Nosferatu: The Symphony of Horror

NosferatuShadowNosferatu, 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!

22 thoughts on “Nosferatu: The Symphony of Horror

  1. Ummm, thanks, revgeorge, but I’ve already seen the film, back in my undergraduate days, and well, once is enough for me. I will say that although the bald look is quite different from, say the Dracula as portrayed by Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu is sufficiently creepy on his own.

  2. I find Shadow of the Vampire almost as creepy as Nosferatu itself. Malkovich plays Murnau as a devoted film aesthete who will go to any lengths in order make his film great, including sacrificing members of his crew to Max Schreck. And Willem Dafoe plays one of his best parts in that movie.

  3. Revgeorge – this is a truly great post! You gave me so much insight into this odd flick – I am going to watch again. We actually studied this film in a class. And I’m going to have to say – I fluffed it by, “Got the lighting, alright let’s move on” sort of dismissal…I’m now embarrassed of that preconception and love the fact that you pointed out the German Expressionist influence. What’s interesting to me now is why they didn’t use the German Expressionist composers of the time, such as Arnold Schoenberg, or Anton Webern. Their music can set my hair on end even without imagery. I do remember two things that interested me from the class – one was they did the whole enchillada on one camera. Man! That’s hard to do not only for the crew but for the actors as well. You say your lines and then have to wait for another setup to get the reactions. The other thing was the director used a metronome to pace the action. Learning that actually set the wheels in mind moving a little faster and it influenced me greatly. But overall – I should have paid much more attention to it.

  4. Fricka, certainly the bald look differs tremendously from the Bela Lugosi look. Essentially it was those two movies, Nosferatu and the 1931 Dracula that gave us our two major imaginations of vampires. Either the monstrous, bald looking ones or the suave, debonair noble type ones.

    We can kind of see this play out in Salem’s Lot. In the Stephen King book, Kurt Barlow the master vampire is a sophisticated looking businessman, very similar to his human partner Straker. In the first TV movie version of Salem’s Lot, though, Barlow is imagined very similar to a nosferatu. But in the 2004 mini-series, he’s portrayed again as fairly normal looking, if you consider Rutger Hauer to be fairly normal looking. 🙂

    Then there’s also some blurring between the two types. In Fright Night the head vampire played by Chris Sarandon is a very suave, handsome man except when he goes all vampire & then he turns very grotesque looking. Same sort of thing in the Buffyverse, most of the time the vampires look normal, like regular humans, until they “vamp” out.

  5. Flash quiz: what classic sci-fi movie did Rutger Hauer appear in? (no Googling, please).

    Bonus question: what was his best line?

    1. Rutger’s sci-fi movies that I’ve seen:
      Blade Runner
      Lady Hawk
      Blood of heroes/Salute of the Jugger (My favourite)
      Split Second
      Batman Begins
      Sin City

      there’s other genres that I’ve seen him in too.
      His best line: All those memories will disappear like tears in the rain…

  6. Joivre, all I can do is advise patience. Give other people time to respond in their own time. If nobody’s posted the quote by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll post it. Unless I’m thinking of a totally different one than Red Rocker.

    Anyway, back onto the subject of Nosferatu, I found it interesting that it’s from this movie that the idea that vampires can be destroyed by the sun enters into vampire mythology. 1922, relatively speaking, isn’t that long ago, & yet this idea of sunlight harming vampires has become fully incorporated into the mythology. Dracula’s powers were weakened by the sun & normally he had to rest during the day but he wasn’t hurt by sunlight at all. But now most modern re-tellings of Dracula & other vampires has them harmed by the sun. All from this 1922 film!

  7. It was Blade Runner of course. And the best line, as Korg said:

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.

    Gets me every time.

    Closely followed by:

    Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!

    He’s made many movies, and is still churning them out, but I believe Roy Batty was his best work.

  8. What the heck is this? I did not post those last three posts! It was part of one post. This is extremely weird to me. I am going to ask my brother, the engineer to figure this out. I think I being used here.

    1. Joivre,
      No one other than someone on your computer can make comments with your web address. All postings with your name have came from the same web address.
      No one is using you.
      Stay calm and keep comments reasonably on topic. We often digress and that tickety-boo.

      If you don’t like stuff being discussed – avoid those posts.


  9. Lots of good lines, in that movie. I especially like the one R. Ross quoted, although there are two versions of the last word, the one beginning with “f”: the one given here, for TV audiences, and the other one, for movie theatres.

    Anyways, quite a detour awat from Nosferatu. Reason being I still haven’t gotten around to watching it, although I’ve promised myself I will.

  10. I saw the 1979 version with Klaus Kinski before the original, and the first thing that came to my mind when I saw Nosferatu and his creepy minion (the one who ‘sold’ him the house) was ‘Voldemort and Pettigrew’. And I honestly think JK used the film has an inspiration, the similarities are just too much to be only a coincidence!

Leave a Reply