A landmark of cinema, a touchstone of German expressionism and one of the oldest surviving horror movies ever made, F W Murnau’s “Nosferatu” may not terrify as it once must have done but it still mesmerises thanks to Murnau’s stunning use of light and shade and Max Schreck’s instantly iconic Count Orlok.
When mysterious Transylvanian nobleman Count Orlok (Max Schreck) expresses an interest in purchasing property in the German town of Wisborg, the local estate agent sends Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to seal the deal.
The names may have been changed but there’s nothing innocent about this unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel. Unable to secure the rights from the Stoker Estate, the makers went ahead and made their film anyway – and, unsurprisingly, got sued. That lawsuit specifically demanded that all copies of the film were destroyed but thankfully a few survived so today we can enjoy this 96-year-old vintage in all its glory.
And glorious it is. Although silent, its themes and characters come through loud and clear. Although black and white, its visuals are crisp and vibrant, the simple but precise use of colour tinting bringing an extra dimension to the experience. The performances may seem twee and quaint by today’s standards, but there’s no denying Max Schreck’s performance stands out as a timeless piece of character acting, creating in Orlok a movie monster who would be terrifying in any cinematic age.
Although it popularised the trope of sunlight being deadly to Vampires, many of the other hallmarks were not yet in place. There’s no transmogrifying into a bat and indeed bats don’t really feature, their place in the lore being taken by rats, and even Orlok’s fangs are the narrow pointed front teeth of a rodent. It ties in nicely to the film’s plague theme, upon which many of Orlok’s victims’ deaths are initially blamed.
It also, unfortunately, points towards the darker thematic qualities inherent in the film, with the plague and Orlok himself being thinly veiled commentaries on the dangers of immigration and specifically Jewish immigration. There’s an unmistakable streak of anti-semitism running through the movie that’s problematic even taking account of its historical context because of a renewed contemporary resonance. Not that it’s an invention or contrivance of the film, though. It’s a subtext lifted directly from Stoker’s original novel and at its most overt in the character design of both Orlok himself and his acolyte Knock (Alexander Granach). Many of the adaptations of the novel and character of Dracula which would follow wouldn’t dwell on it but “Nosferatu” embraces it.
In spite of its more distasteful aspects, the film remains an iconic cinematic milestone full of technical and artistic marvels and essential viewing for any self-respecting cinephile. Like “Citizen Kane”, it’s a film that if you arrive at it late on in your film watching life, you’ll recognise a dozen times over from other movies and TV shows which have used it for inspiration, ideas and homages again and again and again. In a neat parallel to the mythicl creature itself, the cinematic vampire, once sired, proved to be impossible to kill off for good.