Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1921)

Directed by F. W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck
Running time: 94 mins
Studio: Prana Film
Black & White

Murnau’s Nosferatu is of course a pared down and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Famously, when Stoker’s widow sued, orders went out for all prints of the film to be destroyed, but fortunately some survived. How much of Murnau’s original cut remains is still open to conjecture, but what we do have is more than enough to be able to say with confidence that not only is Nosferatu one of the absolute masterpieces of the horror genre, it is also one of the great films of all time. That makes reviewing it a little bit daunting, but here goes:

Nosferatu is a film about many things; but primarily it’s a film about Death. Death with a great big capital D. Presented as a chronicle of the Great Death in Wisborg of 1838, we are informed at the outset that the very word ‘Nosferatu’ is like “the midnight cry of the Deathbird” and is capable of causing one to lose the will to live. The story opens, though, with images of life in abundance – bright sunshine; playful kittens; blossoming flowers; and a husband and wife in love – but we are reminded almost immediately that life and its pleasures come at a cost, usually to something or someone else. When our hero, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), presents his wife  Ellen (Greta Schroeder) with freshly picked flowers from the garden, she is upset by the fact that the flowers have had to die in order for Hutter to show his affection.

Hutter, however, doesn’t seem to let such things bother him. He is a man who believes, or at least is told, that he has a destiny. We are introduced to his employer in Wisborg, a property agent by the name of Knock (Alexander Granach). Knock is the subject of “all sorts of rumours”. We are never told what these rumours are, but given his appearance and suspicious behaviour, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are of an unsavoury nature (more on this later). When we meet him he is deciphering a letter written in some strange code. The letter is from a Transylvanian Count by the name of Orlok, who is looking to buy a “fine, deserted” house in Wisborg; but Knock's reaction to the letter's contents suggests that there's more going on. Tellingly, he thinks that the tottering and near-derelict pile that sits opposite Hutter’s own house would make the perfect home for the Count; and he decides that Hutter would be the ideal person to make the transaction, although it will mean travelling the long distance to Transylvania to meet the Count in person.  This doesn’t sit well with Ellen, who is immediately afflicted with dread on learning the news from her husband; but Hutter seems eager – perhaps too eager - to go, and soon he sets off on horseback, leaving his anguished wife in the care of friends.

Hutter’s journey is hard, but eventually he arrives at the peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. In contrast to the bright and orderly calm of Wisborg, Hutter finds himself entering a world of darkness and irrationality. Peasants at the inn where he spends a night react in terror at his mention of Count Orlok’s castle and try to dissuade Hutter from going any further by frightening him with talk of werewolves. On his bedside table, Hutter finds a book entitled Vampyres, Gastlie Spirits, Bewitchments & the Seven Deadly Sins, which speaks of Nosferatu springing from ‘Belial’s seed’. Horses panic in the fields, wolves prowl the forests and the peasant folk huddle together and make the sign of the cross.

Of course, things seem better in the morning, but as Hutter continues his journey by coach the landscape becomes ever wilder and more threatening, with its jagged, barren mountains, it’s deep valleys and black tarns. It is the world stripped to the bare bones, its desolate underlying reality exposed. Abandoned at sunset at a pass beyond which the driver of the coach will not go, Hutter is forced to continue to Orlok’s castle on foot. As he enters “the land of spectres” and espies Orlok’s castle perched precariously atop of rocky mountain outcrop, he is afflicted with “eerie visions”, including - it seems - the arrival of a mysterious black coach which takes him the rest of the journey . Some critics have expressed disappointment that Murnau’s chose to speed up the film at this point to convey the Count’s supernatural  abilities, and the sight of the coach rattling along at impossible speeds does at first look a little silly; but at the same time, if it isn’t merely an ‘eerie vision’, it is consistent with the idea of the irrational as the true, denied, reality. Like Hutter, we can’t quite believe what we’re seeing, but it’s happening all the same.

The Count’s castle is a decaying, ramshackle affair – a far cry from the imposing medieval edifices favoured by later, more famous cinematic vampires – and the Count’s first appearance puts one very much in mind of a rodent emerging from its hole, so low is the archway through which the rat-like Orlok (Schreck) appears.  Hutter is clearly alarmed by the Count’s bizarre appearance, as any sane person would be, and Schreck’s Orlok, with his long talons, hooked nose and pointed ears, remains one of the most iconic figures in the history of horror, inspiring countless imitations and parodies.

Orlok’s home is filled with images of desolation and death – the near-empty rooms; the disused fireplace containing nothing but a few dry sticks; the skeleton clock that strikes at midnight. There is no life here.  Even the bread that Hutter eats during the meal that the Count lays on looks tasteless and stale.  During the meal, Hutter accidentally cuts himself on the bread knife eliciting an almost lustful response from the Count, who worries about the loss of Hutter’s “precious blood” and tries to kiss the wound better, an act so grotesque and inappropriate that Hutter recoils in disgust. The Count, however, is not offended and they end the evening in conversation before Hutter falls into a deep sleep.

On waking, Hutter is bothered by two small bite marks on his neck, which he attributes to the ever-present mosquitoes. He spends the morning writing a letter to Ellen and later that evening presents Orlok with the deeds to his new home. Whilst signing the deeds, the Count is intrigued by a photograph of Hutter’s wife, commenting that she has “a lovely neck”. That night, in one of the film’s eeriest sequences, Orlok enters Hutter’s bedroom to drink his blood. This is the point at which we see Orlok for what he really is: an animated corpse, moving as though in a trance, the embodiment of an unconscious and deadly will that has no purpose except to feed. As his shadow falls on the terrified Hutter, far away in Wisborg Ellen receives “the Call of Death” in her sleep and cries out her husband’s name. Orlok mysteriously ceases his attack.

It has been argued that Nosferatu conceals a homosexual subtext that may have reflected its director’s own repressed tendencies. Indeed, some have gone so far as to suggest that the whole film is an allegory for homosexuality, with Knock in on the secret from the start and effectively grooming Hutter as a gift for Count Orlok. Perhaps Orlok’s interest in Ellen has less to do with wanting to possess her and more to do with wanting to remove the competition. In the end it takes the love and sacrifice of a good woman to free Hutter from the Count’s homosexual clutches. Watching the scenes in Orlok’s castle, it’s easy to see how such conclusions have been reached; but equally one has to say that if the film is an allegory for homosexuality – with vampirism and death as its metaphors -  it’s a pretty phobic one!  

The next day, a dazed and bewildered Hutter finds the Count sleeping in a coffin in the rotting depths of the castle and decides that the time has come to make good his escape. Before long, the Count is also on the move, piling coffins filled with “God-curst earth from the fields of the Black Death” onto a wagon in preparation for his journey to Wisborg. Orlok’s sea voyage is without doubt my favourite part of the film. Quite apart from Murnau’s magnificent, doom-laden photography, this section of the film has a really palpable sense of menace, as the crew of the Empusa slowly come to realise that the cargo they are carrying is not what it seems (they have been told that the coffins contain earth intended for “experimental purposes”). Rumours begin to spread of a mysterious, half-glimpsed passenger in the hold; men start to fall ill and die. Finally, when only the Captain and his first mate are left alive (though not for long), Orlok reveals himself, rising from his coffin like some hypnotised jack-in-the-box, to claim the ship of death as his own.  His emergence from the hold and his advance on the Captain - who, in refusing to abandon his post, has tied himself to the ship’s wheel - is genuinely frightening; and the shot of the Empusa sailing into harbour at Wisborg must rank as one of the most ominous in all horror cinema.

Meanwhile things have not been going well for Ellen, who has fallen under a “shadow of death” and spends her days, inconsolable, in a graveyard overlooking the sea, watching for her husband’s return. And Hutter does return, having escaped Orlok’s castle and made the journey back to Wisborg by land. This brings some relief for Ellen, but little true consolation: even the strongest ties cannot hold back the darkness that she knows is coming.

Knock, too, has been waiting and has gone insane with excitement at the thought of his master’s arrival. Confined to a lunatic asylum he spends his days eating flies and crying “Blood is life!” to anyone who will listen. It is around this time that we are introduced to Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt), the Van Helsing character, who is engaged in a study of “the cruel habits of nature” and spends his time observing the horror of their mysterious ways. The theme of life devouring life returns again, but reminding us of this appears to be Bulwer’s sole contribution to the story. Unlike the Van Helsings of later adaptations, Bulwer is utterly ineffectual. Science, Murnau seems to be saying, can do no more than show us the horror at the heart of the world. It's also worth noting that there's an almost complete lack of religious iconography in the film. Again, unlike most adaptations of the story, God simply doesn’t enter into the equation. Neither reason nor faith can save us from the darkness that awaits us all.

As Orlok takes in his new home, scurrying through the streets with his coffin under his arm, the army of rats that accompanied him from Transylvania begins its work and the Great Death descends on Wisborg. As plague spreads and the death toll mounts, Orlok observes the fruits of his labours from the shattered windows of his ruined house. Knock, meanwhile, escapes from his cell and, in a sequence that, sadly, feels like padding (for me, it’s the weakest moment in the film), is cast as a scapegoat for the terrible things that are happening and is chased around town by the angry townsfolk for a while, before being recaptured.

Meanwhile, having read up on vampires and their filthy ways, Ellen has come to the conclusion that she alone can confront and destroy the evil that is threatening to destroy her husband and the whole town. Thus the film moves towards its climax, which is essentially a succession of startling and groundbreaking images: Orlok staring over at Ellen from the window of his house, his face like a mask of death; Ellen throwing open her bedroom window to signal her consent; the door to Orlok’s house bursting open to release him into the night; the famous, iconic shot of Orlok’s shadow scuttling up the stairs of Hutter’s house and reaching out to open the bedroom door; the terrified Ellen giving in to the Count's unnatural cravings.

Of course, Ellen has a plan, and is able to keep the Count busy feasting on her neck until dawn is signalled by the crow of the cock; at which point, Orlok realises he has outstayed his welcome and disintegrates in the rays of the morning sun. (Interestingly, Murnau was the first person to suggest that a vampire can be destroyed by sunlight - it isn’t in Stoker’s original). The Great Death is ended, but it is a Phyrric victory - the darkness has consumed Ellen at last, as it will consume all of us eventually, and she expires in the arms of her distraught husband. The film ends with a shot of a ruined building (Orlok’s castle?) on a hill.

Despite all the above, I very much doubt that I have managed to do true justice to this magnificent film. Few horror films have had the artistic scope of Nosferatu and fewer still have had a more profound impact on the genre as a whole. Its hallmarks are its genuinely creepy atmosphere (helped in no small part by the extensive use of natural settings), its relentless pessimism, and its painstaking visual composition. It's a film that bears repeated viewings, as there is always something new to discover.

On a final note, one other reason that I admire this film so much is that in this age of angst-ridden, teenage vampires it’s refreshing to be reminded that once upon a time the vampire wasn't a romantic or anti-heroic creature to be pitied or sympathised with, but a pestilential menace designed to evoke fear and dread. For me, Count Orlok remains the cinema’s most frightening vampire.


  1. Wow good job, that was a kickass review of the movie! :) Nosferatu is and will always be my fav horror movie of all time!

  2. Thank you very much Pixie, glad you enjoyed it.