Nowadays when most people think of horror films, gorefests like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer come to mind. It's difficult to remember the genre hasn't always been synonymous with excessive blood and gore.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, is one of the great classics of the silent era. Unlike its modern counterparts, it finds ways to evoke an atmosphere of terror and menace without resorting to sex and violence. First released in 1922, it also avoids some of the genre's most melodramatic clichès like giving vampires oversized fangs and high-fashion capes.
German director F.W. Murnau (The Last Laugh and Sunrise) and screenwriter Henrik Galeen freely adapted English writer Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, which originated the characters that have inspired most modern works about vampires. They moved the action to Bremen, Germany, renamed the characters, and made key plot changes, in hopes of avoiding the payment of royalties. Stoker's widow, Florence, sued anyway and won, obtaining a court order to have all copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, some bootleg prints survive.
Despite the filmmakers' dishonest intentions, the result is a visual poem of purity, beauty, and grace. The story is simply told through a series of static, black-and-white compositions which skillfully use light and shadow to sustain their mood. Most of the scenes are shot on location with attention to naturalistic detail.
There are no carefully designed, expressionistic sets such as those found in other German masterpieces of the period like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. In contrast to much contemporary product, the movie is driven by character development, not special effects, and the difference between good and evil, once defined, is never blurred.
Hutter (Gustav Von Wangenheim) is a happily married real estate agent in Bremen who's sent by his boss, Block (Alexander Granach), to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania to close a deal with the wealthy Count Orlok (Max Schreck). The young man innocently sees the voyage as a good business opportunity and a chance for some exotic travel. But Block appears to have some ulterior purpose as he rummages through papers covered with occult symbols when no one is looking. Only Hutter's sweet-tempered wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder), has a premonition of danger.
In Transylvania the peasants recoil at the mention of Orlok's name and refuse to take Hutter up to the castle door. The count himself resembles a cadaverous rodent, with long bulbous ears, a bald skull, a hook nose, bulging eyes, and birdlike talons for hands. He has an aura of pestilence and death. One morning Hutter awakes with a strange mark on his neck which he at first ignores.
The count is attracted to a picture of Ellen kept in a locket worn by her husband. Soon thereafter she has nightmares and begins sleepwalking. The filmmakers establish a mysterious psychic connection between Ellen back in Germany and Hutter and Orlok in Transylvania. One night when the count approaches her husband with bad intentions, she cries out a warning, and Orlok turns away.
Hutter becomes fearful and escapes from the castle but falls ill. Unlike most versions of the Dracula story, Nosferatu doesn't have all the vampire's victims die or turn into vampires themselves, and the count's drinking of blood doesn't make him any younger or healthier.
Eventually, Hutter recovers and returns home. Orlok follows by ship with a coffin filled with rats where he sleeps during the day. All the vessel's crew “sicken and die.”
After the ship arrives in Bremen, there's an outbreak of the plague from the rats Orlok has brought with him. Block loses control, crying, “the master approaches,” and “blood is life.” The townsfolk blame Block for the pestilence and try to stone him.
Orlok takes up residence across from Ellen and Hutter. Realizing that the town is doomed as long as the count lives, she decides to utilize the mysterious connection between them and sacrifice herself. When she learns that a vampire dies in the daylight, she lures Orlok into her house one night and keeps him there until dawn by allowing him to nibble on her neck. The sun's morning rays make him literally evaporate. She herself dies soon thereafter.
The movie's many striking images linger in the mind's eye: Ellen reading Hutter's letters alone at the beach surrounded by graves marked by crosses; Orlok's deathship gliding into Bremen harbor at night; the count carrying his coffin on his shoulders through the town's deserted streets; and the angry townspeople stoning Block as he flees across the rooftops.
Nosferatu is a unique rendition of this much-told tale which dramatizes the power of sacrifice. The vampire isn't killed in the usual fashion by a wooden stake driven through his heart. Instead his evil power is terminated by the selfless act of a woman described as “pure in heart.”
John Prizer currently writes from Paris.