Count Dracula is one of the most alluring and enduring characters that has ever graced both the pages of literature and the screens of many a cinema. From Bela Legosi’s salutation of “Good Evening” in Universal’s Dracula, to Gary Oldman’s suave count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the immortal Count has remained in the public consciousness for well over a century. However, there is one variation of the immortal beast that stands above all the rest: Nosferatu. German filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s gothic horror classic faced many obstacles and has somehow lived on to become, in my opinion, one of the most quintessential horror films to ever be made. Here in part 1, we’ll delve into Murnau’s classic starring Max Schreck, followed by Werner Herzog’s interpretation starring Klaus Kinski in part 2. In part 3, we look into the fun of alternate realities and dive into the “What if” of the 2001 film Shadow of the Vampire, which asks the question, what if Max Schreck really was a vampire?
Without further ado, I present F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Nosferatu follows Hutter, a man who is sent to the Carpathian Mountains to finalize a real estate deal with the mysterious Count Orlock. Sounds easy enough, right? Of course it isn’t! Count Orlock is a vampire. He has the townspeople below the mountains under his spell of fear and oppression. Upon entering the town, Hutter laughs off such warnings from the locals. It’s a beautiful day for a real estate deal! Little does Hutter know that he is about to set off a chain reaction that will not only change his life, but also the lives of his entire hometown. Upon meeting the venerable Count Orlock (Max Schreck), (who signs the real estate deal for an abbey that turns out to be near Hutter’s home), he is slowly drained of his blood, held captive in the castle and left to die. Count Orlock then boards a ship to bloodier pastures with evil intentions after seeing a picture of Hutter’s wife, Ellen, during the negotiation.
Being a silent film, the expressions are ramped up tenfold. While it’s very entrancing to see everyone over-emote, the character that you can’t take your eyes off of is Schreck’s Count Orlock. He is so gleefully nasty, radiantly repulsive, and exquisitely eccentric that he truly makes the film. He is nothing like the contemporary sex symbol that Dracula would later become. Orlock is a human rodent. He is a grotesque figure that seems to have very little to no humanity left in him. Count Orlock sees people simply as vessels for nourishment and nothing else. Orlock’s lack of humanity makes him entertaining and conflicting to watch. Every move that he makes, the way he curls his fingers, moves his head, enlarges his eyes; it all leads to the same place, fear.
What makes this film timeless is Schreck’s performance, the mise-en-scene highlighted by German Expressionism, and visuals that have seemingly become frozen in time. A sillouette of Count Orlock stalking his way toward Ellen’s room, Count Orlock rising from his coffin while on the ship, and seemingly floating from the bottom of the ship to peer out and view his victims, all breathtaking. Nosferatu is a classic, hands down, and one of F.W. Murnau’s finest works. It was a film that was once lost, but thankfully, has been found.
Now, this would not be the only time that the name “Nosferatu” graced our movie screens. Some 50+ years later, a young German director, Werner Herzog, was tasked with remaking this film for contemporary audiences. Was it a success? A bomb? That will have to wait for part 2.