Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," is still one of the most unsettling and visually dazzling vampire films ever made. It was ahead of its time in terms of screen horror, and it was among the best of Weimar-era German cinema; one of the finest films by one of the country's preeminent filmmakers.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe on Dec. 28, 1988, “the greatest film director the Germans have ever known” (according to Lotte Eisner), Murnau changed his last name to that of the town near where he met the Blue Rider group, an assemblage of avant-garde artists. Following World War I, and with a theatrical background that included work with the legendary Max Reinhardt, Murnau set his sights on the movies.
Expressionistic visuals and fantastical stories of magic, mystery and the macabre haunted German screens during this period, and Murnau was in on this early with films like The Blue Boy (1919), The Head of Janus, or The Two-Faced Man (1920) – a classic example of the doppelganger (a common thematic device of the movement) – and The Haunted Castle (1921). But it was with Nosferatu that the director's noteworthy knack for cinematic flair was most appreciably present. Pauline Kael called the picture the "first important film of the vampire genre" and declared that it "has more spectral atmosphere, more ingenuity, and more imaginative ghoulish ghastliness than any of its successors." Indeed it does, and it's this blending of story and style that gave the film its power and is what keeps it a classic of world cinema, let alone that of the horror genre. Its action is riveting, its imagery visceral.
While the source novel was known (notoriously so since the filmmakers didn't bother to secure any rights), the origins of the film also derived from co-scriptwriter and producer Albin Grau, who had a fascination with the paranormal, based somewhat on stories of supposed real vampires. Murnau and Grau changed a few details of the story, in an effort to distinguish it from Stoker's work, but to audiences this behind-the-scenes question of material credit was irrelevant. They were captivated by the picture, thanks in part to innovative marketing and publicity campaigns, including rumors of actor Max Schreck actually being a vampire (this humorously shown in Shadow of the Vampire (2000)). Schreck, who plays the titular creature, had in fact been in four films previous, and would make 29 more after Nosferatu.
Whether or not audiences really believed this, there can be no question that it was Murnau's visual tricks and general mise-en-scene of unease that engrossed the spectator. Be it the images of the ghastly coach traveling unnaturally fast through bizarre woods – done by over-cranking the camera, using the film’s negative and painting the carriage white – or the stop-motion effects of the vampire rising from the coffin, Nosferatu was a stunning tour de force of filmic inventiveness. No doubt Schreck’s make-up, body manipulations and gestures played a part in this as well. Taking perhaps a cue from earlier films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Schreck moves slowly, deliberately, haltingly, and when dramatic action happens, it happens fast and furious (when the vampire, at first at some distance, suddenly appears much closer in the doorway). The light too was crafted to create interiors of menace and dread, with scenes shot in half-light, leaving sections of the frame completely black; sharp contrasts of chiaroscuro lighting and shadow play create a palpable sense of lurking potential horror. As per the norm of these Expressionistic films, the settings were also integral to the overall tone. The seemingly naturalistic landscapes and locations come across as bizarre and intimidating, even, at times, like they themselves are alive and are conscious of the terror mounting. The arches in the castle, the wooden slopes of the ship and the rocky peaks of the countryside form a jagged backdrop of violence.
With so much happening on screen, and so much occurring in its country of production, Nosferatu has not surprisingly been greeted with multiple readings and interpretations. Emblematic of Germany between the wars, during a time of turmoil and uncertainty, Nosferatu was a film that kept citizens on their toes. A warning of impending danger was frequently derived from the film. Granted, much of this was in retrospect and with the benefit of post-WWII hindsight, but certainly some of it does seem reasonably indicative of years to come. Predominantly, Nosferatu was seen as a film that played on threats to the homeland, to an ordered society: Nosferatu threatening the Hutters and the town; lands to the east of Germany compared to the eastern Count Orlok. In other words, Nosferatu was a stand-in for foreign invaders. These external forces were apparently waiting at Germany's doorstep to bring pestilence and death, and this made the film’s terror easy to absorb. The plethora of rats and the general rat-like appearance of Nosferatu also suggested trouble on the horizons. According to scholar John Sandford, “Rats, and the plague that they bring with them, are, historically and in folk-memory, not native to northern Europe, but an invasive, ‘foreign’ force from the east.” (Of course, this emphasis on rats and similar physical traits would rear its ugly anti-Semitic head in subsequent years as well.)
The threats didn't stop there with Nosfetau. The changes brought upon Hutter’s wife by the presence of Nosferatu also called into question what was happening in German culture and in German homes at the time. Weimar Germany was a society of rapid change, with values challenged by progressive modern views, amorality and decadence. Ellen, seen as the virtuous, morally upright middle-class wife, becomes vulnerable to the psychosexual prowess of Nosferatu.
Murnau followed Nosferatu with more stellar films of awe-inspiring visual ingenuity and imagination. There was Phantom in 1922 and The Last Laugh in 1924 – this one of his most remarkable achievements — and Tartuffe (1925) and Faust (1927). In these we again see a full range of technical virtuosity, from special effects and astonishing camera maneuvers to elaborate sets, as well as a continuing preoccupation with the uncanny. Like so many others, Murnau was lured to America where he went to work at Fox, directing three films: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), 4 Devils (1928), and City Girl (1930). Sunrise would win one of two best picture Academy Awards at the organizations’ first ceremony in 1929 – for “Unique Artistic Contribution.” Murnau’s last film, not by design, was Tabu (1930), filmed in collaboration with Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North (1922)) and shot around the South Seas. Before the film was released, Murnau died at age 43 in a car accident.