“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
It’s October, and here at Biff Bam Pop! that means a month-long celebration of the macabre in pop-culture, and what better place to start for a column like “The Ten Percent” — where we look at the relatively small number of pop-culture productions with rise above the commonplace to achieve something greater — than with the granddaddy of all vampire films: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
In recent decades the vampire has become less monster and more sex symbol: Tom Cruise in a blond wig, glistening hunks with Louisiana accents, or (gods help us all) heroin-chic pretty boys who sparkle in the sun. Nor is this trend particularly new. From Bella Lugosi to Frank Langella, celluloid vamps have been suave, sophisticated, and aristocratically eccentric since the 1930s. Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula cleaned up rather nicely once you got a little blood in him. Still, the vampire as misunderstood romantic figure is a fairly recent development that has resulted in innumerable pop-culture productions which fall firmly into the ninety percent of everything that is crud.
Not so with F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film. Here a monster stalks the shadows with an appetite so voracious that his predation is mistaken for outbreaks of virulent plague, and long funeral processions bearing coffin after coffin after coffin wind their way through the cobbled streets of the cities he has infected. Nosferatu is a brilliant piece of almost outright plagiarism, for when the studio could not obtain the rights to turn Bram Stoker’s Dracula into a film, Murnau decided to go ahead and make it anyway, changing it ever so slightly in a futile attempt to avoid a successful suit by the Stoker estate. Hence, Hutter (Gustav van Wangenheim), a newly married young real estate broker, is sent to the mysterious and mountainous land of Transylvania to conclude the purchase of a house in the German city of Wisborg by the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck). The scenario begins to sound familiar, as does the strange madness of Hutter’s boss, Knock (Alexandar Granach), who develops a sudden taste for insects and a maniacal laugh that you can somehow hear in the most primitive part of your brain, the film’s silent nature notwithstanding. Of course, there is also Hutter’s young and beautiful wife Ellen (Gretta Schroder), who is sensitive to the point of hysterics, and the heroine of the piece.
As the human characters move across the screen in the jerky, exaggerated movements of the corrupted Delsarte Method, with sometimes ludicrously akimbo arms, and facial expressions meant to be read from the back of a theater becoming a study of the grotesque on film, Murnau’s monster is eerily still, contained, his movements deliberate and smooth. Orlok himself is no seed for forbidden sexual fantasies, either. His ears are pointed, twisted, and bat-like. His head is bald, with only a few wisps of hair. His face in elongated, his eyes bright with fever. His greatcoat is that of a mourning priest, and his fangs protrude from the center of his upper jaw, like the teeth of a plague-rat. As he makes his secret way from Transylvania to northern Germany, villages, towns, and cities are devastated by his hunger, and Orlok brings no romanticism, no tortured beautiful soul, and definitely no sparkles with him. He is death incarnate, making his bed on dark earth stolen from cemeteries filled with plague victims. He is the ultimate apex predator, and humanity is not ready.
Artistically, Nosferatu is still capable of stunning the viewer. Orlok sometimes moves in fast-motion, and while at first the modern viewer may see this as a kind of quaint artifact of the early film industry, is quickly becomes obvious that Murnau is using this technique deliberately, removing Orlok even further from the realm of humanity. He scurries. Stop-motion photography reveals coffin-lids, ropes, hatches, and doors moving without being touched. As Orlok, disguised as a coachman, drives Hutter through the forest to his castle, Murnau twists the scene by using photographic negatives, so the coach is moving through white trees beneath a black sky. Murnau’s composition also creates a constant uneasiness: characters cringe in the corners and edges of the screen, leaving the center empty and unbalanced. The use of montage footage, of which Murnau was one of the early developers, allows him to link events occurring a continent away from one another, and to reveal the dark power of his antagonist. Above all, however, it is the shadows of this film that serve to insure its power ninety-two years after its release. For Orlok’s ultimate hunt is a shadow play of horror that lingers in the mind’s eye. All of this is made perhaps even more effective for the modern viewer, for as the great Roger Ebert wrote of Nosferatu:
It is commonplace to say that silent films are more “dreamlike,” but what does that mean? In Nosferatu, it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away. There is no repartee in nightmares. Human speech dissipates the shadows and makes a room seem normal. Those things that live only at night do not need to talk, for their victims are asleep, waiting.
Nosferatu remains the greatest vampire movie ever made, and is still truly creepy, after all this time. In fact, even the film itself seems to partake of Orlok’s undying nature. As I mentioned earlier, the Stoker estate, in the form of Stoker’s widow, won their suit against Murnau and his studio, and demanded that every print of the film be destroyed. The only reason we have Nosferatu today is that in the global economy of the early 20th century, destroying every single copy of something was easier said than done. Nosferatu was distributed worldwide, and to wide acclaim. When the injunction to destroy every copy came down, some were deliberately smuggled to safety in defiance of the court; others lay forgotten in storage rooms, film vaults, and museums. Meanwhile, Stoker failed to properly register the copyright for Dracula in the United States, and thus the one copy of Nosferatu in the US when the ruling was handed down violated no copyrights, was not destroyed, and became the primary source for all existing versions of the film. The most complete version extant today is comprised of footage from around the world, including missing scenes restored from lost copies in Italy and Brazil. Nosferatu has slept for most of a century, waiting quietly for new generations of viewers, and for new and silent nights.
After all, what need does a predator have for speech?
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5 (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.