Nosferatu, The Symphony of Horror (How’s that for a catchy name?) was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is, as far as I can tell from a brief research, one of the earliest adaptations of Dracula. Directed by F.W. Murnau and released in 1922, the film attempted to get around the problem of not having the rights to the Stoker story by changing the setting from London to the fictional German city of Wisborg and also changing all the names of the characters. Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, Renfield becomes Knock, and so on. Minus the ending, though, the story is essentially the same as Dracula.
Which is undoubtedly why, when Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, sued Prana Film, the producers, for copyright infringement she won very handily. Prana Film declared bankruptcy in order to avoid paying a settlement to Florence. The court also declared that all prints of Nosferatu should be destroyed, but fortunately this was impossible since the film had already been distributed around the world. The film is not copyrighted in the USA and so various versions of it may be found, including online. Most versions nowadays restore the original names from Dracula to the film. You may find versions here and here.
Nosferatu comes out of the German Expressionism movement, which is itself a sub-genre of the Expressionism movement. Expressionism was a response to Positivism. Now, if all this sounds complicated, don’t worry…it is. 🙂 Needless to say, my brief explanation won’t do justice to any of these movements, so I refer you to the applicable Wikipedia pages.
Positivism “…holds that the only authentic knowledge is that which is based on actual sense experience. Metaphysical speculation is avoided.” Expressionism “…sought to express the meaning of ‘being alive’ and emotional experience rather than physical reality. It is the tendency of an artist to distort reality for an emotional effect; it is a subjective art form.” As the Wikipedia article goes on to explain, Expressionism used very intense emotions to convey a sense of drama and horror. Thus, in film, the mood, the setting, the symbolism employed, and the emotive actions of the actors, both facially and in body language, drive this emotional depth.
Another interesting fact, the screenwriter of Nosferatu, Henrik Galeen, had specialized in Dark Romanticism, which took a very pessimistic view of human nature, once again in response to another genre that had gone before. Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Emily Dickinson are considered to be exampes of Dark Romantic writers. Dark Romanticism also has some similarities to Gothic fiction, which we’ve discussed much on this site. This quote, though, I think sums up the differences between the two genres: “In general, with common elements of darkness and the supernatural, and featuring characters like maniacs and vampires, Gothic fiction is more about sheer terror than Dark Romanticism’s themes of dark mystery and skepticism regarding man. Still, the genre came to influence later Dark Romantic works, particularly some of those produced by Poe.”
I think it’s fascinating how all these various genres influence one another and how they play out for us throughout the centuries. We’ve talked on the Gothic elements of Harry Potter and how Rowling shapes them to her own effect. Nosferatu and the German Expressionism out of which it rose also drank heavily of Gothic and Dark Romantic influence, and German Expressionism also went on to influence future genres such as horror and film noir.
So, I encourage you to watch Nosferatu. It’s only about an hour and twenty-four minutes long. Certainly it will take a bit of mental readjusting to watch. It’s black and white and silent. Except for the music score that accompanies it, which is also all about setting the mood. Just thinking about a recent post Dave the Long-Winded did on Paranormal Activity, I can already see a few tie-ins with Nosferatu. So, watch the movie and post your thoughts here. Looking forward to them all!