It’s 100 years since Max Schreck donned the garb of the undead, or the Nosferatu to use a word claimed by Dracula author Bram Stoker. Except Nosferatu isn’t an old Romanian word for vampires at all; it’s more likely to be derived from the Greek word nosforos, which means disease bearing, and that’s a theme that FW Murnau’s classic horror film reflects in both narrative and visuals. Those who saw the film in 1922 would have been fresh from a global pandemic that would still have left them in fear; the sight of the repellent Count Orlok arriving on their shores on a ship full of rats would have struck a primal chord in masses who were likely to have lost loved ones amongst the 50 million killed by influenza.
To celebrate the centenary of Nosferatu, we headed up to abandoned semenary Blair College near Aberdeen for the first Festival of Darkness, where a special screening had been organised in this most Gothic of settings; I’ll write a full account of the trip elsewhere. Nosferatu is, of course, a silent film, so live soundtrack music was provided by polymath David Allison, whose Rob Roy I’ve covered elsewhere on this blog, and he’ll be providing the same emotional through-line for tomorrow’s performance at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Nosferatu is a tricky text, following broad themes if not exact details from Stoker’s novel, but it’s no less iconic for being something of an unofficial rip-off.
The only production of German-based Prana films, Nosferatu moves Stoker’s action from London and Whitby to Germany, and sees estate agent Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) sent by his creepy boss Knock on a mission to Transylvania; his client Orlock (Schreck) wants to buy property nearby to Hutter and his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder). Hutter visits Orlock in his remote home in the Carpathian mountains, and gets trapped there while the vampire makes arrangements to post himself in his coffin to Ellen’s vicinity in beautiful downtown Lübeck, having taken a shine to the photo of her that Hutter carries with him…
As a German film of the 20’s, there is potential for anti-semitism here, but that’s not borne out by Murnau’s other work or personal life, so Orlock’s hooked nose is probably just a successful effort to make him as grotesque as possible. That mission is accomplished; this vampire as a feral, otherworldly quality that makes him a genuine monster, reflected in a strange and haunting shot of Orlok standing in a rowing boat as it drifts across a river, carrying his own coffin under his arm like luggage. The other performances, including a genuine 1922 stripey cat, are various degrees of ripe, but that’s the style of the time; in some way the primitive nature of the acting emphasises the film’s credentials as the very first of many, many vampire films.
Stoker’s novel has been adapted countless times; see Kim Newman’s Daily Dracula feature to get a sense of just how many variations there are. But Murnau was a master film-maker, with his follow-up Sunrise one of the great works of cinematic art. Nosferatu is, however, better known and more influential, and with good reason; it’s a fully realised version of the Dracula myth, and even today has the power to disconcert and create unease in a world struggling to reach the post-pandemic phase.