"Faust" director F.W. Murnau's silent 1922 classic horror film "Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror" (****out of ****) ranks as the earliest surviving vampire epic. As many as twenty movies about vampires, some of them short films, had been produced before the release of Murnau's landmark epic. Sadly, none of these earlier vampire movies have survived the ravages of time. Ostensibly, "Golem" scenarist Henrik Galeen and Murnau appropriated Bram Stoker's celebrated Gothic horror novel "Dracula," published in 1897, as the basis for their plot, but they neglected to obtain copyright clearance from Stoker's estate. Inevitably, Stoker's widow Florence sued Murnau and company, won the case in court, and demanded that the authorities confiscate and destroy every print and negative of "Nosferatu." Happily, despite its plagiaristic origins, "Nosferatu" survived the justice of this court order, and audiences can enjoy it today. Not only does "Nosferatu" qualify as the first adaptation of "Dracula," but it also is a touchstone picture in the vampire genre because its vampire, Court Orlok, was emaciated and hideously ugly. He looked nothing like the sartorially elegant princes of seduction that either Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee embodied. Max Schreck portrayed Court Orlok as a loathsome vampire. He sports needle type fangs in the front of his mouth, and he looks like a Nazi concentration camp inmate. Mind you, in some prints of "Nosferatu," Court Orlok is referred to as Count Dracula.
"Nosferatu" isn't a slavish adaptation of "Dracula." Apparently, Galeen and Murnau thought they might skirt the copyright issue if they altered the setting and changed some names. Clearly, the courts saw the issue otherwise when it ruled in favor of Florence Stoker. Basically, the plot remains intact with some geographical revisions, name changes, and the marginalizing of certain characters. "Orlok doesn't set sail for England, but heads to Bremen. The Count takes six coffins for his journey rather than some forty or more. One major departure from Stoker's novel, however, involves the character of Professor Van Helsing. Usually, Van Helsing acts as Dracula's arch enemy. Galeen and Murnau have reduced his role here to providing exposition about parasitic vampire organisms. Furthermore, the Murnau film takes place in Germany in 1838 whereas the Stoker novel occurred in the 1890s in Victorian England. Interestingly, unlike Dracula, Orlok does not spawn other vampires with his bite. He kills his victims, and the plague that follows in his wake serves as a metaphor for his evil. One precedent that "Nosferatu" established was that vampires were susceptible to sunlight. Meaning, the sun could obliterate them, something that wasn't the case with Stoker's literary protagonist who would stroll around during the day, though his powers were considerably attenuated.
Meanwhile, enough similarities existed to seal the filmmakers' fate. In Bremen, Germany, a creepy real estate agent Knock dispatches Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), to travel the Carpathian Mountains in distant Transylvania to discuss a business deal with the Count. In Stoker's novel, the Hutter character was named Jonathan. Anyway, Thomas is a rather adolescent, happy-go-luck fellow. He dismisses the warnings of the local folk as superstitious nonsense. He discovers a book entitled "Of Vampires, Terrible Phantoms, and and the Seven Deadly Sins left in his room and casts it aside in contempt. Presumably, the local equivalent of the Gideons stash this tome in every wayfarer's room as a sort of admonition. An eerie moment occurs when the coachmen take Hutter to a bridge and leave him afoot because they refuse to cross over into the province of phantoms. Later, a sinister coach drawn by horses decked out in dark hoods arrives with a creepy looking driver. Hutter climbs aboard for a whirlwind ride to the foreboding castle where a peculiar nobleman awaits his arrival. When he meets Hutter, The Count (Max Schreck) explains that his staff has gone to bed so he must attend to his needs. Later, The Count explains without reason that he wants to pull up stakes in and relocate in Bremen right across the street from Hutter's house.
Camparatively, the two eponymous vampires forsake their homeland and embark on a voyage to another city. Before the Count departs, he attacks Hutter and leaves him for dead. Meanwhile, the Count loads his coffins by himself onto a wagon, climbs into the topmost coffin, levitates the lid into place on it, and sets the horses in motion for the harbor. This "Dracula" is very supernaturally endowed. Moreover, not only can Count Orlok control things nearby, but he can also control things at a great distance and has acquired power over Hutter's employer Knock. Eventually, Knock goes insane, and he is put in a strait-jacket and placed in a psychiatric asylum. In the Stoker novel, the character of Knock was named Renfield. Like Knock, Renfield referred to the vampire as his "Master."
During the voyage, both Dracula and Orlok assume command of their vessels. For the record, Orlok embarks on his seagoing passage in August of 1838. In "Nosferatu," the outbreak of the plague is associated with the rats that infest Orlok's coffins. We learn that the dirt in the Orlok's coffins is plague dirt. Everybody dies on the respective ships in both yarns. The Count arrives in the ship at Wisborg with nobody left alive, but the ship is teeming with rats carrying a plague that wrecks havoc. German officials examine the ship, peruse the captain's log, and dread the worst: plague. Before long, panic grips the public about the plague, and people start to perish. The scenes where town officials mark front doors looks almost Biblical. Meanwhile, Hutter escapes from Orlok's castle and nearby peasants nurse him back to health. By now, Orlok has killed everybody on the ship. Orlok is entranced by Hutter's wife Ellen, and he takes a dilapidated building across the street from Hutter's house. While all of this is going on, Ellen has developed a psychic connection with Nosferatu. She will exert her power, but in the process she will die as she lures the undead villain to dally in her room until the morning rays of sunlight penetrate his body and he disappears.
The problem with watching public domain copies of "Nosferatu" is that these versions lack the tints that distinguish whether a scene occurs during either the day or after dark. Consequently, when Hutter meets Orlok at his foreboding castle, they appear to be drenched in bright sunlight. The blue tints on the Kino and Image DVD versions of "Nosferatu" make it clear that this scene takes place after dark. The absence of these tinted scenes is not confined strictly to "Nosferatu," but is also a problem with many public domain prints of silent films.
Although many critics try to pigeonhole Murnau in with the German Expressionist movement, he was not entirely enamored with expressionism. For instance, Expressionists prefer to shoot inside the orderly confines of a studio, whereas Murnau took his cameras onto location to shoot some scenic footage for the film. Incredibly, some of the settings, particularly the warehouse like building facing Hutter's home is still intact. Watch closely and you will see that Schreck never blinks. "Nosferatu" qualifies as one of the greatest horror films and Schreck's performance as the "Dracula" vampire is without parallel. Indeed, for most people, watching "Nosferatu" poses many problems, not the least of which is that it is silent and looks tacky. The ride through the woods on the haunted coach may look bad, but Murnau was striving to generate atmosphere. There is an interesting moment when Murnau uses a hyena as the visual equivalent of a werewolf. After you watch it several times and grow accustomed to its 'otherness,' "Nosferatu" is really great. Some viewers might prefer the version that David Carradine introduces and has Type O Negative performing the soundtrack. Boo!