Though diminished by decades of pop-horror incarnations, the vampire remains uniquely evocative of both dread and fascination, horror and seductiveness. Monsters from werewolves to Freddy Krueger may frighten, but neither victims nor audience are drawn to them. By contrast, the vampire suggests the horror of evil working on our disordered passions.
A pioneering film in the silent German expressionist movement, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake) is almost unique in imagining a vampire who is not darkly attractive, but corpselike and ghastly. Even so, his dread fascination remains troubling; the hero’s wife seems repelled but also mesmerized even as she seeks to destroy him.
An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu made few concessions to copyright beyond name and place changes: Count Dracula became Count Orlock (Max Schreck), Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina Harker became Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder), and scenes set in England were moved to Bremen, Germany (yet the vampire’s arrival by sea is retained, illustrating just how superficial the changes are).
Perhaps unfortunately, Murnau’s film all but eschews the traditional role of Christian iconography, of crucifixes and holy water, in vampire mythology, retaining only a few vestigial references (e.g., an allusion to the seven deadly sins). (Herzog’s remake, which restores Stoker’s original character names, also reincorporates Stoker’s religious imagery.) However, it more than makes up for this with a major new contribution to vampire mythology: It was in this film that the vampire was first imagined to have a deathly vulnerability to sunlight.
Nosferatu, like Dracula, has been the subject of numerous Freudian and sociological interpretations: The vampire is sex; the vampire is the id or animal desire; the vampire is wantonness; the vampire is venereal disease.
As applied to Stoker’s novel, at least some of these theories may be worth exploring; but Murnau’s film fundamentally alters the equation in ways that upends such interpretations.
First, it leaves Dracula’s wives out of the story, eliminating the seductive scene in the book that leaves the protagonist Harker in a debilitated condition. Second and more importantly, it changes the rules about destroying vampires: Whereas Stoker’s Dracula could be opening attacked with stakes and holy artifacts, Murnau’s Orlock must be distracted till dawn by a pure virgin surrendering herself to his thirst, even at the cost of her life.
This is no simple metaphor for sex or animal appetite, for Orlock is too obviously evil, destructive, and moribund; yet in making surrender rather than resistance the means of destroying the monster, the film hardly evokes wantonness or venereal disease. The imagery resists allegorization, remaining simply, unsettlingly, itself.
With Nosferatu itself now in public domain, the film has long been widely available on VHS and DVD — in mostly poor editions. The best version is the two-disc “Ultimate Edition” from Kino. With a high-definition transfer of a new restoration and an orchestral performance of the original 1922 score by Hans Erdmann, Kino’s latest version surpasses their own excellent previous edition as well as that a very good Image edition.
Obviously, any worthwhile edition should include tints (blue for night, yellow for interiors, etc.) rather than literal black and white, have an appropriate musical score, and use Murnau’s character names (Orlock, Hutter, etc.) rather than Stoker’s.
The making of Nosferatu — the first (if unauthorized) film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and one of the 45 films on the Vatican film list — has passed into legend. Denied rights to Dracula by Stoker’s widow, German director F. W. Murnau simply had an adapted screenplay written with alternate character names: Count Dracula became "Count Orlock," Jonathan Harker became "Thomas Hutter," and so on. (Substantial changes were so minimal that at least one English-language edition actually restores Stoker’s original names in the title cards.)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.