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All Our Nosferatus

by Gregory Avery
Posted 29 October 1999


"And when he had crossed the bridge, the shadows came to meet him." - title card from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922).

What a strange and miraculous brew this film turns out to be. Built on the bones of another, created only to be scorned, it became pursued and hunted, squandering the fortunes of many in the process, only to split up into multiple guises, hiding, scouring, until a time when it could be reassembled, reemerge, and become recognized as a work of art in its own right. It has endured despite the dust and decay that have overcome many of its contemporaries: Ernst Lubitsch's The Patriot (1928); Erich von Stroheim's The Devil's Passkey (1920); both of Theda Bara's signature films,( Cleopatra (1917) and Salome (1918)); Remodeling Her Husband (1920), in which Dorothy Gish was directed, for the first and only time, by her sister, Lillian, and gave what many considered to be her finest performance; D.W. Griffith's The Greatest Thing in Life (1918), the third of his "war trilogy" films, and one which might have combated the charges of racism leveled at the director in later years had it survived. Nosferatu has not only survived, but continues to astound, and perplex. It is a film that took on a life of its own. It became something that stubbornly refused to die.

The facts about Nosferatu have a way of becoming even more odd and contradictory the more you dig into them, beginning to caper and gibe at you, until your head spins from trying to put together the pieces, as if in a fever. “Nosferatu,” after all, is supposed to derive from the Greek word "nosophoros," or, plague bearer.

It all started out, as most things do, innocently enough. In 1921, a new German production company, Prana-Films ("prana" being the Buddhist term for "breath-of-life"), announced an itinerary of upcoming film productions, the first being Nosferatu, a film based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Nosferatu's screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, stripped the story down to its bare essentials, changed the characters names and the setting (to a German coastal town, Wisborg), and relocated the action back to the 1830s.

The estate agent Thomas Hutter (the Jonathan Harker character) is dispatched by his employer, Knock (the Renfield character), to finalize the sale of a vacant house in Wisborg to one Count Orlok. Jonathan must go himself to the Count's home in Transylvania with the papers and deed. The Count happens to see a cameo portrait of Thomas' wife, Ellen (Harker's fiance Mina, in Stoker's novel), compliments her on her beauty, and quickly signs the papers. Nosferatu He then imprisons Thomas in a room in the castle whose only other access is a window overlooking a ravine. Thomas manages to escape, barely, with his life, and races back to Wisborg as the Count transports himself, with several boxes of earth, on-board the ship "Demeter," which finally docks in Wisborg with all hands dead or missing. The two marks on the dead captain's neck are mistaken by the city officials as signs of the plague. Panic sweeps the town as people begin dying, either from the plague, from vampiric visitations, or both. Thomas reunites with Ellen; unfortunately, Count Orlok's new residence is located directly across from the Hutters', and Ellen sees the Count watching her, every night, through her bedroom window. When she discovers a book in Thomas' baggage, the Book of Vampires (which Thomas found in his room while staying at an inn during his first night in Transylvania), she learns that the "nosferatu" can be destroyed if a woman, "pure in heart," detains him until the first light of day, when it will be too late for him to escape. This Ellen does, and Count Orlok, transfixed by the sun shining in through the very window through which he had earlier terrorized Ellen, disintegrates and vanishes with a trace of smoke.

To direct Nosferatu, Prana-Films engaged the services of F.W. Murnau, a World War-One veteran, who was no stranger to the genre of the "fantastique," having recently made a loose film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, entitled Der Januskopf, starring Conrad Veidt. To handle the cinematography, there was Fritz Arno Wagner, who had recently lensed the 1920 remake of The Golem. And the brilliant designer Albin Grau, one of Prana-Film's co-founders, would do the art direction and come up with the look for the film's vampire, Count Orlok.

One of the unique qualities of Nosferatu is that its vampire is no ordinary one. The Book of Vampires tells that the first nosferatu came forth "from the graveyards of the Black Death." The bubonic plague, or Black Death, swept through Europe, transmitted by fleas carried on the bodies of rats, during the 14th century, killing a third of the population.

NosferatuCount Orlok was given an elongated look, with a white head, eyes which seem to sit in his face like glass marbles, long, white, curling fingers, and fangs which are set, not to the sides like those of a wolf or a bat, but in the center, like those of a rodent. Rats accompany Orlok on his trip to Wisborg, cached away in his boxes of earth. Orlok was not just a predatory vampire, but contagion incarnate, tainting everyone and everything he comes in contact with.

The makeup for Orlok was so effective that a legend grew up around the actor, Max Schreck, who played him. "Schreck" meant "terror" in German. Could it be a pseudonym? And could someone who looked like that on the screen be anyone who could be real, who could be even human, at all?

Max Schreck was a real person, "Schreck" was his actual last name, and Nosferatu was his first film appearance. He had started out as a performer on the music hall stage (something which probably augmented his ability to perform while wearing heavy makeup), and his naturally cadaverous face (which, off the screen, could take on the look of a boulevardier) made him an ideal choice for the part. He continued to work in films during the 1920s and 30s, including an appearance in the huge U.K.-German co-production, The Tunnel, until his death in 1936.

The decision was also made to make the film on exterior locations, an unusual move for a film in 1922, when most motion picture work was being done in studios. Nosferatu's film crew went to Czechoslovakia to film the scenes of Thomas' journey into Transylvania, filming in the Tatra mountains; the castle seen in the film is a real one, Oravsky Castle, built in the 13th century. Filming was also done in the German towns of Wismar and Lübeck, before retiring to the stages of the Jofa studios, in Berlin-Johannistal, for the remainder of filming. Albin Grau supervised the building of the soundstage sets, and conceived of the elaborate letter exchanged between Knock and Orlok, which is filled with talismanic symbols and letterings. (Grau was said to have been an ardent spiritualist, and possibly a member of a secret society, the "Fraternitas Saturni.")

Prana-Films launched an elaborate promotional campaign for Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (the latter part translated as either A Symphony of Horror, or A Symphony of Terror -- whichever way, you get the message). Posters appeared showing the film's vampire looking even more grotesque, and more vermin-like, than he does in the film, with long hook-like fingers and a flurry of rats eddying at its feet: Nosferatu

"Nosferatu -- who cannot die!

"A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!...

"What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?

"Aren't you afraid? -- Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'die Untote' [the Undead], lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware."

In an issue of the magazine Bühne und Film, Albin Grau further upped the stakes by relating a story about when he was in the Army and billeted in a village in Serbia. There, he and some of his fellow soldiers were told the tale by an old peasant of how the man's father had died, without receiving final communion, and returned to haunt the village as a vampire. The peasant showed Grau an official document verifying that, when the father's body was exhumed, it showed no signs of decomposition -- yet the teeth were strangely elongated, and protruded from the mouth. After a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, a stake was driven through the heart of the corpse, which emitted a loud groan, and died.

Later, while scouting locations in the Tatra mountains, Grau happened to meet up again with one of his Army comrades who heard the peasant's story that night. When told about the new film, Grau's friend said that he would come and see Nosferatu "even if I were at the other end of the world."

Nosferatu premiered, accompanied by a swirling, elaborate, and even hair-raising, orchestral score composed by Hans Erdmann, at Berlin's Zoo Palast, located right next door to the municipal zoo, on March 4, 1922. It is not recorded if Grau's friend was in attendance that evening, but the critical views that were published the next day were promising. It is difficult, now, with our culture so steeped in various degrees of vampire lore, to imagine what it must have been like to see a vampire depicted on the screen for the first time, that night, and a vampire that would be like no other shown on the screen before or since. Max Schreck's performance dominates the film, and the actor surely must be given credit for allowing himself to appear in the picture in so hideous and repellant a manner. Much of Nosferatu's dramatic power comes from seeing how a force of evil represented with such physical ugliness bears down upon an apparently peaceful and benevolent community. Outside of the great Lon Chaney, few actors have been able to so effectively perform within the confines and restrictions of makeup and costuming. (Much of Count Orlok's rigor mortis-like movement comes from the fact that Schreck's costumes were heavily padded.)

Henrik Galeen's screenplay is written in so direct and terse a style that it reads almost like blank verse. ("Ellen at the window. She wants to call for help. She staggers forward. She stops in front of Hutter. One last moment of indecision...") Nosferatu The copy of Galeen's script which Murnau worked from, and which has been preserved in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française, shows that he was not afraid to deviate from or amend the screenplay. Pages were crossed out, concepts of how, for instance, a doorway would appear during an important scene are sketched around the text, and grids ordering how the shots for a sequence would appear on the screen are worked out, below or over the printed page. Murnau does not appear to have been one of those directors who simply shoots a lot of film, and then tosses it all into the editing room to work it down into a picture. For one thing, he and the Nosferatu crew were not working on an elaborate budget, and scenes in Galeen's screenplay where, for instance, the vampire is depicted as a giant spider clinging to the outside of Ellen's window were probably eliminated partly for expediency, as well as for their superfluousness.

It was Murnau's idea to have the coach that takes Hutter to Orlok's castle pass through "a white forest" (which was accomplished by using negative, rather than positive-print, footage). Almost 20 years before Citizen Kane, he and Fritz Arno Wagner experimented with deep-focus photography to depict the rooms of Orlok's castle in daytime, after the "shadows," corporeal and otherwise, have departed; they also use the same technique to show the long, long line of pallbearers in the city street, as seen from Ellen's window. Stop-motion animation was used to depict Orlok's coach moving across the landscape while actually not moving; and for the scene where Orlok loads his boxes of earth onto a wagon, loads his coffin on top, climbs in, the coffin's lid scuttles up over the boxes to cover Orlok, and the driverless horses, without prompting, proceed to pull the wagon away.

As Thomas, Gustav von Wangenheim's performance may seem a little broad or clownish at times, but Greta Schroeder, as Ellen, with her dark, ringlet hair framing the face of a Meissen doll, is absolutely convincing as a beautiful, pure, and good woman in the best sense. One can see why Thomas would come to care for her so much and readily go to such lengths in the story to try and save her.

Nosferatu, then, turns out to be a story about how the true love between two people combats a formidable, all-consuming figure of malevolence. It should be noted that the film accomplishes all this through staging, mood and suggestion. Only a single drop of blood -- when Thomas accidentally cuts his hand while having a late supper at Orlok's castle -- is shown in the entire picture.

Nosferatu would probably have been a great success at the box office except for two things. Prana-Films had spent so much on promoting the film that records would later show that their publicity campaign cost more than the making of the actual film itself. And, as Lotte Eisner wrote, in "a Germany isolated from the rest of the world it wasn't considered necessary to buy the adaptation rights."

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