“Does this word not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight? Beware you never say it — for then the pictures of life will fade to shadows, haunting screams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.”
Every year for Killtoberfest I choose a horror franchise to focus on. (Including the secret first year, before I was reviewing the movies I was watching.) Previous franchises: The Grudge, Hellraiser, and Scream. This year I had some trouble choosing a series to focus on. I was wary of doing the “big three”, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, especially because I’m not a huge fan of any of the originals there, and I’ve heard that all three franchises go downhill pretty quickly. Also, I knew time would be tight this year (and boy, has it been), so I was reluctant to take on even half of a series lasting nine, ten, or twelve (!) movies. Long story short (too late), I hit upon the idea of just doing one little sounder on today’s Killtoberfest 3: Third Time’s the Harm movie, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, and a pair of later films it inspired. This is cheating slightly, since I’ve already seen Nosferatu several times, but I needed the refresher. And as a fascinating silent film, it’s not something I’m reluctant to revisit.
An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with just enough of the plot, mythos, and names changed around to avoid a lawsuit (only they didn’t), the original Nosferatu is something of a unique take on the story of that famous vampire. Dracula is one of my favorite novels, but despite countless attempts (no pun intended), there hasn’t really been a great faithful adaptation. To be fair, for all its powerful scenes of cinematic horror, Stoker’s novel is actually very novelistic; it’s epistolary, consisting of letters, newspaper articles, and diary entries (the literary equivalent of a found footage movie?), and the book does much by intimation, keeping its villain off-screen for the majority of the story. The movies have struggled to find their own ways into the story, and often succeed better the more they condense and simplify the narrative and the more they find their own metier. (Too many Dracula movies–the 70s Langella film, for instance–take their cues from the Bela Lugosi version, which is really not that great.) The best at condensing the story into a still-coherent film narrative is the original Hammer Dracula (1958); but arguably the best at finding its own stylistic take on the monster is Nosferatu.
Murnau, one of the all-time great visual storytellers, chooses a version of Stoker’s wordy tale so pared down that scene after scene becomes iconic and powerful in its own right. It begins, as does Stoker’s novel, with “Hutter” (Gustav von Wangenheim, tragically born with his own porn name), the film’s Jonathan Harker equivalent. Harker was an average joe, a solicitor sent to Dracula’s remote home to go over some real estate contracts; ideal casting, a young Tom Hanks, first aw-shucks friendly, then oh-shit horrified by what he finds there. In contrast, Nosferatu‘s Hutter is a bit of a doofus. Part of this is surely a matter of silent movie acting being overthreatrical, as when Hutter laughs and throws away a book about vampires he finds on his journey. But his performance is the most overtly comical in the piece, and it’s hard to be entirely sympathetic towards him given how long it takes him to react to the strangeness of his surroundings with more than blithe ignorance.
That’s all right, though; as soon as Hutter arrives at the castle of the film’s legally-distinct-from-Dracula antagonist, Count Orlok (Max Schreck, who got his name off a German hair dryer), it becomes clear that Orlok is the true star. Watching him read, speak to Hutter, wear a suit, etc., is like watching one of the aliens from They Live walking around as if nothing were wrong with their creepy skull face. Orlok is barely human, a monstrous visage so unlike any of the typical actor faces you see in silent movies that he stands out like a bleeding thumb. “Precious blood!” he hisses after Hutter accidentally cuts his hand during dinner; Orlok’s veneer of humanity is pretty damn thin. Even so, his grotesquely elongated features and odd, stiff movements are nothing compared to Hutter’s vision of the Count in his coffin. In Orlok, Murnua creates the perfect silent movie monster, a being whose whole body is made of German Expressionism, from his fancy suit to his long, horrible claws. More demon than flesh and blood body, it tends to move as if carried by some psychic force, gliding from room to room or floating up out of its coffin with dreamlike slowness:
The film doesn’t rest on Schreck as Orlok alone, though; Murnau supports his star in four important ways.
First, the Count’s mystical powers are brought to eerie life through the use of a series of special effects, including fast motion (conveying supernatural speed to Orlok and his carriage), stop motion (coffins and coffin lids moving by themselves), inverted negatives, etc. Nearly 100 years on, they’re perhaps more charming than frightening, but in a way that only adds to Orlok’s other-worldliness. Mostly they make me want to see a horror film from Michel Gondry.
Second, Murnau designs and shoots his environments in such a way so as to give Orlok power and draw power from everyone else. Take another look at that gif above–at his full height, Orlok can’t even fit within the frame. This is, of course, a deliberate choice, and one that Murnau makes in similar fashion again and again throughout. Here he uses the doorframe to emphasize the Count’s tall, thin body:
Later he shoots Orlok from a low angle to emphasize his control of the situation:
Or, as in the image at the top of this post, uses the monster’s shadow to make him seem even more outsized and stretched in comparison to his environment.
These strategies are in direct contrast to the way the rest of the characters are filmed, from Hutter:
To his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder):
His boss, Knock (Alexander Granach) (the movie’s Renfield equivalent):
And many other characters:
Through a combination of high angles, wide shots, location shooting, and production design, Murnau shows ordinary people dwarfed by their environments and humbled by the mystery of death. A master of dark and confined spaces, the vampire easily holds dominion over them, even from afar.
Another way in which Murnau builds up his monster is doing what many Dracula adaptations don’t think to do–imbuing the creature with its own set of metaphors and symbolic associations. The nosferatu here can be read many ways, just as Dracula could in Stoker’s original novel. Orlak is a “deathbird,” a kind of dark omen; a demon, feeding on men; a plague, haunting the town he arrives in; a dark psychic influence, as with Knock; a deadly shadow; a mindless, carnivorous creature; and an emblem of dark sexuality threatening Hutter’s wholesome marriage. Most striking is the plague metaphor. Orlok’s coffins, filled with cursed dirt, bring rats aboard the ship, and with the rats comes a horrible disease that takes the crew one by one. Shot as if with dark sails, the plague ship enters port as if deserted, and after Orlok steals into the night (hefting a coffin bigger than himself with apparent ease), the black death finds the town, too, triggering solemn funeral processions, quarantine and marks on doors to signify unclean houses, and finally panic and mob violence. These are common themes of both Dracula and its many cinematic adaptations, the idea of the vampire as a debilitating foreign influence, dangerous sensuality and a breakdown of the civilized order, but due to its silence Nosferatu is forced to actually show these things, rather than simply tell us about them–another reason it endures.
The final means by which Murnau supports his monster’s central importance is through narrative structure. This film really is a “symphony of horror,” featuring five acts, or movements; during each, far more time is spent observing the reactions of others to Orlok and the legends of his kind than on the Count’s own actions. We see the tale of the death ship from multiple perspectives, including the first mate’s written log; we see the frightened townspeople who will drive Hutter no closer to the the dread castle; we see lectures on the Venus flytrap and other violent creatures; we get the warnings of the book Hutter finds, and twice his letter to Ellen, entreating her not to worry even as it suggests an unsettling journey. In the film’s finest portion, it cuts between Orlok’s progress at sea and Hutter’s desperate race to arrive home first to protect his wife, classically building tension and anticipation for their meeting. As a result, the Count becomes a towering figure of fear on the basis of comparatively little screentime–just as Stoker kept Dracula out of sight once Harker and the others knew to fear him.
Interestingly, all of these strategies are reversed during the climax of the film. An aspect of the legend is discovered that pertains to Ellen’s role in this affair. She gets her own subplot, too, where she goes from passive victim-in-waiting to the story’s true heroine, sacrificing herself to save the town by offering her blood and body to the beast in order to distract him from the rising sun. Ellen receives strong close-ups to match her determination:
While Orlok’s romantic obsession with her seems to weaken him, a weakness reflected in his cinematography. His powerful control of the ship plays in reverse as he takes a boat across a small moat in front of his new house in a depowering wide:
And then stares across at Ellen from behind a window that traps and de-emphasizes him:
In fact, he’s never smaller on screen then he is here, barely visible from across the street:
At last, when Ellen’s plan succeeds, Murnau pulls out one more special effect, the sun fading Orlok into a puff of smoke and flame:
Why do we still care about Nosferatu this long after its production and release? For one thing, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the movie is so well made, and Orlok so well acted and designed, that even as a charming artifact of the 1920s, the film can still weave its spell. But the other reason is that Nosferatu‘s influence far outlives it. The film pioneered the idea of the vampire as inhuman monster–rather than Count Dracula’s urbane, European persona, Orlok is animal-like, strange and unsociable. That idea, and the make-up which captured it so well, have continued to influence the genre, from Tobe Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot to Dark City to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the film itself garnered several remakes–including our next Killtoberfest entry, Werner Herzog’s 1979 version–as well as a fictionalized feature about the making of Nosferatu, the third in my sounder, Shadow of the Vampire. Few movies from Nosferatu‘s era are worth this kind of influence, or worth revisiting at all. But I’m sure I’ll continue to watch and rewatch the film for years to come–and I’m equally sure that Count Orlak will continue to shadow the vampire genre forever.
Happily, Nosferatu is in the public domain, just under the 1923 cut-off. Check it out here or wherever freely available films are shown:
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.