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One of the most foreboding and influential horror films in the history of cinema, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) was almost kept from the screen when the widow of Bram Stoker, Florence, sued the German producers for unauthorized use of her husband's novel, Dracula. The lawsuit over Nosferatu has haunted the film's history. Wanting to distance themselves from the film, the producers of Nosferatu sold it to Deutsche Film Produktion who edited the film without Murnau's consent. The film was then altered further for its 1929 American release, making the search for the "original," "uncut" Nosferatu a film historian's obsession.
Stoker's 1897 novel formed the foundation for an astounding body of film and literature concerned with the vampire. A tale of an undead "Count Dracula" with a taste for blood, Dracula mixed Eastern European folktales with the real-life exploits of the 15th-century Prince Vlad the Impaler, who reportedly speared 100,000 of his citizens to death. For Nosferatu, screenwriter Henrik Galeen relocated Stoker's story from London to 1838 Bremen and changed his characters' names in order to evade copyright law.
At the center of F.W. Murnau's unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's seminal vampire story (the first film adaptation) is the horrifying figure of Count Orlok (Max Schreck), a nobleman who wants to buy a deserted house in the Carpathian Mountains adjacent to that of Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim). Hutter travels to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count where he is attacked by Orlok's nightcrawling, vampire alter ego. After seeing a picture of Hutter's wife, Orlok travels via ship to Hutter's village of Wisborg to taste the lovely, white neck of Nina (Greta Schroeder). Like Stoker's Count Dracula, whose implicit physical lust expressed the repressed sexual desires of the Victorian era, Murnau's Nosferatu also had a sexual component, in suggesting the only cure for Orlok's evil is the untainted sexuality of a good woman. Nina reads in a book of vampire lore that the only way to stop the beast is for a virtuous woman to spend the night with him, thus sacrificing herself for the good of her society.
Probably the most memorable and chilling aspect of Nosferatu is Schreck as the monster. An actor whose own name is German for "terror," Schreck is certainly a nightmarish apparition with his bulbous head, pointed batlike ears and long, talonlike fingers and fangs. His ratlike facial features also associate him with the rodents who spread the plague across Europe. And Schreck's eerie, stammering, zombielike walk has since become a feature of numerous screen monsters, from the stammering gait of Frankenstein to the deliberate, determined pace of the killer Michael in Halloween (1978). This inspired interpretation of Stoker's monster suggests, in an almost subconscious way, the world of death and parasitism and decay created in Stoker's novel. Schreck's vampire was a thoroughly original creation, a monster far from the bloodsucking playboys of later Draculas.
No less integral to Nosferatu's masterpiece status was F.W. Murnau (Sunrise, 1927), called "the greatest film director the Germans have ever known" by film historian Lotte Eisner. Murnau employed a meager budget to great effect in Nosferatu and took the, then, uncommon tack of shooting many of the film's exterior views on location. Murnau's use of shadow to distort and dissect space to chilling effect is much remarked upon in critical discussions of the film.
Though favorably received by German critics upon its initial release, who saw the film's dire, morbid themes and moody setting as an evocation of the German sensibility of the time, American critics seemed divided on how to interpret the film's self-conscious expressionism. Variety praised the film's "extremely effective symbolism" while The New York Times dismissed Nosferatu out of hand as a "would-be spine-chiller." Today, most film historians tend to view Nosferatu as a masterpiece. In homage to the Murnau film, director E. Elias Merhige fashioned an affectionate black comedy in 2000 entitled Shadow of the Vampire, which provided an outlandish behind-the-scenes look at the making of Nosferatu. It won critical raves and earned Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Max Schreck, the original "Method" actor.
Producer: Enrico Dieckmann, Albin Grau
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen from the novel by Bram Stoker
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner, Gunther Krampf
Art Direction: Albin Grau
Music: Hans Erdmann
Principal Cast: Max Schreck (Nosferatu/Count Orlok), Alexander Granach (Jonathan Knock, an estate agent), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroeder (Ellen Hutter), Georg H. Schnell (Westrenka), Ruth Landshoff (Lucy Westrenka).
by Felicia Feaster