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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror


‘…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…’

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.




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  1. The shadows, the pre-Dracula spectacle, the cowering beast of Transylvania, and the levitating out of the coffin scene – this is the bare bones horror that stays with me longer than today’s jump scare shock “value.” My favorite element can be found in the multiple score interpretations. My fave was a string quartet in Denver, CO. They played atonal music throughout. Horrifying.

    • Yikes! Yup, there’s something uncanny about the highlights here, not least because they set a language of horror regularly imitated. I’d imagine an atonal soundtrack would add to the disturbing feel. Happy Halloween, will be over for Tar once I’ve seen it, sounds good!

      • Happy Halloween right back! Yes, I have a feeling you’ll enjoy Tar. I was surprised by its mainstream distribution in the states. I don’t think it will do well until word of mouth on Blanchett’s riveting performance. (Sadly, I was the only one in the theatre a couple of nights ago.)

        • I expect to pick it up on a screener, but yes, the speciality market is dying right now. Hopefully a few awards season winners will breathe some life back into things…

  2. Nosferatu is a beautiful silent gem rich in mood and atmosphere with outstanding black & white cinematography. And that makeup on Schreck is still creepy as hell. It’s an excellent example of the german expressionist style. Sadly, I can see modern audiences losing patience with silent movies, as they have a different rhythm and tone, similar to watching a foreign film. But alas, this film is a century old and still entertaining audiences.

    • Agree on all counts. Silent film today does require some effort to watch, it’s from a different culture. And yet talkies initially set the style backwards; the camera tricks and atmosphere of this film are unique. I saw Sunrise at MOMA and was blown away; I just hope audiences will always make the effort to watch something not designed for 2022.

  3. I intellectually understand that this was the first vampire movie, but man, I do not understand how it has stood the test of time. I am just not a fan of silent film.

    Glad you had such a corker of a time though. Howzabout you watch it again and I’ll say I’ve seen it 😀

      • Not one bit. It would be like reading a book with half the words missing. That would just be frustrating.
        And I claim the Bunty Badge of Honor! So from hereon out you may refer to me as Lord Bunty the IV, Earl of Buntington. Or you may just call me “Sir”. I don’t mind a bit of informality amongst such a quality group of people. I’m not a total snob after all!

        • I’ll just call you Bunty. So this film is a hundred years old, is that old enough for you? It’s a silent film so there are no words at all, surely that’s ideal?

  4. Rewards with every rewatch. And it almost didn’t survive. I think Stoker’s wife tried to destroy all the prints. Or something like that.

    Were you part of the live musical accompaniment?

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