Nosferatu at 100: a silent horror masterwork that continues to chill

FW Murnau’s eerie chiller might have been seen as a legally problematic Dracula rip-off at the time, but has endured since

It feels right, the knowledge that Nosferatu has been around for a full century. A few years after its 1922 release, the odds were not in its favor: in 1924, the studio behind FW Murnau’s silent horror film agreed to destroy all copies of the film, as part of a copyright infringement case pursued by Florence Balcombe, the widow of the Dracula author Bram Stoker. Nosferatu is not technically an adaptation of Dracula, in the sense that it was produced without the permission of Stoker’s estate and changed the names of all major characters, as well as the setting and some of the story. But it is more than close enough to inspire legal action (and supposedly the original German intertitles even acknowledged the book), which is why it was essentially sentenced to death following its original run.

Befitting the subject of vampirism (if not the specific brand of vampirism practiced therein), the movie not only came back to life, but spread, in both its influence and the sheer number of versions, some lovingly restored and some simply bastardized, that have circulated over the years – including during the streaming age. For the curious, plenty of services, including a number of free ones like Tubi, carry a version of Nosferatu, though your best bet is probably the one streaming on the Criterion Channel. It features the correct color-tinting, intertitles, and running time (some versions are sped up), and generally looks terrific for a 100-year-old movie whose studio attempted to destroy all copies.

The film’s German expressionist style and atmosphere have inspired imitators, though notably, its version of Dracula, here called Count Orlok and played indelibly by Max Schreck, does not much resemble some of the most famous later cinematic incarnations. Versions played by Bela Lugosi (1931’s Dracula), Christopher Lee (1958’s Dracula, and plenty more), and Gary Oldman (1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula) all gave the character some form of suave appeal, whether sexual, romantic or general elegance. Schreck, meanwhile, is made up with spindly claws, bucktoothed fangs, and pointy ears; he’s a full-on creature, somewhere between a dead human and a living rodent. Though the movie today reads more creepy than outright scary, Count Orlok is one of cinema’s great, unsettling sights, Schreck’s physical performance often gives the appearance of floating outside of normal reality. He doesn’t shrink into the shadows, but commands them; in one of the movie’s most famous images (imitated in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), those ghastly fingers appear to extend, in shadow, moving across a wall. He’s also conflated with a plague by frightened townsfolk; this vampire kills, rather than turns, his victims, chillingly appropriate for both our current pandemic and the aftermath of the 1918 flu.

Nosferatu was not the first film adaptation of Dracula – a Hungarian silent film, since lost, got there a year earlier – nor is it the best-known; Tod Browning’s Lugosi-starring version still feels like the definitive take in the popular imagination (an impressive feat until itself, considering that movie is nearly a century old itself, and also departs from Stoker’s novel, working more from an earlier stage adaptation). Nosferatu, though, remains distinctly otherworldly. Watching it today, there are, of course, the potential barriers of the movie containing no spoken dialogue, and featuring tints on various times of day and locations, rather than more familiar full color (or even black-and-white). Movies haven’t looked or sounded like this for a long time, something driven home by its 100th birthday. Yet this many years on, that’s exactly what gives Murnau’s film its power, its vividness. It’s the opposite of cinematic wallpaper. That’s true of plenty of silent films, of course, but the grotesque figure at the center of Nosferatu makes it especially uncanny.

It also feels like the Dracula adaptation that’s most important to cinema as a whole, in large part for the same reason it was almost wiped out: because it could be described as a ripoff. Though some of the most recent hit vampire movies don’t seem especially inspired by Murnau’s German expressionist aesthetic (to their detriment! Imagine a version of Twilight where Bella romances a coffin-dwelling rat-man), the very idea of taking specific elements of a specific vampire fiction and distorting them as needed feels particularly relevant to the horror genre, where mercenary knockoffs, disreputable pulp, and scrappy artistic invention so often recombine into art. It even has an early version of the blundering, don’t-go-in-there! hero; real estate worker Thomas Hutter, this movie’s version of Jonathan Harker, takes a long time to catch on to Orlok’s true nature, despite it staring him in the face. One hundred years on, Nosferatu remains an impressive artistic achievement; perhaps just as important, it’s also got some freak-show energy underneath that accrued respectability.


Jesse Hassenger

The GuardianTramp

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