Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Note: It is now 58 days to Halloween.

When one considers how vampires have changed over the years from their initial conception on screen one could perhaps write a social thesis on how art reflects current society. There is no denying there is a strong sexual connotation embedded in the vampire but also there is an undercurrent of eternal life by the ingestion of human blood. But all this came with a price, your soul, at least that was the how the vampire was viewed in his early incarnations. This view of the vampire was of definitive evil that craved power, longevity and in some cases a youthful appearance by preying on others. In the dark regions of Romania the vampire was repulsive with foul breath, hairy palms, pointed ears protruding fangs that did not retract. Bram Stoker mined much of this lore as well as legends of Vlad the Impaler when he penned Dracula and F. W. Murnau, in 1922, accentuated these details in his film adaption of the novel.

The history of Nosferatu is a troubled one. Names had to be changed to avoid a copyright issue because Prana Films never got the rights to the novel so Murnau and screenplay writer Henrik Galeen had to change key names. Dracula became Count Orlock and Harker became Hutter and Renfield became Knock and so on. Yet even with the changes the plot was so blatantly obvious that Stoker's widow succeeded in winning a law suit that caused Prana Films to declare bankruptcy and the majority of the prints destroyed. Yet Nosferatu survived and has been hailed by Empire Magazine as on of the top 100 films of World Cinema.

Here is a bit of interesting trivia, until Murnau's film, in legend, lore and in literature the daylight did not destroy a vampire. It was Nosferatu that incorporated this detail, even in Stoker's novel, Dracula could travel about by day but his powers were considerably weakened. Munau had to devise a method to dispose of Count Orlock and the idea came to him to have Ellen, Mina in Dracula, read the Book of Vampires and discover " a woman pure in heart must willingly give her blood to him, so that he loses track of time until the cock's first crowing." Ellen offers herself to Orlock who gorges on her until he is unaware of the coming morning and is destroyed by the sun. This has been passed down through film after film, daylight is lethal to a vampire, an example of how Hollywood can retool lore for effect.

In 1979 Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu entitled Nosferatu the Vampire. Considered by many an art film with a very creepy performance by Klaus Kinski, it follows the main plot line of the original film but doesn't disguise many of the names that Murnau's film does. Harker is Harker and Mina is Mina in Herzog's film and Kinski gives at times a sympathetic portrayal of the immense loneliness that Orlock suffers from his longevity and isolation. It is a very poetic film that ends like the Murnau film with Ellen/Mina sacrificing herself to keep the Count distracted until the morning sun destroys him. Herzog's film is a compliment to the original and personally I prefer it but much of my preference lies in the fact that it is technologically superior and gives a richer portrait of Orlock. But if it were not for the original we would not have the 1979 film and even those technical advances make it more preferable to watch, there is no denying that for its time, the 1922 Nosferatu was ahead of of the curve and its contribution to the genre cannot be denied.

In 2000, E. Elias Merhige was selected by Nicholas Cage to direct Shadow of the Vampire to be produced by his studio Saturn Films. With a script written by Steven A. Katz and a cast that included John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier and Eddie Izzard, Merhige created a backstory to the filming of Nosferatu with Dafoe playing Max Schreck, the actor who was hired to play Orlock but there was one catch, Schreck was a real vampire. The result was a dark comedy accentuated by Malkovich ad libbing dialogue in many scenes and a performance by Dafoe that would garner him a nomination for a best supporting actor Oscar. Though the movie is loaded with black humor the ending still results in the pathos of destroying their lead actor at the cost of the films leading lady. Funny and somber the film is required viewing for anyone who has an interest in the original. Of course the movie is entirely fictitious but the atmosphere and watching Malkovich playing the obsessed Murnau as well as Dafoe playing Orlock as a sinisterly creepy but sometimes sympathetic ancient, vampire is a pleasure to watch.


  1. love all three of these...excellent journal/blog entry by the way!

  2. I Personally prefer Murnau's version to Herzog's