Lessons From Nosferatu

F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation is the most haunting Dracula film of all

People have had other things on their minds this week than the birthday of the Irish writer Bram Stoker (1847-1912), which fell on November 8.

That’s understandable, but it’s a bit of a shame that Stoker, who is best known for the 1897 novel Dracula, won’t be the subject of wider discussion. The Dracula legend didn’t originate with Stoker, but rather has its roots in the lore surrounding a larger-than-life fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler. But Stoker took the material and spun a tale that has had incalculable influence on both literary and pop culture and spawned films and books ranging from awful to sublime.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

In the view of some critics, one of the greatest films ever made is Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Expressionist silent classic. It’s a movie with lessons for viewers in 2020 who’ve just lived through one of the bitterest and nastiest political races of all time.

Donald Trump climbs the stairs in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’.

Nosferatu was not in any sense an authorized Dracula adaptation. In fact, Stoker’s estate launched a copyright lawsuit that drove Prana Film, the studio behind the project, into bankruptcy and led to the destruction of nearly all prints of the movie. It would have been a tragedy if no prints survived, but one can grasp the motives of Stoker’s widow in taking action against the makers of a film whose narrative hews closely to the novel, with a few names changed. In Nosferatu, Count Dracula is Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker is Thomas Hutter, his love interest Mina Harker is Ellen Hutter, the lunatic Renfield is Knock, and a dozen or so supporting characters also have new names.

The story is familiar: Hutter travels east from his home in Wisborg in Germany to visit and talk business with the count, who has expressed interest in buying a house near Hutter’s own residence. Locals in a tavern where he stops en route wear grave faces and warn about venturing out into the nightmare country, but their counsel, needless to say, goes unheeded. This is a horror movie, after all.

In the course of a night at Orlok’s castle, Hutter accidentally cuts himself while dining, and the sight of fresh blood coursing down his thumb provokes a curious reaction in the host. Orlok is a vampire! Upon moving to Wisborg a bit later in the film, he stirs mass terror on the part of the townspeople until a ruse on Ellen’s part lures the vampire and leads to sunlight striking Orlok head-on and causing him to disintegrate in a wisp of smoke.

In some versions of the film, intertitles written in English explain events in the story and refer to characters by the names from Stoker’s novel. “Wisborg” becomes Bremen. For many of us, the characters and situations in Nosferatu are familiar enough that we could follow the story without title cards or without new names introduced in a fruitless ploy to avoid copyright litigation. In any event, the title cards are too far and between to be much of a distraction. They in no way detract from the resonance of an elegantly shot film with camera angles and contrasts that at times recall another Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose centennial was this year.

But the most indelible image left in the mind’s eye is of Orlok, played by Max Schreck, an idiosyncratic actor with a background in German and Polish stage productions, who at once projects bloodthirsty intensity and the pale sickliness of someone in the end phases of a disease. Schreck is all the more unnerving for the expressiveness of his eyes and mouth, which give him the air of a sensitive, tormented monster.

Watching Nosferatu, you may feel you’re enveloped in a film about 2020, and in particular about the relationship between demagoguery and mob actions. This may seem a curious comment to make about a vampire movie. But as soon as the action shifts from the nightmare country of the east back to Germany, an all-too-familiar scenario develops. The arrival in Bremen of a ship bearing coffins and infested with rats leads to a period of chaos and desperation.

As people everywhere get sick and die, certain of the townspeople don’t question too closely why there are bite marks on victims’ necks and decide that the only proper response to the plague is to order, you guessed it, a lockdown. They issue orders to all citizens to stay in their homes. If townspeople have doubts about the wisdom of this measure, or its possible effects on their mental health, they keep quiet in good politically correct fashion.

But not everyone stays home. As people grow consumed with the need to find a human agent, an individual, to blame for the mess they’re in, ferocious crowds begin to form in the streets. After Knock, the Renfield character, escapes from an asylum, his sighting around town leads to mob violence. When men in the street spot the weirdo on a rooftop, they begin throwing rocks and fanning out madly in an effort to snare him. He’s why we’re suffering! Get him!

This sequence conveys nothing so much as the channeling of malaise and discomfort over a generalized social debacle into loathing toward an individual and the urge to make that person pay. Knock isn’t responsible for the deaths or the lockdown, but maybe it’s only human to want to blame and hurt someone. That appears to have been the sense of some pundits who talk as if Trump and COVID-19 were symbiotically linked and fury against Trump were a useful surrogate for the desperate need we all feel to end the virus.

Few could have thought that a German Expressionist film from 1922 held the interpretive key to an electoral strategy put to use in America in the age of COVID-19.

Nosferatu experts

For all its relevance to America in November 2020, Nosferatu is very much a product of modern German culture, channeling attitudes, anxieties, and phobias that have blighted the nation’s history. It’s a film that looks both backward and forward.

“Murnau’s Nosferatu shows a vampire, Count Orlok, who comes from Eastern Europe, accompanied by pestilence, and who brings mass death to a German city. The film looks back to the dark German romanticism of the nineteenth century and forward to a dark German future,” says Eric Rentschler, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

The film adumbrates, in particular, Fritz Hippler’s infamous antisemitic tract of 1940, The Eternal Jew, Rentschler observes. The similarities are numerous. Orlok comes from Eastern Europe, and in the nomenclature of German antisemitism might be considered an Ostjude. The characters in which he writes messages look similar to Hebraic, he has a knack for managing money and makes use of seemingly legitimate financial transactions to bring his corrupt ways to the West, and he even resembles the physiognomies on display in Nazi representations of Jews.

Moreover, in the course of the film, Orlok brings the empire of the dead to Germany, Rentschler notes. Unlike the depictions in other vampire films and books (think, for example, of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot), Orlok’s victims don’t get up and perpetuate terror after he sinks his teeth into their necks and drinks their blood. They stay dead. Orlok casts a reflection when looking in a mirror, and is a shapeshifter. Where Orlok goes, rats, filth, and plague follow. Further parallels with Nazi propaganda include Orlok’s tendency to prey upon healthy Germans, and buxom German women in particular.

“This film of 1922, in short, rehearses an antisemitic scenario which history will replay with a vengeance during the 1930s and 1940s,” Rentschler comments.

Rentschler also notes that Orlok has a double in the form of a respectable German businessman. This comes across early in the film, with an image of the seemingly upstanding German looking into a mirror, where an obscure image meets his gaze.

“The film will ultimately suggest that the German businessman and the malevolent vampire are in fact doubles; in order for German society to survive, the vampire must be exorcized, which is indeed what transpires,” Rentschler says.

“Here again, we have one of those moments where we feel prompted to ask the question so often repeated in Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary From Caligari to Hitler, an essay film that reflects on Siegfried Kracauer’s famous study of Weimer cinema: What does the cinema know that we do not?” Rentschler concludes.

The parallels with the repellent antisemitism of the Nazi period are strong. There are also those who claim that there is something timeless and universal about the frightful qualities of Nosferatu’s monster. Stephen Dowden, a professor of German at Brandeis University, is not fully in agreement with the film’s direct applicability to such specific historical phenomena.

“As classic horror cinema, Murnau’s movie is about everyone’s fear of the unknown Other, whatever that other may be,” Dowden says. “It is a classic because it transcends its German setting and whatever fears may have haunted its then-contemporary audience. It would distort the movie’s power to pin it too closely to its origin.”

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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