Freund brought their techniques to Hollywood and showed Universal how to shoot a horror picture. Now there’s an invasion I can get behind.
Other than knock-off name changes, this film introduces two new elements to the Dracula mythos. It’s the first to demonstrate that vampires can be destroyed by sunlight–Stoker’s count merely loses his supernatural powers during the day. Also of interest, Mina stand-in Ellen Hutter destroys Orlok herself by distracting him until sunrise with her feminine charms. Brave Sir Robin, indeed.
Finally, an unqualified classic! Nosferatu earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Two long, razor-sharp rat’s teeth.
Up next: Coppola takes a swing.