Cinematic Century

1922 – Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror

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It’s time to take the Cinematic Century back to the world of the spooky. Oh, and Germany. Because the obvious pick for 1922 is the massively influential and less than legal horror classic from director F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror. There were some other movies from 1922 that could have possibly held a powerful enough sway to earn the title of my favorite film of the year, such as the surreal faux-documentary Haxan, or the actually equally fake Nanook of the North. But if you’re ever seen Nosferatu you know that it’s a hard film to ever beat. It’s a film that somehow seems fresh and horrifying here a hundred years after it was released, which makes me baffled at how audiences must have reacted when it was first released. It’s a gorgeous and creepy film that you should certainly see on the big screen if ever given the chance. Especially if you manage to find a screening that has a live accompanied, score. I first saw this film with a live soundtrack from Austin-based band the Invincible Czars, and it really adds to an already amazing film.

When people think about Nosferatu the thing that most people think about will inevitably be the strange history it had. Because, if you didn’t know, Nosferatu is essentially an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The only thing is, it wasn’t an authorized adaptation. Similarly to the story of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the film started out with some artists trying to grapple with the horror and death that they witnessed in World War I. So screenwriter Henrik Galeen and directer F.W. Murnau decided to take that death and misery, and tell the story of a vampire. And, if you’re telling a vampire story, you’re probably going to start with a foundation of Dracula. The only thing is, they didn’t change much. Some names were switched, the plot was streamlined, and new ideas were tossed in, but it was by and large a pretty direct adaptation, without any approval. Which really came back to bite them in the ass. Because eventually the family of Bram Stoker sued the production, and ordered that all prints be destroyed. Obviously, this didn’t happen. Most of them did, but enough survived that the film managed to last until the present day, escaping lawsuits and censors to become one of the most influential and important horror films in all of cinema.

 

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Like I said, Nosferatu more or less tells the same tale that Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells. It begins in 1938 when a man named Thomas Hutter receives word from his employer, Knock, that he’s to travel to distant Transylvania to meet with a new client, the mysterious Count Orlock. Orlock wants to buy a home in Germany, and Hutter has been chosen to travel to meet with Orlock and have him sign the papers. So Hutter bids farewell to his wife Ellen, and heads to the Carpathian Mountains. Hutter has a pretty decent trip, but when he reaches the small town nearest to Orlock’s castle, things start to change. The townspeople seem terrified of Orlock, and refuse to take Hutter the rest of the way. They’re also obsessed with vampires, and give him a book about the legend of the Nosferatu. It succeeds in creeping Hutter out, and the next day he begins travelling to Orlock’s castle, on his own. He finally reaches the castle that night, and comes face to face with the extremely unsettling Orlock. The two get to work, talking business, but Hutter really starts to become worried about Orlock, especially when Hutter accidentally cuts his thumb, and Orlock responds with glee.

Hutter has to spend several days with Orlock, and things get progressively creepier. He wakes up the first morning to find two mysterious wounds on his neck, but doesn’t want to admit that strange things are happening. Orlock ends up buying the massive house near Hutter’s own home, and starts making weird comments about Ellen, which finally get Hutter concerned. He begins reading that book about vampires, and becomes terrified that Orlock is a vampire. Which is confirmed that night when Orlock arrives in Hutter’s room, looking monstrous and feasts on Hutter. So, with that confirmed, Hutter flees from Orlock’s castle, at the same time that Orlock prepares to leave his castle and head to Germany. He arranges it so that he and a boatload of coffins full of dirt sail to Germany, while Orlock feasts on the poor sailors.

Orlock finally reaches Germany, and takes his coffins to his new home in the middle of the night. And when the harbor officials find the ship the next day and see the piles of dead sailors the town becomes convinced that the Black Death is to blame, and a panic starts to brew. Meanwhile, Hutter finally gets home, and tells Ellen of his horrible encounter with Orlock, causing the two to begin planning what to do to stop Orlock while the town around them goes mad. Orlock begins spying on Hutter and Ellen while his mere presence in the town causes Knock to go mad and lead the townsfolk on a chase. Hutter is convinced that they can find a way to defeat Orlock, and Ellen begins investigating that book Hutter received in Transylvania. And inside she finds a method to kill Orlock. Apparently a woman of pure heart can entrance a vampire, causing it to not know what time it is so that it can be killed by the sunlight. She decides not to tell Hutter of this, and sends him away to fetch a doctor one night, while calling to Orlock when Hutter leaves. And, sure enough, Orlock arrives, and becomes transfixed by Ellen. he begins feasting on her, and doesn’t notice that the sun has begun to rise. Hutter finally reappears, just in time to see Orlock burn to dust, and to hold his wife as she succumbs to her wounds and also dies. Because German cinema doesn’t give a crap about your happy endings.

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This is a film that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s a gorgeous and terrifying film, and I can’t even imagine what a film-goer in 1922 would have thought seeing something as monstrous as Count Orlock on the screen. Nosferatu doesn’t exactly fall into the same German Expressionist bucket as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but while it doesn’t have the same dreamlike feeling it still feels like a nightmare. Murnau’s direction brings this terrifying vision to life, giving us innovative and nightmarish visuals while delivering one of the most frightening monsters in film history with Count Orlock. Actor Max Schreck delivers a haunting performance that’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen. Hell, there’s even an absurd and fun little movie from 2000 called Shadow of the Vampire that posited a fictional world where Schreck actually was a vampire, because his performance is that creepy and natural. I know quite a few people have a problem being drawn into silent films, and I think horror in particular can be a hard genre to connect with in the silent era. Comedies can transcend the barrier of sound, and drama often can be easy to understand, but I feel like silence can put a real damper on the mood and dread that’s necessary for horror to succeed. But not in this case. Because this film relies completely on its visuals, creating a true nightmare.

Which is possibly the thing that I appreciate most about this film. I’m about to make a statement that I think it probably a little controversial. I think Nosferatu is the best adaptation of Dracula that’s ever been made. Yeah, I’ve never been a huge fan of Tod Browning’s Dracula and while some of the Hammer flicks are fun, it’s no question that if I had to point someone to an adaptation of Dracula, it would be Nosferatu. True, the film doesn’t exactly work as a perfect adaptation, what with it cutting out vast swaths of the novel, but where it succeeds is in adapting the tone of Stoker’s novel. This film excises Lucy Westera, her suitors, and Van Helsing completely while making some huge changes to the Harkers and Renfeild, while renaming them. The plot gets streamlined, and while it’s only an unofficial adaptation, it still keeps the plot basics. And yet, this film gives us what I feel is the most authentic Dracula, even though he’s called Orlock. Because, for whatever reason, so many adaptations become obsessed with the idea of Dracula as a romantic figure. He’s often portrayed as a love-interest for Mina Harker, and some sort of misunderstood figure who demands sympathy. Which is so incredibly uninteresting to me. Dracula isn’t a romantic figure in Stoker’s novel, he’s the personification of evil and horror. And so many adaptations miss that idea. The decision to make Orlock this strange and repugnant creature that deserves no sympathy and that comes off as more beast than man is one that works incredibly well for this film, and lets it stand above all other adaptations. I love this film, and if you have any interest in horror in general or Dracula in particular I highly recommend seeing this film to see how it stands up against other, more official, adaptations.

 

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror was written by Henrik Galeen, directed by F. W. Murnau, and released by Prana Films, 1922.

 

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