Credit Deutsche Kinemathek

Nosferatu: the first vampire film

In honour of its 100th anniversary, Sam Mutch explores the creation and legacy of German horror classic Nosferatu.

When you think of a classic horror film, what comes to mind? Some of the most common answers include The Shining (1980), The Exorcist (1973), and Psycho (1960). But, nestled amongst the greatest horror films of all time is one that predates any other i by thirty-eight years. Preceding the birth of the talking feature film – Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) – by five years, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is one of the seminal features of the silent film era. Starring Max Schreck as the terrifying Count Orlok, Nosferatu was the first-ever vampire feature film. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the film, and its influence is still felt in and outside the horror genre to this day. With this major anniversary, and the remake by modern horror auteur Robert Eggers on the horizon, what better time to look into the film and its influence?

Nosferatu follows estate agent Thomas, who is sent to get the imposing Count Orlok’s signature for a house. Once there, it is revealed that the Count is a vampire. Death and decay follow the Count wherever he goes, and eventually it is up to Thomas’ wife to stop the vampire. The film’s plot is almost entirely taken from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), but the adaption was unofficial and unauthorised. In fact, after the creation of Nosferatu, film producer Albin Grau’s company, Prana Film, declared bankruptcy in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit. This didn’t work and the Stoker estate sued the film, and it was ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. Miraculously, several copies of the film survived, which is how we are able to watch it today.

The film’s producer and production designer Albin Grau was an interesting character himself. Grau was largely responsible for the look and feel of the film, including being in charge of sets and costumes. Furthermore, Grau was also an occultist and member of the Fraternitas Saturni, a still-active magic order formed four years after the release of Nosferatu. Grau had long been planning to make a film about the occult and this influence can be seen in this film, which features various symbols linked to magic and hermeticism.

Alongside Metropolis (1927), M (1931), both by Fritz Lang, and Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu stands as perhaps the most iconic example of the German Expressionist film movement of the early twentieth century. These films rejected naturalistic set design in favour of angular jagged shapes and twisted structures. The stylisation over realism in both the visuals and acting in German Expressionist films help to create a dreamlike – or in the case of Nosferatu, nightmarish – effect. The use of shadows is also extremely important in the movement, which Nosferatu uses to great effect in the bone-chilling stair scene. With Count Orlok as one of its main figureheads, the movement spread through the world of cinema, influencing iconic directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder. German Expressionist-inspired imagery is commonplace in films to this day, especially in the noir and science fiction genres.

The incoming remake is not the only of its kind. In 1979, the Werner Herzog-directed Nosferatu the Vampyre was released. The film starred Klaus Kinski in the role of Count Dracula. Despite the name change, the film is more faithful towards Murnau’s film than the original Dracula book. Herzog’s version was a significant success, even sprouting an unsuccessful sequel called Vampire in Venice (1988) directed by Augusto Caminito with Klaus Kinski continuing his role as Dracula. Other adaptations include 1998’s Nosferatu: The First Vampire and the rock opera Nosferatu the Vampyre, which premiered in 1994.

Most memorable, however, is E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which differs from the rest as it is about the making of the original film rather than the story itself. Starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck, Shadow of the Vampire centres around a speculative secret history, in which Schreck is an actual vampire hired by Murnau for extra authenticity. This conflation likely arose from Schreck’s real-life persona. An introverted but dedicated actor, Schreck was a method actor trained by Stanislavski himself who would only appear in front of the film’s cast and crew in full makeup. So reclusive was the actor that even during the time of Nosferatu’s release, there were rumours that Schreck was not a real person, and the name Max Schreck was just a pseudonym for the actor Alfred Abel.

There are actually two Nosferatu remakes reportedly in production. David Lee Fisher’s adaptation has been reported since 2004, with non-human specialist Doug Jones as Count Orlok. Not much is known about this version, but with it resurfacing in 2017 there is still a chance of it reaching the screen. The most anticipated of the two is of course Robert Eggers’ remake. When it was originally announced that Eggers was to direct an adaptation of the horror classic he had only directed one feature film (2015’s The Witch), but since then has bolstered his resume with the successes of The Lighthouse (2019) and The Northman (2022). The production was initially announced in 2016 with Anya Taylor-Joy (who worked with Eggers on The Witch and The Northman) and Harry Styles cast. However, the film was temporarily shelved in 2019 as Eggers decided to focus on The Northman. Earlier this year it was announced that Nosferatu is finally in pre-production, including a change in casting as Styles and Taylor-Joy are no longer attached to the film. They will be replaced by Bill Skarsgård and Lily-Rose Depp who are now signed on instead. Initially scheduled to begin at the end of this year, it has just been announced that production has been pushed back to February 2023. It is always a worry when a film as iconic as F.W. Murnau’s original gets a remake, especially considering the number of disappointing remakes that have come out in recent years; but who better to do the original justice than Robert Eggers, a master of modern horror?

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