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Nosferatu
Tonight's Feature Presentation

NOSFERATU (1922)

Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav vov Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell

Written By: Henrik Galeen Directed By: F.W. Murnau

The Short Version

The great-grandfather of all vampire movies.

There are so many print variations that it’s hard to find the same one twice, but they’re all close enough.

Max Schreck does indeed play an interesting vampire.

It’s not as great as its reputation would suggest it to be, even for its time.

Nosferatu is still worth watching once if you’re into vampire film history.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

HOPFENKASE.

German cheese that goes down better if there’s beer involved.


Pairs Well With...

BECK'S OKTOBERFEST.

German Oktoberfest beers are all supposed to be great by reputation; how can you miss, right?  As it turns out, this one is not as good as generic reputation would suggest.

“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat!”


I love vampire movies, and always have.  I love vampire lore, and always have.  I love history, and always have.  I love German Expressionism, and always have.  In theory, I should be Nosferatu’s biggest fanboy.

Surprise!  When all is said and done, I really don’t like Nosferatu very much.

Oh, I certainly appreciate its contributions to both film history in general and the lore of my favorite gothic horror monster in particular.  And I also understand what adjustments need to be made to fully appreciate a silent era film as opposed to the movies of today.  However, even with these things in mind, I just can’t get excited about Nosferatu.  When I look at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Golem, both German horror films made two years before Nosferatu, I see top to bottom works of art that have really stood the test of time even nine decades on.  When I see Nosferatu – much like when I look at another vampire movie made across the Atlantic nine years later – I see a mediocre movie at best whose fame rests almost entirely on the performance of a single man, namely, the one playing the guy with the fangs.

That other movie, of course, is Dracula, and that’s what Nosferatu was supposed to be, as well.

Now let’s play with history for a little bit, shall we?

Director FW Murnau read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel and thought it would make for a fabulous movie.  However, Bram Stoker’s widow denied him permission to make it.  (The “why” of this is subject to whose version you go with; in the end, it doesn’t matter.)  Undaunted, he had his scriptwriter Henrik Galeen make a few changes to the story – most cosmetic, but some rather significant – and called the end result Nosferatu.  Count Dracula was now Graf Orlok.  Harker was Hutter, Van Helsing was Bulwer.  The single women were already married, and, as would be a popular choice for quite some time after, all of those heroic hangers-on back in the city pretty much went by the wayside.  The city, by the way, was now Bremen instead of London.  Makes sense for a German flick, right?

Also altered was the lore of the vampire itself, particularly as it relates to sunlight.  For Bram Stoker, sunlight merely weakened the vampire’s powers, rendering him essentially little better than the average mortal.  It is this film that first makes direct sunlight fatal to the vampire, something that had not been true before but which writers and filmmakers would take off and run with forever after.  Indeed, according to the handy “Book of The Vampires” that Hutter finds in a Transylvanian inn where the average modern American would expect the Gideons to put a Bible, that’s the only way to kill one.  (It’s also further suggested that the only way to sucker a vampire into staying up long enough to forget that the sun’s about to rise is for a pure hearted woman to freely allow herself to fall victim to the vamp and stay with him for all that time.)  No mention of stakes, no references at all to religious symbols or accoutrements of any kind.  Oh, and come to think of it, vampires are also perfectly visible in mirrors, here, too.

However, even with these changes, the lift from “Dracula” was ridiculously obvious.  (Some American prints actually change the character names back, referring to Graf Orlok as Count Dracula, etc.)  You still have a young solicitor sent to the Transylvanian nobleman to arrange for a property purchase.  The nobleman still expresses a disturbing interest in that solicitor’s wife when he sees her picture.  There’s still the deadly boat ride.  If you were at all familiar with Stoker’s work, there was just no way to miss it.  As a result, the Widow Stoker sued, and actually won a judgment to have every print of Nosferatu destroyed.  Obviously, some got missed, and in a way, she should have been grateful, considering that Nosferatu helped fan the flames of public interest in vampires and made her husband’s work all the more popular.  The judgment also helped contribute to the fact that almost no two prints of the movie are the same anymore.  Editions vary wildly, with runtimes ranging from just a shade over an hour to more than an hour and a half, with many others coming in at all sorts of points in between, and in varying degrees of repair.  The one that has undergone the most extensive and faithful restoration remains sealed away and hasn’t been made available for distribution.

Being a silent film, the variant distributions of Nosferatu come with a variety of soundtracks, from era-appropriate organs or strings to one that features a heavy metal soundtrack.  If you don’t like what yours comes with, feel free to pick your own, or even better, if you ever have the opportunity for this or any silent film, if there’s a real theatre in your area that plays it with a live orchestra or organ accompaniment, do that.  (For this or any silent film you may wish to see.)

Regardless of the version you see, however, there is still enough that is consistent to them all to treat them all as the same movie.  And at the end of the day, the most compelling aspect to any version will be Max Schreck as Graf Orlok.  (Or, if yours is cut from an old American print, as Count Dracula.)

From the very start, Schreck makes his mark.  Forget the urbane aristrocrat; Schreck’s vampire is a hideous, wretched monster.  There is nothing sexy or attractive about him.  (What’s particularly interesting about this is that much of what you’re thinking is makeup isn’t; FW Murnau called Max Schreck “Strikingly ugly,” and only added the fangs – which replace the incisors here, by the way, and not the canines – and the batlike ears and one hopes the nails.  The rest is really Max Schreck.)  He’s almost tubercular in his appearance, and plays Orlok with what can best be described as a rodentlike carriage.  It’s disturbing, but compelling; even if you find him completely repulsive – which would be the point – you can’t take your eyes off of him.  Even in the longest of prints, Schreck gets less than ten minutes of real screen time, but it’s his image that you are guaranteed to remember.

That much of the film’s reputation, at least, holds.

What doesn’t hold so much is the rest. 

To call Nosferatu the best made vampire movie in history or the most beautifully filmed vampire movie in history is to be far too generous with the rose colored glasses, as would be narrowing the field by replacing the word “vampire” with “Dracula” in either instance, or comparing Nosferatu strictly with its silent horror contemporaries.  In all of those cases, it falls short.  (I’ve already mentioned that you need only walk two years back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Golem for better silent horror; or, for better cinematic German Expressionism, nothing will beat Caligari.)

To be sure, FW Murnau isn’t a slouch, and he does present some exceptional shots during the course of Nosferatu.  (In particular, his use of Max Schreck’s shadow instead of Schreck himself to illustrate Orlok’s approach to Frau Hutter’s room.)  Overall, though… sorry, folks.  Even adjusting for era, the movie just does not look all that spectacular.  It’s good, but not great.  Certainly nothing that justifies calling its look as being unsurpassed by any film to come along over the course of the next ninety years.

And then there’s the story, which made for an amazing novel but just doesn’t translate as well here, especially after Henrik Galeen’s changes.  It’s just not all that exciting, and never maintains a good rhythm.  The Van Helsing replacement is really superfluous here, with his only real value seeming to be allowing the audience to chuckle at the fact that he seems to believe that anything that isn’t a vegetarian is a vampire.  The Renfield replacement – now the boss of the soliciting firm – is even more pointless once he’s finished sending Hutter off to Transylvania.  Murnau’s direction does little to help things along, either; indeed, sometimes, it only further bogs things down.

At the end of the day, I love the history here, and I appreciate the movie for what it is, but honestly, folks, the only part of its reputation that can stand the bright light of day is, ironically enough, the performance of Max Schreck.

Bottom line, Nosferatu is priceless for its value as a historical piece, and if you’re a vampire fan, you do need to watch this once.  However, it’s also not nearly as great as its reputation would suggest, even when measured against its own contemporaries.  Really, folks, you can find better than this one out there.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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