A Vampire a Week: Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (1922)

Dir: F. W. Murnau

It’s rare that I get a weekend entirely to myself. The last time I had more than one day or night alone in my flat, I tried hard to fill the hours so that either I was out being social or distracted at home. I’ve never been good at being on my own, or rather, I’ve never been able to spend time alone in a building without convincing myself there’s an axe murderer in the cupboard. This meant that last weekend was an odd sensation for me: boyfriend away, empty diary, endless possibilities. Naturally, I spent it watching horror films.

Watching Nosferatu in 2017 is quite an odd experience. On the one hand, it’s very much a product of its time, in a style that feels foreign to modern viewers used to some attempt at naturalism. My major point of reference for German expressionism is The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), which predates Nosferatu by a couple of years but feels like it could be a little later. The latter almost feels restrained in comparison, with the contrasts less stark, the makeup less severe, the shadows smaller and less distorted. Well, all except one.

Count Orlock is still a disquieting figure. Even after a century of advances in prosthetics and makeup, it’s hard to imagine how the character could look more convincing or more frightening. Crucially, while the makeup is there to enhance the character, Orlock is unequivocally Max Shreck’s creation – his performance exudes menace, although decades of watching very differently styled vampires mean it takes a while to adjust to the original monster. His is one of great performances under heavy makeup: a blueprint for everyone from Lon Chaney to John Hurt (though I doubt it was overly influential on The Elephant Man).

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The camera is absolutely Shreck’s friend in his performance, as his ghoulish white face stares out from darkness and his shadow goes before him. Those iconic shots of Orlock’s shadow, both on the staircase and climbing up Ellen’s body, should feel hackneyed and old hat by now. We’ve been seeing them for as long as we can remember. Putting them back into the context of the film gives them a whole new lease of life – the reason they’re so influential is that they nail the strange mixture of twisted beauty and impending doom that have set the tone for all the best vampires.

As adaptations go, Nosferatu is surprisingly faithful to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Given the infamous legal wrangling that led to the whole plot being transferred to Germany 50 years before Stoker’s novel, it’s particularly impressive that the portion of the plot that becomes Murnau’s film cleaves fairly closely to its source.

Dracula is set in 1897, a relatively recent memory for much of Nosferatu’s audience, and the step back in time introduces distance to a fairly familiar setting. Given some of the fashions onscreen, the film feels like 1848 and 1922 at the same time. Choosing a period when cholera was ravaging Europe and using an outbreak of plague as context for Orlock’s body count introduces an interesting level of small-town hysteria which is missing from Stoker’s London-set novel.

One of the biggest departures from the source material is, probably inevitably, women. Ellen (who is definitely not Mina Harker, oh no) is the only female character, meaning that Dracula’s brides and Lucy Westenra have all been forgotten. Perhaps this makes sense given that Orlock is a far less sexually charged character than Dracula – although Stoker’s vampire is still haggard and monstrous – and that Nosferatu is 70 minutes long.

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My real objection was to Ellen having even less to work with than Mina Harker. The latter reads documents, writes a report, tells the men where they should go next and is praised for being so much better than other women that she can be capable of such things. Then, after struggling with and resisting the vampire’s lure, she survives. Ellen doesn’t even get that, because the whole chase portion of the narrative has been cut: her moment of taking the initiative comes when she sacrifices herself to kill Orlock. The only useful thing she does is die.

Perhaps that’s asking too much of a cinematic style that relies heavily on archetypes and fairy-tale iconography. But Stoker and Murnau, as authors of the ur-texts of vampire literature and cinema respectively, have a lot to answer for in terms of the genre’s handling of women – and, indeed, of vampires’ victims in general. I’m going to be watching and writing about one vampire film a week (or two, I’m not Superwoman) for a while, and I suspect I’ll be seeing far more of this.

It’s fascinating now to look back at the film that started it all and see that in a very foreign style to modern eyes, the vast influence of Nosferatu also makes it strangely familiar – a level of unheimlich of which Stoker would surely have approved.

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