31 Days Of Hell: Murnau and the Many Vampires of Nosferatu

To kick off 31 Days of Hell, we begin with an excursion into the depths of the incarnations of Nosferatu.


In the beginning of July, 2015 at a cemetery in Stahnsdorf, Germany, a bizarre and deeply disturbing crime occurred: the 83 year old gravesite of the German poster child of silent film direction, F.W. Murnau, was vandalized by grave robbers who proceeded to steal the director’s skull from his crypt.  Potsdam police investigating the scene found wax drippings at the crypt, suggesting the crime was the work of Satanists performing an occult ceremony.   While not the first of several illegal entries into the director’s gravesite, according to manager Olaf Ihlefeldt who cited instances of vandalism in the 1970s, this is the most extreme desecration yet, leaving police, the Murnau Foundation and the filmgoing community in shock and disbelief.  Just what is it about Murnau’s legacy as the grandfather of German Expressionism and creator of the most influential horror film of all time Nosferatu that could possibly have precipitated such a heinous and disgraceful act?  Perhaps the question can best be answered by the film itself, which spawned both a 1979 remake and a fictionalized account of the film’s inception in the year 2000. As late as July 29, 2015, yet another remake was announced with The Witch director Robert Eggers at its helm, proving the century old vampire thriller is still completely relevant to this day. With the dreadful news fresh in mind, the Movie Sleuth takes a concerted look at the three films pointing toward a moment in film history that’s still affecting people to this very day.

Nosferatu (1922 – directed by F.W. Murnau)

In 1922 after having directed several silent pictures (many of which are sadly lost forever), F.W. Murnau set his sights on one of his favorite novels, Bram Stoker’s timeless vampire masterpiece Dracula.  Unable to obtain permission from Stoker’s estate however to adapt Dracula to the screen, Murnau instead changed the title to Nosferatu and also changed the name Dracula to Orlok.  Regarded as one of the most important horror films ever made and the pinnacle of the German Expressionist movement outside of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu was a film which took decades for the legal battles brewed by Stoker’s estate to calm down before viewers would have a chance to see it outside of the controversy it engendered.  It also set the bar by which all occult and supernatural horror films following it would be judged and no doubt provided Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot with the perfect creature design. 

Financed by the short-lived production company Prana Film which declared bankruptcy to evade the inevitable copyright infringement lawsuit following the film’s release, Nosferatu arose from a bizarre war experience by producer Albin Grau.  While on a tour of duty, Grau encountered a Serbian farmer who claimed his father was a vampire and a member of the Undead.  The encounter stayed with Grau and led him to pursue a vampire film project.  After hiring F.W. Murnau to direct the film, the story of Dracula underwent numerous changes in addition to its title, including intensifying the vampire’s vulnerability to sunlight.  While the subsequent official adaptation of Dracula by Tod Browning prominently featured Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the titular role with slicked back black hair well dressed in a cape, it’s Murnau’s Nosferatu with mercurial actor Max Schreck in role of Count Orlok viewers to this day still point to as the more authentic Dracula of the two.  With Schreck’s lanky figure, bat-like pointed ears, bald crane and elongated fingernails, it’s one of those rare horror monsters where just looking at him will make your blood run cold.  Equally chilling is Schreck’s movement and piercing eyes which open wide as his bloodlust overcomes his composed reserve.  The way he slowly walks towards the camera in and out of rooms only adds to the tension, as if the hunter needn’t run to catch his prey.

Upon release, Nosferatu was the target of a copyright infringement lawsuit initiated by the Bram Stoker estate.  After the court ruled in Stoker’s favor all generated prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed but a few surviving prints still circulating throughout the world kept it from being banished from existence forever.  In the years since the controversy the film engendered and well after its director’s untimely death, Nosferatu has come to be known as one of the top three most influential horror films of all time.   A favorite Halloween costume, a regular figure in pop culture in everything from SpongeBob SquarePants, rock band tributes from Blue Oyster Cult and Art Zoyd and even an Orlok origins graphic novel by Louis Pecsi, Count Orlok and Nosferatu may well be the most enduringly popular and commercially successful silent film ever made.  Much like its titular vampire, it is a work of eternity that whose grandiose stature only seems emboldened by time.  

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Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979 - directed by Werner Herzog)

Werner Herzog often referred to F.W. Murnau’s unofficial Dracula adaptation Nosferatu as ‘the greatest film to ever come out of Germany’ and in 1979, the poster child of New German Cinema wrote, produced and directed his very own homage to Murnau’s timeless masterpiece.  Following Stroszek by reuniting with volatile actor Klaus Kinski for their second collaborative effort (the first being Aguirre, the Wrath of God), Nosferatu the Vampyre is both a lovingly detailed remake of Murnau’s film and a continuation of Herzog’s own obsessions with torment in a harsh and unforgiving world.  Co-starring veteran actors Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz, it’s one of the most haunting and realistic vampire films ever made.  While paying direct tribute to Murnau’s iconography including framing shots and setups identically to Nosferatu, this is clearly Herzog’s show with his finest actor imbuing the fanged nightwalker with empathy and torment.  Where Murnau’s intention was to evoke abject terror in viewers of the creature of the night, Herzog views the vamp as a tragic figure begging for death. 

The story of Nosferatu is familiar to countless horror fans, but few have seen or felt it the way Herzog tells it.  Opening on a sequence utilizing the real Mummies of Guanajuato Museum, the camera pans across shriveled up corpses as a chilling chorus of voices howl away like a Requiem.  Using only the interior d├ęcor of the museum consisting of stone walls, it’s a profoundly unnerving sequence which perfectly sets the tone for the film and gives voice to the titular vampire’s dark gaze into eternity.  Tinged by an evocative score by Aguirre composer Popul Vuh and Florian Fricke, Nosferatu also features a bevy of preexisting classical compositions by Richard Wagner, Charles Gounud and Georgian folk music, making this one of the classiest sounding vampire pictures you’ll ever hear.  It’s a wonderful score that touches on a myriad of emotions including fear, awe and even a vague sense of tranquility.  Featuring naturalistic Netherlands locations exquisitely photographed by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwin, Herzog’s Nosferatu has the distinction of being a simultaneously gothic and transcendent experience with the scale of a sweeping epic. 

Much like Oklahoma!, Herzog’s Nosferatu was shot twice in both English and German with all the actors speaking their own lines as opposed to post-production dubbing.  The move prompted by 20th Century Fox proved to further the film’s box office potential in international markets, although Herzog years later would profess his preference for the German release version.  The concept of a remake will always be controversial with purists decrying the retelling of an already perfect film to be an outrage.  What makes this version so unique and affecting in its own right is the indelible teamwork of Herzog and Kinski, who only five films together but all are unforgettable expressions of men struggling with insurmountable outside forces in the world.  Not necessarily a horror film in the conventional sense, Herzog’s Nosferatu with the only actor who could have played the titular role at its epicenter achieves that rare feat of truly providing audiences with the knowledge of what it feels like to be a several centuries old night crawler.  Where other movies would have gone for cheap thrills and jump scares, Nosferatu the Vampyre stares Kinski’s monster down right in the face as he unleashes a torrent of anguish via extended, passionate monologues delivered to the camera.  To die at the fangs of a vampire is terrible indeed but by the end of Herzog’s Nosferatu, we’ve come to realize living forever by feeding on the blood of others is a fate far worse than death.

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Shadow of the Vampie (2000  - directed by E. Elias Merhige)

Begotten director E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire presents a curious what-if.  What if Max Schreck, the actor who played Nosferatu the Vampyre in F.W. Murnau’s enduring monument of silent film horror, was in fact a real vampire?  What if Murnau, the man in charge of possibly the most important German director who ever lived, was in fact a megalomaniac who didn’t care how many bodies fell at the fangs of Schreck in order to realize his vision?  Starring John Malkovich as Murnau and featuring an Academy Award nominated performance by Willem Dafoe as Schreck, Shadow of the Vampire is both a brilliant satire about the nature of silent film direction which is often infamously remembered as an era of filmmaking where blood was shed and bodies fell at the behest of an artist wanting to achieve the most believable realization of his vision possible.  Less about Murnau or Schreck’s actual life stories, it’s a fictitious black comedy that gets to the heart of the recklessness, vanity and disregard for human life that often went hand in hand with the silent film era.
Produced in part by BBC Films and among the earliest feature films to be financed by actor Nicolas Cage’s production company Saturn Films, Shadow of the Vampire turns our knowledge of the classic Nosferatu film on its head as a fictionalized historical drama about the silent filmmaking process.  

Due to much of the film taking place at night, a majority of Shadow of the Vampire is dimly lit and seen from within the shadows.  Not since Peter Hyams’ End of Days has a film looked quite this dark visually.  Utilizing all the ancient techniques of the era including but not limited to intertitles and iris lenses, audiences are transported to a time when filmmaking was considered the equivalent of a scientific laboratory experiment.  Many scenes depict Murnau and his crew wearing white lab coats and protective goggles, as though they’re tampering with noxious chemicals harmful to the touch and smell.  It’s also a sly comedy about working with method actors who operate as forces of nature all their own with the scheming director doing what he can to capture the best moments in the canister. 

The film’s cast features a surprising group of supporting character actors who also give their all, most notably Udo Kier, Cary Elwes and of all people, Eddie Izzard as the main hero of Nosferatu.  Fans of Izzard will be taken aback by just how well he plays the part of Nosferatu’s fearful silent muse, donning aside his comic persona almost completely.  Ultimately though, the heart of the film stems from Willem Dafoe’s stunning performance as Schreck, making him a living breathing creature of the night with many monologues about his thirst for bloodsucking Murnau’s crew members’ mistake for method acting.   Dafoe’s take on Schreck also allows interpretation of the vamp as a kind of Marlon Brando type, increasingly difficult and even unruly despite his inclusion being worth all the trouble in the end.  In a way, Dafoe’s acting is a force to reckon with all his own and watching his bat-like twitchings of his head, his animalistic sniffing and oversized fingernails all work to make Schreck among the most believable and realistic vampire performances ever created!  

Despite only being released into the art-house circuit with limited bookings, Shadow of the Vampire received effusive praise from the critics and even won Roger Ebert’s Special Jury Prize for the 10 Best Films of 2000.  While not a literal adaptation of the making of Nosferatu with many characters in the film dying at the hands of Schreck who in fact lived long lives, Shadow of the Vampire does a better job exuding directorial arrogance and the dangerousness of the silent film era than any documentary ever could.  Much like Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss!, it comes closer to understanding the difficulty of the filmmaking process than like-minded movies have tried and failed to do.  It’s also one Hell of a vampire movie which both further mythologizes Nosferatu’s place in film history and proves to be a startling darkly comic entertainment in its own right with a unique take on Max Schreck that will definitely stand the test of time. 

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-Andrew Kotwicki


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