In the town of Wisborg, a demented estate agent called Knock sends his employee Hutter to a remote Balkan castle on a mission to sell a vacant property opposite Hutter’s house to the mysterious Count Orlok. In an inn, a book titled Nosferatu that warns of supernatural perils is left for Hutter by an unrevealed benefactor. The sceptical Hutter takes the book but ignores the advice. Orlok’s vampire nature soon becomes apparent, traumatising Hutter and unleashing terror upon Wisborg, much to Knock’s delight. Hutter’s wife Ellen discovers the abandoned book and learns that she must sacrifice herself to end the terror.
The most haunting of the iconic images from the brief, brilliant era of Weimar cinema is that of the freakish vampire shadow scuttling up a staircase like a spider. His elongated, ghastly claw curls first around the door handle before inching towards his terrified victim’s heart. In 1922, Nosferatu established much of the mythos of the screen vampire, particularly the deadly effects of sunlight, and is still perhaps the best of its genre. Throughout, the mechanics of cinema are interwoven with narrative and thematic concerns. Also, while the tale itself is timeless, the film is immersed in the thinking of its unstable interwar context.
The plot is clearly derived from that of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but with the crucial omission of a perceptive Van Helsing to take charge of the hunt for the vampire.1 This leaves the main characters strangely adrift, with Hutter particularly slipping away from his perceived function as protagonist in the final quarter of the film. Similarly, the secondary characters Bulver, Sievers and Harding (all recognisable as equivalents of figures from the novel), serially blunder and make grave misjudgements. Each in different ways represents ‘authority’ through age, experience or social position, signalling a total breakdown of traditional social hierarchy and descent into chaos.
Conversely Orlok is the spirit of anarchy, all impulse and gratification with no real logic to his actions, while the crazed Knock barely contains a state of near-ecstasy throughout. Compared to the Hutters’ affectionate but seemingly passionless marriage, the film draws heavily on the opposing forces of staid comfort versus rapture. For an undead creature, Orlock is greedily full of primal life, memorably performed by Max Schreck with evident relish.2 As with any decent vampire, what has actually died is the creature’s self-restraint.
Weimar cinema is well recognised for its use of elaborate mise en scène, performance style and lighting. All Murnau’s films are in this respect certainly noteworthy, despite Gustav von Wangenheim’s hammy Hutter. Nosferatu’s famous shadow on the staircase is one of many examples of dramatically precise staging. Throughout, movement on stairs, through archways or across bridges is used to suggest psychological and atmospheric shifts.
Much else is remarkable. Unlike the majority of German films made in the 1920s, which were largely based within the studio in order to fully control the mise en scène, Nosferatu utilises extensive location shooting as well as artificial sets. At times, an unexpected documentary air is implied through wildlife footage of ‘werewolves’ (actually hyenas), spiders, a Venus flytrap and microscopic images of polyps. All posit the predatory count as a force of nature.
Contrastingly, the early scenes in Wisborg are particularly picaresque, purposefully evoking a gemütlich, pre-war past. Murnau then entwines this fairy-tale fiction and documentary realism with visions of the wild-looking Balkan Mountains. Less reliant on the overt expressionism of many of his peers, Murnau draws on images of a feral wilderness or portentous cloud formations to recall the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Consequently, the idyllic Wisborg’s disintegration into pandemonium becomes more dreadful.
The sublime evocation of nature gives way to the openly gothic via the medium of 1920s cinematic modernity as Hutter steps foot in the Count’s domain. Stop-motion cinematography presents the vampire’s phantom carriage its unnatural speed; double exposure allows him to pass through brick walls or suddenly materialise; extreme high and low angles suggest unnatural domination; most memorably, the use of negative footage of the carriage racing through the forest transports the hapless Hutter from the real world into the ‘land of ghosts’. The climactic sequence of Orlok feeding off Ellen is another example of a painterly influence on Nosferatu’s composition, evoking Henry Fusili’s The Nightmare, again making plain the Gothic/ Romantic inspiration.
In the 1960s, Lotte Eisner claimed that in Murnau’s films, ‘cinematic composition was never a mere attempt at decorative stylisation. He created the most overwhelming and poignant images in the whole German cinema’ (1969: 97). Murnau championed the use of the ‘unchained camera’, taking every opportunity to employ dynamic motion to his cinematography.3 Examples here include the sweeping seascapes of the doomed ship, The Empusa, parallel cut with panoramic landscapes, contrasting Orlok and Hutter’s separate journeys to Wisborg. Compare this to the stiff, studio-bound contemporary The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and the two films seem to be from wholly different eras.
Nosferatu also uses editing to create an undercurrent of psychological unease: at no point in the film do characters mention loss of self-control or psychic connections – both key themes of expressionist cinema – yet throughout, intuitive links are made clear by the use of creative cross-cutting. This deliberately undermines the townsfolk’s hapless assumptions and protestations. The connection between Orlok and Knock is explicit, yet there are evident ties that bind the trio of Hutter, Ellen and Orlok, suggesting that the underlying passion that seems missing from the Hutters’ rather stiff relationship feeds the uninhibited Count as much as blood.
The scene where a somnambulistic Ellen communes with the vampire attacking her husband thousands of miles away takes its logic from the shot-to-shot relation of the corresponding scenes. No exposition explains this. Ellen passionately calls out to Hutter but it is Orlok who responds through a false eyeline match across the separate shots of the two. Later, during the respective journeys of Orlok and Hutter, Ellen sits on a beach (portentously surrounded by graves) waiting for her ‘beloved’. Hutter had set off on horseback; it is Orlok who is coming to her by sea.
The female in Weimar expressionism tends to be reduced to the roles of damsel or whore but Ellen is a far more complex character, being married but seemingly virginal. The contradiction is evident in the final sequence where she gives herself to Orlok. The sexual metaphor of the vampire feeding is obvious, but it’s never been as complex as here. As with many other German films of the period, Nosferatu deals with the fear of loss of control, but in this sequence, who controls whom? Who leads whom to their death? Ellen is remarkably both ‘innocent maiden’ and ‘femme fatale’; faithful to her husband by giving herself to another; damsel in distress and saviour. Orlok is both victim and predator.
The film’s refusal to explain its subtextual oddities gives it the logic of a dream that slips into nightmare. Eisner suggest that the attraction/ repulsion nature of the Ellen/Orlok relationship evokes a feeling of, ‘the impress of (Murnau’s) inner complexity, of the struggle he waged within himself against a world in which he remained despairingly alien’ (1969: 98), namely the director’s homosexuality and the morality of German society at the time. Possibly, there is some validity in this, though it is striking that the image of the vampire, unlike the majority of its screen successors, is utterly hideous, rather than seductive. Orlok’s erect, thin body, oversized bald head and sharp teeth have been often likened to the image of the toothed phallus, emphasising the repulsion aspect of predatory, invasive and aggressive male sexuality. Ellen’s sacrifice thus becomes loaded with both abandon and revulsion as she lures the primal creature to their mutual destruction. Orlok is attractive perhaps because he is so repulsive: a figure of wild, destructive abandon and sexual horror. In this respect, perhaps Orlok’s true screen successor is less the generic vampire and more Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
However, there are darker issues that should be considered when placing the film into its context beyond debatable speculation about its director’s psychology. First, the influenza pandemic that trailed the war took twice as many casualties as those killed in action. Nosferatu’s parade of coffins and frequent references to plague are references a 1922 audience would have found chillingly familiar. Second, is the vampire here an antiSemitic image? After the Balkan invasion of Transylvania in 1916, there were numbers of Eastern European Jews migrating to Germany at a time when the right-wing press were looking for scapegoats for the increasingly disastrous events of the war. There are unmistakable parallels between the monsters depicted in the films of this time and some of the anti-Semitic propaganda from the later Nazi period.4 Vicious rumours of Jews as plague spreaders had been used to justify their continuous wholesale persecution and murder since the Middle Ages and the word ‘nosferatu’ means not ‘undead’ but ‘plague carrier’.
We should be cautious though. Murnau himself does not appear to have espoused anti-Semitism, leaving the increasingly fascist-leaning Germany for America in the mid-1920s. It is unclear whether Murnau was conscious of any implications in the images he was creating and it could also be argued that the cruel images of the 1930s drew on pictures of recent screen villains for inspiration, rather than the other way round.
In his analysis of Weimar cinema, Anton Kaes takes a radical look at the film and sees an allegory of the recent German war experience, revealing a wounded nation expressing the post-traumatic shock of a devastating defeat through cinema. The argument is convincing: Hutter journeys as an unprepared young man into a death zone and Knock even points out Hutter’s destination on a map as the central Balkans, where the war began. Hutter encounters horrors such as the face of Orlok peering up through the dirt between the broken planks of his coffin, clearly a grisly image based on those experienced in the trenches. The returning Hutter is stricken with symptoms of shell shock and apparent impotence. The formerly cosy Wisborg is transformed into a town ravaged by mass death, trauma and hysteria (Kaes 2009: 87–127). The breakdown in social order through the incompetence (Bulver, etc.) or madness (Knock) of authority is certainly an apt metaphor for the German war experience.
Ellen, in this reading becomes the model wife left at the home front as her husband goes off to ‘war’, yet the shell of the man who returns is incapable of resuming their innocent former relationship. The overwhelming external force drives her into an act of self-sacrificing abasement, recasting defeat as tragic victory. Thus, Ellen becomes an embodiment of Weimar Germany itself: unstable, beset by forces of anarchy and doomed.
Writing in the late 1940s, Siegfried Kracauer famously and contentiously considered that the monsters of Weimar cinema represented a nation’s collective premonition of the totalitarianism that would dominate the thirties. Kracauer branded Orlok a ‘tyrant figure’ (1947: 79) but a tyrant suggests some form of order, however terrible. Orlok is not that; he is a figure of anarchy, horror, madness and destruction let loose by the blinkered and the deluded. For a wounded nation flirting with chaos, he personified both the recently ruinous war and an inadvertent – yet fitting – premonition of Hitler.
1. In 1922, the novel was still in copyright, resulting in legal problems that affected the film’s circulation for decades.
2. A contemporary photograph of Schreck on set in full costume is especially sinister.
3. The technique culminates in the brilliant Sunrise (1927).
4. See Kaes, 2009, pp. 109–13.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany. Production Company: Prana Film. Director: F. W. Murnau. Screenwriter: Henrik Galeen. Cinematographers: Fritz Arno Wagner and Günther Krampf. Cast: Max Schreck (Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schröder (Ellen), Alexander Granach (Knock).]
Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969.
Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1947.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.