“Your wife has a lovely neck”
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Nosferatu is how close F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece came to being lost forever — like so many other movies of its era. Producers Prana-Film baldly plagiarized Bram Stoker’s Dracula, switching out names and locations and adding a few details, but essentially — and very obviously — lifting their narrative straight from the novel. Stoker’s widow, Florence, who relied on royalties for her income, was understandably furious and ordered all prints destroyed. Thankfully, copies survived.
As it approaches its centenary Nosferatu is still haunting and ethereal, and if at all possible should be viewed via the beautiful blu-ray remaster now available. Vampires are such familiar screen figures to us now it’s hard to appreciate that Murnau was inventing the paradigms as he went along. His work was very ambitious and innovative in technical terms too, incorporating everything from real, rural locations (as the action passes a roadside shrine) to Expressionist sets (accentuating the angles of the castle interior) to microphotography (Bulwer’s lecture on “a polyp with tentacles”). For audiences in 1922, Nosferatu must have been a truly marvelous viewing experience, a spook tale to rule them all.
Prana-Films was founded in 1921 by artist-producer Albin Grau, along with businessman Enrico Dieckmann, with the purpose of making movies to promote occult ideas. Grau and Dieckmann were keen occultists, and Grau in particular was connected to various esoteric groups in Germany and across Europe. At the time, suffering from the aftermath of war, the heavy-handed terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the debilitation of the Spanish Flu epidemic, the new Weimar Republic was struggling with many political and economic questions. Grau was among those who believed that the long-hidden wisdom of ancient civilizations might provide some answers. He named the new company ‘Prana’, a term co-opted from Hinduism by Western esoteric traditions meaning ‘life force or vital energy’ —and also the title of a theosophical magazine of the time.
While Grau was an occult insider, he was a movie business outsider, so he hired industry stalwarts writer Henrik Galeen and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, along with up-and-coming director F.W. Murnau to realize his vision. Grau took responsibility for the overall look of the film, designing posters, costumes, and sets and drawing storyboards.
In publicity interviews before the movie’s release, Grau claimed Nosferatu was based, not on Dracula, but on his personal experience serving in the infantry in 1916. He recalled being on active duty in Serbia, when one night an old Romanian peasant told him about a villager buried without the proper rites who came back to haunt his family. Grau said he saw paperwork from (then, relatively recently) 1884 proving the villager had been disinterred and found ‘perfectly preserved’ whereupon the prefect called for the usual remedy — a stake hammered through the corpse’s rotten heart. ‘Nosferatu’ is the Romanian word for ‘undead’.
Nosferatu centers on a monster, Count Orlok, but it’s so much more than a monster movie. It’s a melting pot of early Weimar Republic anxieties, reflecting concerns about many things from the rise of women into political power (female suffrage was granted in 1919) to theories about the cause of the recent Spanish Flu epidemic (contagion from overseas). Visually, it’s a blend of trick photography and documentary. Murnau strives for realism in sunlit exterior sequences, contrasting them with the sinister magic of stop-motion animation, e.g. as Orlok emerges from his coffin in the Demeter‘s hold.
A vampire movie that actually believes in vampires, Nosferatu presents a far more frightening bloodsucker than many of its successors. Hidden beneath layers of greasepaint, Max Schreck plays the Count as inhuman and inscrutable, totally inhabiting the role as he curls and uncurls those long fingernails. He is Unheimlich made physical: he has a head, arms, legs, hands, and feet in all the right places, but he looks and moves all wrong.
While makeup and costume were crucial to Schreck’s performance, particularly the bulging skull and high-shouldered coat, the most chilling thing about Orlok is the way he moves. In some scenes, Murnau plays with frame rates and stop-motion animation to make it look as though the Count glides across the screen at supernatural speeds. In others, Schreck scurries in a manner that seems more insect than mammalian, scuttling sideways rather than walking in a straight line. He makes the Count unpredictable, simultaneously animal and superhuman, pathetic and terrifying.
Yet, Schreck also plays on our sympathies. Orlok has moments when he is relatable. He serves sumptuous meals to his houseguest, the estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and relishes watching him eat. Orlok also seems genuinely and deeply moved when he sees Hutter’s picture of Ellen (Greta Schroeder). He’s not drawn to her just because he’s looking for a snack — there appears to be a much more profound psychic connection, as evidenced by her somnambulism. Ellen is no Cesare to his Caligari, however. She harms no one on her nocturnal ramblings. It seems she might be the one to have power over him, rather than the other way around, the siren singing to him through the mist.
There’s something innocent in his other-worldliness which is also strangely attractive. When he arrives in Wisburg, Orlok wanders the deserted, early morning streets with his dirt-filled casket tucked under his arm as casually as if it were a loaf of bread. He’s delighted by his new surroundings, and, as he arrives at his destination (at the exact same time as Hutter is falling into Ellen’s Welcome Home embrace), the ancient being seems almost awestruck.
We know he’s doomed, at this point. For all his supernatural power, does he?
Orlok is physically repellent, absolutely the last creature you should open the window to if he came knocking at your casement at night. Yet there is also something compelling about him, the grace and fluidity of his movement, his casual strength, his venerable eyes unblinking beneath the bulbous dome of his head. Schreck makes him both sexual and grotesque, no mean feat.
Although Nosferatu is blessed with a seminal central performance, the movie is also a visual feast, testament to Murnau’s resourcefulness and willingness to experiment to get the images he needed within production constraints. Despite the elaborate nature of the finished print, Nosferatu was shot on a tight budget, with Murnau using exterior locations as much as possible in lieu of building sets. Northern Slovakia stood in for Transylvania, and scenes were shot in the High Tatra mountains and Vrátna Valley, and at Orava Castle. For the Wisburg scenes, Fritz Arno Wagner toted his single camera around the historic medieval port of Wismar, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some of the locations are still recognizable today.
Nosferatu and the Occult
Raymond Owen digs into Grau’s connections with leading European occultists (including Aleister Crowley and other luminaries of theOrdo Templi Orientis) in his oft-cited 2010 essay, Nosferatu and the Occult(ists) [now no longer available, very unfortunately] and concludes very little, if any, occult material actually made it onto the screen.
More recently, Brian J. Robb reviews the evidence linking Grau to the occult in Nosferatu: the Vampire and the Occultist – the Secret History Behind the Making of a Horror Classic in the Fortean Times, April 2015.
Given that, by its very nature, the esoteric remains hidden to everyone but the most astute (and informed) observers, this may not be true. Grau may well have coded significant ideas into his designs and into the subtext of the storytelling but without any specific commentary on his symbolism and purpose, the non-initiated will never know what he was trying to communicate.
Count Orlok himself is a potent occult symbol. Any vampire is a powerful and primal representation of the forces that drive and constrain human nature, Sex and Death. These supernatural bloodsuckers have appeared in almost every culture since the Babylonians and Assyrians voiced their fear of Ekimmu (the angry undead, seeking revenge for improperly performed burial rites by draining the blood of the living) back in 4000 BCE. As an immortal who infects rather than reproduces, the vampire has evolved beyond the control of both, and is, perhaps, to be envied for their transcendence. Various religions have cast them as spirits of the damned, attempting to swell their numbers by tempting the righteous. They represent what we become when we refuse to play by the moral and spiritual rules that hold human society together.
In Nosferatu, the vampire is rendered as an ancient creature, his human features distorted (by immortality? his diet?) beyond recognition. Despite his lengthy existence, his intelligence seems to have devolved into a subhuman cunning, rather than ascending to a higher plane of wisdom. No longer a god, he has become a monster. Lurking in his remote castle (in the ‘land of thieves and phantoms’) he doesn’t seem to be aware how archaic and monstrous he is, or how far the civilized world has moved on without him. While other characters write letters to each other in elegant copperplate, he communicates with his agent Knock (Galeen’s version of Stoker’s Renfield) via sequences of astrological symbols, numbers, and doodles.
Orlok represents something forgotten, long ago bypassed, but still powerful enough to bring death and destruction out of the wilderness into the heart of Wisburg. Planted like a (pomegranate?) seed in a box of sacred dirt, he’s carried in the belly of the good ship Demeter, named after the Greek goddess who presided over the Eleusinian mystery cult, which promised initiates special privileges in the afterlife. Eleusinian rituals and thinking were important to fin de siecle occultists, including members of the Golden Dawn. Grau’s connection Aleister Crowley wrote a series of seven Rites of Eleusis in 1910, which are still performed by the Ordo Templi Orientis today.
Orlok precipitates a public health crisis upon arriving in Wisburg. There are so many fatalities the usual Christian burial rites won’t suffice — one memorable shot shows a mournful funeral procession proceeding down a cobbled street, with the line of coffins stretching back as far as the eye can see. It’s clear some kind of major shift is needed otherwise Wisberg will become a ghost town. Could spiritualism or occultism offer a solution?
Ellen, who, of all the characters, seems most attuned to the demimonde, looks for answers in an old book of folk wisdom — one she has specifically been forbidden to read by the conventional and now clearly out of his depth Hutter. She disobeys her husband in the best interests of the whole community. While the townsfolk chase a demented Knock (the only human who clings to arcane beliefs and still reveres Orlok as a god) through the streets, Ellen discovers the way to defeat the vampire is for an innocent maiden to distract him from “the first crowing of the cock” by offering him her blood.
As Hutter’s much-embraced wife, Ellen doesn’t fit the usual definition of ‘innocent maiden’, but she’s nonetheless determined to save the town. She packs her bumbling husband off on a fool’s errand to fetch the scientist, Bulwer. Then, in the most significant deviation from Stoker’s novel, she takes control.
Ellen reaches for the divine feminine within (which has already awakened to the presence of the vampire, sending her on sleepwalking jaunts) and lures the Count to her bedchamber. Unable to resist her sexual energy, he drinks so deeply he quite forgets the approaching rooster and disintegrates in a puff of smoke. There’s no violence, no bloody slaughter, just the extinguishing of one energy by another.
Hutter’s distraught reaction suggests Ellen sacrifices her life during this act, but a frowning Bulwer deliberately blocks our view through the door, leaving her fate ambiguous. Is she alive, dead, undead or reborn? Is this the end, or the crossing of a threshold? Grau planned Nosferatu as the first of three movies — perhaps he intended Ellen’s journey through the demimonde to continue? Sadly, we’ll never know.
No, nothing occult to see here, let’s move along 🤔🤔🤔
Nosferatu premiered on March 4, 1922, at the Berlin Zoological Gardens. As the literal definition of ‘before its time’, Nosferatu was not a hit with contemporary audiences — although critics were impressed by Murnau’s technical prowess and the tensions of the piece. Despite the major publicity campaign masterminded by Grau, Nosferatu didn’t drum up major business and, by the time Florence Stoker got her Berlin court ruling that all existing print and materials related to the film should be destroyed, the movie and Prana-Film were dead in the water.
One copy at least made it to the USA, however, and by the late 1920s the film began to be screened, irregularly, and to garner a cult reputation. Carl Laemmle Jr. readily admitted to falling under its influence, which is palpable in the 1931 version of Dracula he produced for Universal. Despite (or because of) its pirate movie status, Nosferatu continued to be screened throughout the twentieth century, with various versions cobbled together from unofficial prints. Its influence grew along with its critical stature, and it’s now acknowledged as a classic not just of the genre, or of the silent era, but of all time cinema. Several attempts have been made to reunite existing prints with the original titles and score, and the movie has now been digitally and exquisitely remastered.
Despite being officially buried by Stoker’s lawyers, Orlok refused to stay in his grave and has cast a long shadow over all subsequent screen vampires — and Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf, the dastardly villain of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Murnau, along with many other luminaries of German cinema, made the move to Hollywood. As well as offering career opportunities, California in the 1920s was much friendlier towards homosexual relationships — as long as they were conducted in private. He made what many consider to be his masterpiece, the romantic drama Sunrise (1928). Although critically acclaimed (it was given one of the very first Academy Awards for ‘best unique and artistic picture’) it, like Nosferatu, was not commercially successful.
Murnau continued to make movies within the system. In March 1931 he was on the verge of signing a deal with Paramount (where Adolph Zukor was much more receptive to the ideas of fellow European emigrés) when he died after his car hit a pole on the Pacific Coast Highway. So one story goes, his astrologer had warned him against travel by land, and he was racing to make arrangements for a voyage by ship. Another story (propagated by Kenneth Anger) suggested Murnau was engaged in a sex act with his driver, who was killed instantly in the crash.
Murnau’s remains were returned to Germany, where he was laid to rest in Stahnsdorf near Berlin. His funeral was sparsely attended but nonetheless star-studded. Mourners included Greta Garbo and the director to who he was most compared, Fritz Lang. Legend has it that Garbo commissioned a death mask of her friend, which remained on her desk throughout her time in Hollywood.
In 2015, graverobbers stole Murnau’s skull. Detectives found candle wax residue near the tomb, suggesting some kind of arcane ritual took place as part of the theft. Why Murnau’s skull was thought to have special powers is anyone’s guess — perhaps Nosferatu contained hidden occult information after all?
- Nosferatu -- A Symphony of Horror -- downloads, pics and comments
- Albin Grau’s Nosferatu -- feuilleton
- Six Degrees of Nosferatu -- from Sight and Sound via BFI
- David J. Skal’s Hollywood Gothic takes a deep dive into Dracula lore, tracing the novel’s transition into a hit stage then screen property. He goes into wonderful detail about the making of Nosferatu and how its aesthetics were translated for the Universal production of Dracula of 1931 -- both English and Spanish language versions.
Documentary Language of Shadows (2007) examines the work of F.W. Murnau and the making of Nosferatu. It includes interviews with Murnau’s niece, who recounts her uncle’s stories.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is a fascinating reworking of the Nosferatu legend; a compelling, if fanciful reconstruction of the film’s creation, starring Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and Eddie Izzard. Dafoe (as Schreck/Orlok) was nominated for a slew of awards, including an Oscar. The movie also received an Academy Award nomination for makeup.