Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

(This post is part of the "Silent Cinema Blogathon" hosted by
In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), better known simply as Noseratu, remains one of the most famous vampire movies of all time. There can be no doubt that it is the most famous silent film on the subject. In many respects it is remarkable that the film even survived. Never mind that many silent films would be lost over the years (of director F. W. Murnau's movies, nine are totally or at least partially lost), as an unauthorised adaptation of the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, Nosferatu had some fairly large obstacles to its continued existence in any form.

The genesis of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (in English, literally Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror) goes back to Albin Grau, an artist and architect with an interest in the occult. It was Abin Grau's interest in the occult that led Mr. Grau and his partner Enrico Dieckmann to found the studio Prana Film with the intention of shooting films about the occult and supernatural subjects. The studio took its name from the Sanskrit term prana, which in Hindu philosophy refers to the "life force" or "vital energy" permeating the universe.

As to how Albin Grau decided upon the subject matter of what would be Prana Film's first and only film, it was during World War I when he was serving in the German Army that he encountered a Serbian farmer who told him that his father was a vampire. It was because of his interest in vampires that Albin Grau decided to adapt Bram Stoker's extremely popular novel Dracula. Unfortunately, Prana Film did not get the rights to do so.

Albin Grau and Enrico Dieckmann hired Henrik Galeen to write the screenplay for what would become Nosferatu.  Mr. Galeen already had experience writing a horror movie, having both co-written and co-directed the influential 1915 film Der Golem. In writing the screenplay Henrik Galeen changed the names of the characters from the novel Dracula, with Count Dracula becoming Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker becoming Thomas Hutter, Mina Harker becoming Ellen Hutter, and so on. He also eliminated many of the novel's secondary characters--there are no equivalents to the characters Arthur Holmwood or Quincey Morris in the film. He also changed locations from the novel. While most of the novel Dracula is set in Whitby, Yorkshire, most of the movie Nosferatu is set in the fictional village of Wisborg, Germany. Notably, Henrik Galeen replaced all instances of the word "vampire" (which in High German would be "Vampir") with the word "nosferatu". Despite all the changes Henrik Galeen made, Nosferatu was still recognisably an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

As to the term nosferatu used in the film and its title, its origins are difficult to ascertain. The term appeared in article written by Wilhelm Schmidt in a German language magazine in Austria-Hungary in 1865, in which he discussed Transylvanian customs. It appears to have been  introduced into English by British author Emily Gerard in the article "Transylvanian Superstitions", published in the July 1885 issue of the magazine The Nineteenth Century. In her article she simply portrayed the word nosferatu as a Romanian word for "vampire". It is from Miss Gerard's article that Bram Stoker picked up on the term and used it in the novel Dracula, where he appears to believe it to mean "not dead" and thus synonymous with the English word undead. Regardless, there appears to be no actual Romanian word nosferatu, leaving scholars to ponder where Wilhelm Schmidt came upon the term.

Of course, the director on Nosferatu would be F. W. Murnau. F. W. Murnau was already an experienced director with several films under his belt. What is more, he already had experience directing horror movies, including Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin (1920--literally "The Hunchback and the Dancer") and Der Janus-Kopf (1920--"The Head of Janus", an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Nosfeartu was largely shot at actual locations. Locations in Germany and Slovakia (standing in for Transylvania) were utilised in the film.

A preview of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) was held on March 6 1922 in the Marmorsaal of the Berlin Zoological Garden. It officially premiered in cinemas on March 15 1922 at the Primus-Palast in Berlin. It was almost immediately that Florence Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker, filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against Prana Film. Nonetheless, the film was screened in Paris. A British distributor, Y. Froehlich, even bought the British distribution rights to the film. He submitted it to the British Board of Film Censors under the title Dracula, who rejected it, most likely due to the lawsuit in Germany.

Given Nosferatu was obviously plagiarised from Dracula, Florence Stoker won the copyright infringement case. Prana Film declared bankruptcy and would make no more films. As to Nosferatu itself, the court took the unusual action of ordering every single print of the film destroyed. Much to Florence Stoker's chagrin, at least one print survived. Worse yet, the release of F. W. Murnau's film Der letzte Mann (1924--literally "The Last Man", but released English as The Last Laugh) brought attention to the director and his earlier work in the English speaking world. Because of interest in Mr. Murnau's early work, a private club of cinephiles in London called the Film Society planned to screen Nosferatu in 1925. Florence Stoker raised objections to the showing of the film and it was cancelled, but the Film Society never let her know the location of the print. What is more, they decided to keep the print for preservation rather than see it destroyed.

For all that Florence Stoker had sought to destroy the film, Nosferatu refused to die. In 1927 the film was shown once more in Paris. In 1928, after Universal had obtained the film rights to the novel Dracula in the United States, on December 16 1928 the Film Society in London screened Nosferatu, although it appears the print they showed was a damaged one that had been partially restored. It would be the last time that Nosferatu was seen in the United Kingdom until after World War II.

It was in 1929 that Nosferatu surfaced in the United States. Fortunately, in the United States, it was learned not long after Universal had obtained the film rights to Dracula that Bram Stoker had failed to comply with one requirement to have the novel protected under American copyright. Quite simply, Dracula had been in the public domain in the United States since 1899. Any filmmaker in the United States could make a movie based on the novel or its characters without having to get the rights to do so. This also meant that Nosferatu could be freely shown in the United States. Eventually Florence Stoker gave up her fight against the film and with her death in 1937, Nosferatu would be shown more freely around the world.

Unfortunately by 1937 there was little interest in Nosferatu and there would not be until well after World War II. Nosferatu experienced a revival in the Sixties, when it began being shown on television. Unfortunately, the prints were often damaged and incomplete. It was not until the Eighties that a full version of the film would be restored, largely due to the work of  Ennos Patalas of the Munich Film Museum. This version has been released on DVD and shown on television. Curiously, the BBFC has never rescinded the ban on the film in the United Kingdom from 1922, meaning that it has not yet been shown in a British cinema, although it has appeared on British television and it has been screened privately.

Regardless, Nosferatu has come to be regarded as one of the greatest vampire movies ever made, as well as one of the greatest adaptations of the novel Dracula. It has also come to be regarded as a prime example of German Expressionism, although whether it is an German Expressionist movie is questionable. Certainly F. W. Murnau drew upon German Expressionism in his use of light and shadow in the film, but in other ways Nosferatu seems unlike most German Expressionist films. Rather than using the stylised sets of many German Expressionist films (those in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are a prime example) F. W. Murnau utilised actual locations in Nosferatu. What is more, the performances of the cast, including Max Shreck who played Count Orlock, are subdued and naturalistic, hardly the exaggerated, highly symbolic acting of German Expressionism. Ultimately Nosfeartu should probably not be regarded as an example of German Expressionism so much as a film that was influenced by German Expressionism, much in the same way that film noir would be.

Indeed, as opposed to the German Expressionist films, Nosferatu seems to be a very naturalistic and even realistic film, much more so than Universal's 1931 adaptation of Dracula. Through the use of actual locations, long takes, and the overall framing of the movie, F. W. Murnau presents a world that seems all too real despite the fantastic events that unfold. At the same time Nosferatu has a dream like quality, particularly in the scenes involving Count Orlok. While Nosferatu is a very naturalistic film, it is one that blends reality and fantasy so that any difference between the two is imperceivable.

Despite the fact that Nosferatu had been marked for destruction and for many years would be rarely seen, the film would have a lasting impact on cinema. In fact, it is in Nosferatu that we are first presented with the idea that sunlight is harmful to vampires. In vampire folklore and the novel Dracula, sunlight was not particularly dangerous to vampires. In fact, in the novel Dracula even ventures out in the daylight. Since Nosferatu, however, the idea of sunlight being harmful to vampires has become so engrained that the vast majority of films almost never stray from it.

Since its release Nosferatu has also been frequently referenced in pop culture. Clips from the film appeared in Universal's 1932 comedy short "Boo!". The film itself was remade by Werner Herzog as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). The 2000 horror satire Shadow of the Vampire was a fictionalised account of the making of Nosferatu, centred around the idea that Max Schreck was an actual vampire. The  Blue Öyster Cult song "Nosferatu", on their 1977 album Spectres, is about the film. French progressive rock band released an entire album based on the movie entitled Nosferatu in 1989.

Ultimately Nosferatu survived Florence Stoker's campaign against the film to become one of the best known and most respected silent films of all time. In 2007 Time included it in its list of the "Top 25 Horror Movies" at no. 21.  In 2010 the Guardian ranked Nosferatu at no. 7 in its list of the "25 Best Horror Films of All Time". As of 2015 it is the second best reviewed horror film on Rotten Tomatoes (curiously, it was beat out by another German Silent, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari). Over ninety years since its release Nosferatu remains one of the most respected horror movies of all time, a silent movie that was in many respects well ahead of its time.


Dan Day, Jr. said...

It is perhaps still the creepiest vampire movie of all time.


Nice review! Although I knew about the studio not being able to secure Dracula's rights, I wasn't aware of the "occult" side that led Grau to Prana Films.
And, oh, Nosferatu's shadows never ceases to creep the hell out of me.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Joe Thompson said...

Excellent summary of Florence Stoker's campaign to destroy the movie and the efforts of cinephiles to preserve it.