By Special Guest Writer: Brian Skutle
At a certain point, can a story become too familiar? After almost a century of Dracula narratives, whether they are adapted directly from the Bram Stoker novel or not, the character and his arc feels as familiar as a family heirloom, passed down the generations. This is part of why F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” is the adaptation of the
story I come back to more often than any other- Murnau’s film feels like an oddity, like that weird uncle you don’t really want to talk about. And yet, it still has a place in the family, because the DNA remains constant.
In a way, horror lost the most as a genre when the films moved from silent to sound. Even now, the words in the great horror movies, be it “The Shining” or “Cat People” or “The Babadook,” are incidental compared to the images we see onscreen. The Bride of Frankenstein, and her iconic hair. Jason Vorhees and his hockey mask. The Dance of Death at the end of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Yes, performance and scripts can add to the macabre impact of material, but most people will point to what we see as creating a sense of dread in us. Count Orlok does not require spoken words to terrify us; his grotesque look, and the physical performance by Max Schreck, is all Murnau needs in order for “Nosferatu” to creep into our nightmares. As “Nosferatu” unfolds, we can make all the connections between Murnau’s story and Stoker’s- it’s not surprising the estate, and widow, were upset by the blatant stealing of their copyright. But “Nosferatu” is like a new interpretation of a piece of music- whether it’s the re-imagining of a classical work, or a cover of a song; the notes and lyrics are the same, but the re-contextualization brings out something in the original that wasn’t apparent before, even to a viewer who’s seen it almost every year since 2001.
In “Nosferatu,” the climax is tempered not just by the sacrifice Hutter’s love, Ellen, makes in order to stop Orlok, but in what was lost in the process. By not romanticizing the allure of Dracula, which took on a different dimension I hadn’t really considered before, and will discuss later, Murnau emphasized that he is bringing forth a plague on humanity. This is not often explored in the other adaptations of Stoker’s story; it’s an inescapable truth in Murnau’s film. “Nosferatu” came out a few years after the Spanish Flu pandemic, wherein anywhere from 17 million to 100 million died worldwide. I think it’s reasonable to imagine that Murnau might have had that in his head when he was making “Nosferatu,” and it’s a big part of why his Dracula- Count Orlok- needed to be a grotesque, rather than seductive figure. He is not coming to just feed and terrorize a town, but to unleash a global calamity that will engulf anyone in his way. The passage on the boat, which becomes a tomb, in the second half of this film is as haunting as any sequence in movie history. The hysteria it throws the town into, and the quiet streets we see after the boat is searched, have an eerie familiarity as we have seen similar images during the COVID pandemic over the past two years.
““Nosferatu” is like a new interpretation of a piece of music- whether it’s the re-imagining of a classical work, or a cover of a song; the notes and lyrics are the same, but the re-contextualization brings out something in the original that wasn’t apparent before, even to a viewer who’s seen it almost every year since 2001.”
Orlok so dominates the film as a visual presence, Hutter and Ellen are often not considered. On the surface, Gustav von Wangenheim’s Hutter is a bit of a buffoon; part of that is the theatrical “over-acting” nature of the silent era of cinema, but it also sets him up as a protagonist who feels like he will be outmatched compared to Orlok. When he takes the job to go to Orlok and sell him on the deserted building across from his home, it is purely for selfish reasons, and he seems almost excited at the prospect; even when he stops at the village on the way to Orlok’s home, he cannot take the stories seriously. By the end of dinner with Orlok, where he lingers on the image of Ellen, and tries to suck Hutter’s blood, Hutter is rightly terrified. Seeing his progression as the film goes on, we start to see him as a heroic character. Of course, in the end, Hutter is but a spectator in the demise of Count Orlok, but seeing how quickly he turns from an almost comedic character to a heroic one is a turn we don’t always see in his counterparts in other Dracula films.
It’s interesting to contrast Hutter in Murnau’s film to Harker in Werner Herzog’s remake in 1979 (which, because Stoker’s book had gone into the public domain, was able to use the original names). Dialogue helps with the seriousness of the character during the narrative, but another one of Herzog’s touches is what really brings it home. Unlike in any other version of the story, Harker becomes something of a slave to Dracula, which is a role almost exclusively occupied by women in most versions of the Stoker narrative. Harker doesn’t bring people for Dracula to feed on, but he’s transformed into an acolyte, of sorts, much life Renfield/Knock is. At the end of Herzog’s film, Harker is a part of Dracula’s legacy that remains, without a Lisa to stop what is to come. Of all the changes Murnau- and later Herzog- made to Stoker’s story that is the most substantial is how the main female character in the film is treated.
Although dialogue (and color photography) in Herzog’s film helps bring the sensuality of the Dracula narrative into the structure of “Nosferatu,” the yearning that Dracula represents in his allure to women- whether it’s the three vampire women he tempts Harker with, or how he seduces Lisa and Mina into becoming the undead- is gone in Murnau’s film. Count Orlok still responds strongly to Ellen/Lisa, but the thrall he draws her to is less about a sensual connection, and almost a psychological one. It’s Ellen’s cries that save Hutter from Orlok, and it feels a bit like he views her as a threat rather than as an object he lusts after. (Mina and the vampire mistresses are gone from Murnau’s film.)
As Hutter tries to make his way back, we feel a melancholy in Ellen that is written on Greta Schroder’s face throughout the film. She feels lost without Hutter, but when he returns, she takes on an active role in the narrative, reading from the book about Nosferatu that Hutter was given at the inn early in the film. In there, she reads what can kill Nosferatu, and she knows what she must do. Murnau and Herzog give the character an agency that a lot of women in Dracula films do not have, and it’s exciting to see it utilized in both films.
““Nosferatu” feels like as much of a smuggler of bold themes and subtext as James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” would over a decade later. It long earned its place among the most terrifying films of all-time; maybe it’s time it took its place as one of the most progressive on a thematic level.”
Ellen has a simple arc in “Nosferatu,” but it’s filled with more substance than a lot of women in these films lack. She feels less like a tool for the whims of the male characters, and- dare I say?- the “Chosen One” to stop the evil. This bit of role reversal on the part of Murnau’s is not one I really considered before when I watch “Nosferatu.” In thinking about it upon a recent rewatch (and in seeing Herzog’s remake for the first time), however, it’s a bit surreal to think of an artist as revered as Murnau, whose films are often more acclaimed for the vision he put forth than the stories he told, saw something in Stoker’s text that he felt could be change to say something about the way men and women were often written (and shown) in genre narratives at this time, and it’s not often considered when looking at the film.
It would take almost 75 years later, and a teenage vampire slayer, before ideas he explored in one of the most iconic horror films of all-time, made in the early years of the art form, would become a common fixture in genre, and a way to explore stories like Dracula from a fresh perspective, and how they sometimes felt stuck in the past even in modern tellings. (Yes, slasher films had a long tradition of “the girl” that survives in the end, but they were often not made of the same fortitude as Buffy Summers was.) In that way, “Nosferatu” feels like as much of a smuggler of bold themes and subtext as James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” would over a decade later. It long earned its place among the most terrifying films of all-time; maybe it’s time it took its place as one of the most progressive on a thematic level.