It looks like this year I may only have time to present a single entry to my “History of Horror” for October, but that one is a doozy! Profoundly influential, in its day controversial, and still significant, we will take a look at Friedrich W. Murnau’s vampire film, which could even qualify as the first indisputable horror film this project has discovered.
The first intertitle to this movie tells you that something a bit unusual is at work, in that it is written in the first-person, as if the story is being told to us by an individual author. Some English prints attribute this to a historian named “Johann Cavallius,” but more authentic prints put it under the header “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg,” sans author’s name (note that the same prints that give this name tend to follow conventions of Stoker’s novel in naming characters – Hutter is “Jonathan Harker,” etc. I will stick to the names from the Murnau script for this review). Whoever our author is, he or she has a propensity for dramatic statements about “deathbirds” or chilled blood, though what is introduced is homey enough as we see young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) with his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), living a comfortably bourgeois life with a garden in this fictional town. Hutter, however, works for an unscrupulous real estate agent named Knock (Alexander Granach), who has decided to sell the grim-looking empty house across from Hutter to a mysterious Count Orlok who comes “from the land of phantoms and thieves.” He assigns Hutter to travel there to meet Orlok and close the deal.
This assignment instills a certain sense of dread in the young couple, though where Ellen expresses it openly, young Hutter tries to laugh it off, to reassure her (and himself) that he is not afraid and will be back shortly. While walking down the street, Hutter is warned by an older man not to hurry, since “no one can outrun their fate,” which seems to add to the ominous foreshadowing of doom. Nevertheless, Hutter packs quickly and puts his wife in the care of some friends as he sets off on his journey. The scene cuts to images of a bleak countryside and the intertitles tell us that he has arrived in the Carpathians. Hutter arrives in a carriage at a small roadside inn, greeted by a man with a moustache in peasant costume. When he announces his destination, the entire place falls silent as people stop talking and stare. The landlord warns him about a werewolf in the hills, but he is adamant. In his room, he finds a book about vampires that warns him about “Nosferatu” that feeds on human blood. Hutter chucks it aside, unimpressed. The next day, the driver takes him into the forbidding mountains, but refuses to go on as nightfall approaches. Hutter is forced to begin hiking toward the castle in the twilight. He only goes a short distance before being met by a carriage which moves with uncanny speed (or undercranked camera). This carriage is driven by a hideous, rat-like man, who we will later learn is Count Orlok (our first look at Max Schreck in full makeup). After a wild ride through the woods, sometimes in film-negative, the carriage arrives at the castle, Hutter’s grim destination. Hutter enters through doors that open of their own accord and is greeted by Count Orlok, who informs him that the servants are already asleep.
At the castle, Orlok’s hospitality only results in creeping Hutter out, especially as the Count takes such interest when Hutter cuts himself with a bread knife and in a photo of Hutter’s wife (“such a lovely neck”), and when he announces that he sleeps during the day “dead to the world.” Hutter finds it worrying to imagine this person buying the house across from his. At night, he keeps returning to the grim words of the book from the inn. Nevertheless, he manages to write upbeat letters back to Ellen, laughing off the marks on his neck as mosquito bites. Ellen, however, begins sleepwalking at night and having premonitions of dread by day, and when she sees the letter, she reads between the lines, despite the efforts of doctors and friends to reassure her. Also back in Wisborg, the real estate agent, Knock, is admitted to a mental hospital as he has become “stark raving mad.” He catches and eats flies, crying “Blood is life!”
Hutter investigates during the day and finds Orlok sleeping, eyes wide open, in a coffin in the crypt. That night, apparently trapped in the upper part of the castle, he watches as Orlok puts six coffins onto a cart with preternatural speed and strength, then drives the cart out of the courtyard, leaving Hutter to his fate. Hutter tears bedsheets and lowers himself out of his window onto the ground, collapsing exhausted when he reaches safety, later to be found by farmers and brought to a hospital to recover from his ordeal. Although weak, he insists upon returning home and begins his journey back to Wisborg against the nurse’s protest. Various shots of him riding or leading a horse through the wilderness chronicle his journey. Orlok’s boxes are transported to a ship, the Empusa, whose crew discovers them to be filled with dirt and rats. The crew soon becomes ill, dying one by one as an apparent plague spreads among them. Anticipating the end, the captain lashes himself to the wheel while the mate goes below to try to discover the cause. All he finds is madness, and he leaps from the deck into the sea. Soon, Orlok reigns alone on the dead ship, which moves at his command. It pulls into the Wisborg harbor as Hutter returns from his long expedition, and we see him unloading the coffins at night, hauling them with apparent ease through the streets. Hutter returns to Ellen, but this reunion is undermined both by her apparently weakened condition and by images of Orlok coming closer and closer as he moves into his new home.
With daybreak, the Empusa is searched by the authorities, who find only the corpse of the captain and a log book stating that the crew included eight missing men when the ship set sail. The investigators conclude that it was a plague ship, and that rats have brought the plague from it into the city of Wisborg. We see the streets shut down in fear as proclamations are made not to bring the sick to see a doctor because that will only spread the plague. A doctor makes house calls, marking doors where people have died, and we see coffins borne through the streets – all within days of Orlok’s arrival in the city. Meanwhile, Ellen has become obsessed with the book Hutter retrieved from the inn (and evidently bore with him throughout Eastern Europe). She learns that a nosferatu may be defeated if a “young maiden” sacrifices her own blood in order to distract the beast so that it stays out after the crowing of the cock.
The populace now becomes excited with the idea that Knock is responsible for the deaths, and soon they are throwing stones at him and chasing him through streets and fields, while he cackles madly. This is intercut with images of Ellen contemplating, stitching a huge “Ich Liebe Dich” embroidery (presumably for Hutter), and eventually going to open her windows in a trancelike state as darkness falls. She diverts Hutter by calling for the doctor, and he runs out obediently to summon him, allowing Orlok to creep into their home and up the stairs, where he fastens himself to her neck. When a rooster crows, alerting Orlok that he has overstayed, he looks up in shock and Knock cries out to him from a cell as Hutter and the doctor finally return. The sunlight hits Orlok through the window and he fades into nothingness. Hutter and the doctor climb the stairs to find Ellen, who calls out Hutter’s name before collapsing, the final victim of the plague.
The images of Orlok, and his shadow, have become iconic images of silent horror, or even of the silent era in general, and though an early work, it is one that is cited in support of Murnau’s genius. For a while, though, it seemed like history might lose this important film, when Bram Stoker’s widow famously sued for copyright infringement of “Dracula” and won, then ordered all copies to be destroyed. However, it lived on in limited copies, and, unlike many less controversial movies, was pretty consistently available through the years for restoration and revival. Today, very high quality prints are available on physical media and for streaming.
Unlike most movies that I’ve reviewed under the auspices of a “history of horror,” this one is pretty unambiguously a horror movie in the modern sense. It involves a supernatural threat which kills people and is a direct menace to the protagonists of the story. Dracula of course is one of the seminal movie monsters, even if Bela Lugosi would become most people’s go-to image for him, not Max Schreck, but Orlok would reappear in different forms through the years, most famously in Werner Herzog’s sound version in 1979 and in “Shadow of the Vampire” in 2000. The “Nosferatu” was iconic enough to be an entire clan of rat-like monsters in the LARP game “Vampire: The Masquerade” and the imagery surely influenced the recent vampires-as-disease series “The Strain” created by Guillermo del Toro.
I personally have always liked the idea of a creepy, parasitic image for vampires over the sexy or aristocratic one that seems to be more popular. It has been suggested (and sometimes disputed) that this particular image of vampirism owes a lot to German anti-Semitism, which was rampant at the time. Certainly the connection between Jews, rats, and the plague would be explicitly exploited by the Nazis, for example in their film “The Eternal Jew” (1940), and the case has been made that Schreck’s bald, long-nosed, long-eared features could come out of a racist cartoon. I actually thought more about this in the case of Knock, the greedy trader in real estate who facilitates the immigration of an Easterner who brings degeneration and death to the land. To my eyes, Knock more closely resembles the caricature of a Jew than Orlok (it happens that he was played by a Jewish actor, for whatever that is worth), though perhaps we could see him as the “assimilated” German Jew rather than Orlok’s more “Orthodox” Eastern look. And Knock is chosen by the mob as a scapegoat for the plague – but it’s here that any accusation of Murnau deliberately wielding anti-Semitism breaks down a bit for me, because Knock is clearly sympathetic when he’s being chased, and the audience is relieved when he is returned safely to his cell. There is no implication that punishing him would solve the problem of vampirism, and it appears that the gossiping women and angry men of the town are blundering in the fear that spreads under the influence of a real, but intangible evil. If Murnau uses anti-Semitism to establish horror, he also subverts that message.
I’m always a bit surprised how brief a time Orlok is actually in Wisborg. The bulk of the story concerns Hutter in the castle, followed by Orlok on the ship. By the time the two arrive more or less simultaneously back in town, the movie has less than half an hour run time, and the plague isn’t discovered until about twenty minutes from the end. This for me is the most notable difference from the Lugosi version of “Dracula,” which takes place mostly in London, although the best imagery of that version, like this one, is mostly from the Transylvania sequence (the boat sequence is handled mostly with stock footage in 1931, so a comparison is somewhat unfair, but it is certainly much shorter). In my edition of the novel, the arrival of the Demeter occurs at about page 90 of over 400 pages, so again it seems Murnau has focused on the early parts of the story.
Compared to a film like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the Expressionist aspects of this film seem understated, but it is a solid example of the style, in part due to the design work of producer Albin Grau, who inserted “occult” Cabalistic symbols into the contract between Orlok and Knock, perhaps unconsciously adding to the connection between Jewishness and the ominously exotic. The images of Knock in the asylum seem like deliberate references to “Caligari,” although toned down in terms of set design – presumably another of Grau’s contributions. Fritz Arno Wagner, the cinematographer, had worked with Murnau before on “Destiny” and “The Haunted Castle,” and probably can be credited with the memorable images of Orlok’s shadow creeping about the house, as well as the various in-camera effects that allow him to be simultaneously solid and specter. The combination of these three visionaries, Wagner, Grau, and Murnau, led to one of horror’s most memorable experiences, although at the time it suffered from limited distribution and opposition on copyright grounds. This Halloween, be thankful for the circumstances that allow us to enjoy it today!
Director: F.W. Murnau
Camera: Fritz Arno Wagner, Günther Krampf
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach
Run Time: 1 hr, 35 min.
You can watch it: here (no music, 1947 print with dubious intertitles), or here (with music, 1991 print with accurate titles).