31 Nights of Dractober: Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu-Original-PosterDirector: F.W. Murnau

Orlok: Max Schreck

To sum up: F.W. Murnau illegally adapted Dracula, changing the names (Harker becomes Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina becomes Ellen (Greta Schroeder), Dracula becomes Orlok) and location (1890s London becomes 1838 Wisborg, Germany) while adding an apocalyptic plague element missing entirely from the novel. This fooled nobody, and Florence Stoker sued him into bankruptcy. The court ordered all prints of the film destroyed, which fortunately didn’t happen. The Murnau-Stiftung restored version from Kino Lorber is on Amazon streaming, and is in better shape than many other silent films of the era.

Critically, what else is there to say? It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. Only its court-enforced obscurity allowed the Lugosi-Browning version to become the default cinematic Dracula, and with its return from legal un-death it has infused not only Werner Herzog’s direct remake (and the 2000 E. Elias Merhige satire Shadow of the Vampire) but Coppola’s free-roaming shadows, Maddin’s Freudian interiors, Argento’s insectile atmosphere, and Tim Burton’s fever-dream Gotham City. Max Schreck’s ratlike, pestilential Orlok serves as a skulking anima to the dominant seducer-Dracula, remaining always in the shadows of the archetype to become the Other to even the vampiric Other. Scriptwriter Henrik Galeen was Jewish and production designer Albin Grau a Crowleyite, but when you create a cinematic Other in the Weimar 1920s, you wind up with a hook-nosed Easterner spreading poison into the pure heart of Germany. Bram Stoker was a lifelong philosemite, and even he sipped from the anti-Semitic well for the novel. Galeen and Murnau also charged Stoker’s subtext of an impotent Harker vs. an omnipotent Dracula by infusing Ellen’s sacrifice with notes of erotic longing and eagerness missing from the novel’s Mina. Weirdly, Grau also Otherizes the occult: the Hawkins-Renfield blend Herr Knock (Alexander Granach) corresponds with Dracula in sigil-bespangled Enochian letters only to go mad, and the “Paracelsian” Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) remains almost entirely useless during the film, unlike his model Van Helsing. The end result is nonetheless, as I said, a masterpiece. As Roger Ebert wrote, Nosferatu “doesn’t scare us, it haunts us.”

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Restored by later cinephiles (such as our commentors and responders), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order carefully storyboarded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

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