We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
Vampires have been some of the most iconic movie monsters since the very early days of cinema. But if the first name that comes to mind is “Count Dracula,” the first image is very likely that of Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu. His pointed ears, eerily tall, slender frame, and long, curling nails have become a visual motif repeated throughout horror cinema. Initially released in 1922, Nosferatu bore such a strong resemblance to Bram Stoker’s famous gothic novel Dracula that, in many ways, the fact that we still have access to this film is a bit of a miracle. Stoker’s descendants, outraged at what they considered to be blatant theft, sued Prana Film, the studio behind Nosferatu, which was then ordered by courts to destroy every copy of the film in existence. Clearly, they were unsuccessful, as prints have survived to the present day. This is a great victory for film: Nosferatu is memorable for both its stylistic contributions to the larger German expressionist movement at the time and for introducing many of the elements of vampiric lore that we now recognize as utterly essential to the genre.
As far as the plot goes, Nosferatu mimics Dracula in almost every way. In some prints of the film, you’ll see characters referred to as Dracula or Jonathan Harker, or Mina, the names from the original story. In others, they have been Germanized: Dracula becomes Orlok, Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, Mina becomes Ellen. But aside from these superficial changes, little else is different.
Hutter is sent by his employer to Transylvania to meet with a mysterious count desirous of a new home in Hutter’s home city (depending on the print, it’s either Bremen or the fictional town of Wisborg). The further east he travels, the more he is surrounded by a pervasive sense of fear and superstition. The villagers will not allow him to travel at night when the evil spirits are said to become all-powerful. When he is reluctantly given a ride to Count Orlok’s castle, his driver will only take him to a certain point and does not dare to venture any further. The Old World looms large around him, filled with ancient dangers, but he is a modern man and pays it no mind.
Nosferatu, unusually for a German expressionist film, frequently utilizes outdoor shoots. As Hutter travels to the remote countryside of Transylvania (actually filmed in Czechia), sets are rarely employed. Instead, there’s a sense of naturalism to the landscape that makes the growing dread all the more potent: it taps into the dark romanticism of the original novel. It’s only when Hutter reaches the castle of Count Orlok that we begin to see the distorted angles, the inhuman shapes that are closely associated with the genre. Abandoned by the carriage driver, he is picked up by a strange, shadowy figure dressed entirely in black: the figure of death itself, even his horses are shrouded in darkness.
Although Hutter is our protagonist, there’s little about him that draws our attention. He’s a run-of-the-mill middle-management type, skeptical of villagers’ superstitions until faced with irrefutable proof. Both he and his wife are surprisingly underdeveloped: even at the film’s greatest moments of dramatic tension, they have barely anything to actually do. They are representations of humanity, dull, unexceptional people the audience can use as a cipher.
As we all know well by now, Nosferatu has not survived all these years on the strength of its depiction of the human fighting the vampire, but the repelling yet enthralling quality of the vampire himself. Orlok’s movements, as he stands up in his coffin or creeps through a doorway, are stunningly grotesque, building a sense of atmosphere with just Schreck’s body language. This image of the vampire will linger in the minds of audiences for generations to come, influencing everything from Dracula to Interview with the Vampire and even horror parody What We Do in the Shadows, which features an Orlok look-a-like as the oldest vampire roommate.
Previously, we watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, another groundbreaking piece of German expressionist cinema. It is by far the more sophisticated work, both in its narrative structure and social themes. But there’s something about the imagery in Nosferatu that is impossible to shake. As an eerie, atmospheric visualization of something that seems almost human but isn’t, Nosferatu is among the very greatest of silent cinema.