Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)


Directed by F.W. Murnau

Written by Henrik Galeen

Run Time: 81 min

Nosferatu certainly stands as one of the greatest films from the silent movie era, and indeed, a classic horror film that viewers still find entertaining to this day. German director F.W. Murnau wanted to make a movie based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel "Dracula", but was denied permission by Stoker’s estate. (Bram Stoker had passed away 10 years before the film’s making, in 1912. I can’t seem to find out exactly why his estate did not want to give permission, since it would have only brought more attention to the book…could be interesting to know if anybody else wants to share this info.) Despite the fact that he was not given the authority to do so, Murnau went ahead and made the film anyway, merely changing Dracula’s name to "Orlok" and renaming the story to "Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors". Not surprisingly, Stoker’s estate sued Murnau and as a result of the final court settlement, all the film’s prints and negatives were destroyed. Fortunately, copies of the movie survived.

Max Schreck plays the ghastly vampire Count Orlok. His deep set eyes, inhumanly long fingers, and deathly white skin have helped define "vampire" in the minds of modern movie go-ers. Granted, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula 9 years later in 1931 in the film of the same name, Dracula, is certainly one more widely seen and thus remembered. Bela, however, lacks the loathsome, inhuman manifestation of evil that Max Shreck brought to the same character. In a nutshell: Lugosi is Hollywood, Shreck is just damn creepy!

This dark tale opens in the town of Wisborg, where we watch the daily life of a happy couple, Mr. Hutter and his wife, Ellen. Yes, life is good for this couple: The sun shines, Hutter picks flowers for his wife from the garden, Ellen plays with a kitten. Good times indeed.

Moving along now, we meet a "house agent", which I believe to be what we now refer to as a realtor. This agent has the fitting name of Mr. Knock. We are informed via "cue cards" that Knock is a strange man surrounded by gossip. Cut to see Knock’s hunched figure pouring over an old scroll filled with strange symbols and text.

NosferatuKnock discovers that a certain"Count Orlok" from Transylvania wants to buy a house in the unsuspecting town of Wisborg. Knock tells Hutter, his apprentice agent, that he is to travel to Transylvania and meet with Orlok using the not-too-encouraging words, "You will have a marvelous journey…What matter if it costs you a bit of pain…or even a little blood?"

To Hutter’s surprise, Knock insists that Hutter offer the house right across the street from his own. (Gee, thanks boss!) Yup, it looks like Orlok and Hutter are going be neighbors! Anyway, Knock mentions that both he and Hutter stand to gain a good deal of money from the deal, so Hutter heads of to Transylvania.

Back home, Ellen is far from happy seeing her husband burst into the room and say, "I may be away for several months, in a land of ghosts and robbers!" Hutter gives Ellen a kiss on the forehead, grabs his top hat, and starts packing his bags. (Wow!) Well, he at least put Ellen in the car of a rich friend of his named Harding, and Harding’s sister, Ruth.

Upon reaching the Carpathian mountains, Hutter takes a quick dinner in a local tavern. He makes an offhand remark that he must hurry to Count Orlok’s castle, and everybody in the bar stops talking and the locale goes completely quiet. (Well, it is a silent film, but you know what I mean.) The tavern-keeper insists that Hutter delay his journey until the morning, and Hutter agrees to spend the night. Outside, the wolves begin to howl (they actually look like hyenas to me), and the locals cower in their hovels and cross themselves.

NosferatuMeanwhile, Hutter makes himself at home in his room and notices a small book beside the bed. Picking it up he reads the title: "The Book of Vampires". (How charming.) The book tells the tale of the vampire Nosferatu, who lives in "horrible darkness, on the cursed earth from the graveyards of the Black Death." Hutter yawns, and smiles at the quaint book before tossing it aside and going to sleep.

The next morning, Hutter wakes up rested and alert, and hops on the first coach that will take him to Orlok’s castle. As the day gets late and the sun nears the Western horizon, the stage coach driver stops the vehicle and refuses to go any further, noting that "Here begins the land of the phantoms!" (Fair enough.) Hutter, oblivious to everybody’s warnings, hops off the coach and sets out on foot. (!) Well, he doesn’t have to walk too far before a black carriage, pulled by a team of midnight-black horses, storms up the road and stops in front of him. The driver, shrouded in a dark cloak and hat, motions for Hutter to get into the carriage. Hutter reluctantly steps into the coach and is carried quickly back to Orlok’s castle.

NosferatuAt the crumbling fortress, Hutter enters the gates which lock themselves behind him. (Doh!) As Hutter makes his way towards the main keep, he spots the tall, thin figure of Count Orlok waiting for him in the middle of the walkway. "It is late, young man," Orlok says, "It is almost midnight. My servants have all retired." Without another word, Orlok turns and makes his way into the dark castle interior. Hutter follows silently behind.

Inside, Hutter eats a previously prepared meal while Orlok silently reads some papers at the head of the table. The young realtor accidentally cuts his finger while slicing a piece of bread. "Blood! Your precious blood!" shouts Orlok as he rises from his chair to get a closer look. Hutter finally begins to get the picture as Orlok eagerly reaches for his hand. Not having none of this, Hutter jerks back and scurries back from the table. Orlok approaches Hutter, cringing against the wall, and asks if he would like to stay up for awhile…

NosferatuThe next morning Hutter awakes to discover that he had fallen asleep next to the fireplace. The large hall in which Hutter finds himself appears to be deserted, but he does see that an extravagant meal has been laid out on the dining room table for his convenience. After eating, Hutter heads outside into the sunlight to write a letter to his wife. He mentions that he is doing fine…except for the irritating mosquitoes. In fact, he writes that 2 mosquitoes have bitten him on the neck, very close together…(mwah…hah…hah..!)

Later that evening, Orlok and Hutter continue with their paperwork. By chance, a locket with Ellen’s picture falls from Hutter’s pocket onto the table. Orlok sweeps it up in his bony fingers and remarks, "Your wife has a beautiful neck…" Seeing the picture of Ellen seems to have cemented the deal, and Orlok eagerly signs the papers, thus purchasing the house directly across the street from Ellen back in Wisborg. Lucky him.

NosferatuAnyway, that night Hutter finally realizes Orlok’s true identity, but it’s too late. Hutter can only watch in terror as Orlok enters his room and corners him. Orlok comes closer and closer, his talon-like fingers reaching for Hutter’s throat…

Cut to Wisborg. Ellen falls into a trance at that same moment and begins to "sleep walk". Harding, Hutter’s friend who agreed to take care of Ellen during his absence, notices Ellen’s bizarre antics and catches her just as she collapses to the floor.

Back in bed, Ellen cries out for her husband in a trance-like state, desperately trying to warn him across the vast distances that separate them. As if hearing Ellen’s warnings to her husband, Orlok stops in mid stride, pulls away from the motionless Hutter, and leaves the room.

The next day Hutter awakens and runs from his room, desperately trying to flee the castle. By a stroke of luck, he stumbled across a moldering coffin in one of the antechambers. Hutter leans over and peeks through the shattered lid and onto the contents: Orlok lies slumbering on his bed of corrupted earth. Reeling with disgust and horror, Hutter runs back to his room.

Later that evening, Hutter hears a commotion outside his room. Pulling back the shutters, he looks down upon the courtyard to see Orlok loading several earth-filled coffins onto a horse-drawn cart. The last coffin, empty, serves as Orlok’s resting place on his journey journey to Wisborg. Realizing that he has just sold the house across the street from his wife to this monster, Hutter desperately tries once again to flee his crumbling confines. This time he succeeds in tying a length of bed sheets to his window and scrambling down the steep walls, but falls at the end and is knocked unconscious. Local peasants find Hutter’s broken body and bring him to a hospital, where he lies delirious with fever.

NosferatuAs Nosferatu, packed aboard a cargo ship, gets closer and closer to Wisborg, Knock quickly falls under the vampire’s power and goes insane. Locked up in an asylum, Knock spends his time catching and eating insects…trying to absorb their life ‘essence’ in foul imitation of his master’s own evil doings. "Blood is life! Blood is life!" Knock rants.

Meanwhile, Hutter has regained his strength in the remote Transylvanian hospital and takes his leave, making his way back to Wisborg with all haste in an effort to warn the others of Nosferatu nefarious intentions.

Aboard the ill-fated vessel that was unfortunate enough to unknowingly take aboard the vampire, the crew is "falling ill" and dying one by one. It turns out that Nosferatu regards the crew as his private larder during the journey, awaking at night to feed on the unwary crew. Eventually only the captain and his first mate remain.

NosferatuThe first mate realizes that something inhuman has found its way aboard, and taking an axe, tells the captain that he is going below decks to destroy it. In a truly creepy scene, the first mate chops away at the coffins and earth-filled boxes, which spill out waves of rats. Awakened by the commotion, Nosferatu rises up from his coffee and the mate flees in panic and jumps into the sea.

The captain, alone and without hope, vainly ties himself to the wheel and awaits his fate. Nosferatu clambers up out of the dark hold below and makes his way towards the captain, who can only cower and await his fate.

Eventually, the seemingly deserted boats floats into the harbor at Wisborg. Knock, imprisoned in the insane asylum peers out of his barred window and gleefully shouts "The master is here!" Aboard the ship, Nosferatu frees himself from his coffin and makes his way into the city…a swarm of rats follow in his wake…

Meanwhile, the custom officials and police have read the ship’s log and come to the erroneous conclusion that a "plague" has struck down the crew. Fearing that the so called "plague" will spread to the townspeople, a general alert is raised in the town and everybody is ordered to stay indoors. In fact, despite their efforts to contain the "plague", the death toll rises as townspeople continue to fall victim to this mysterious "illness".

Against all odds, Hutter manages the difficult journey back home to Wisborg. His wife complains of the horrible nightmares she has had recently. Hutter looks upon the crumbled ruins across the street with a look of despair and fear.

As Nosferatu continues his rampage against the helpless citizens, Ellen happens to glance in "The Book of Vampires" (that Hutter brought back with him from Transylvania). One passage in particular catches her eye:

Nosferatu"Wherefore there is no salvation therefrom except that a woman pure in heart were to make the vampire forget the cock’s first crowing. Of her own free will would she have to give her own blood."

Back at the asylum, Knock has overpowered his guard and escaped. The news spreads like wildfire and poor Knock is quickly suspected of being the "vampire". A lynch mob quickly forms and Knock is chased through the cobblestone streets. Fortunately for Knock, he has a decent head start and manages escape the mob and hide in the wilderness surrounding the town.

That night, Nosferatu stares from his dank hideaway, and mentally commands Ellen to open her bedroom window. Hutter, sound asleep in a chair at the foot of her bed, notices nothing.

Ellen manages to partially break the trance and manages to awaken Hutter before collapsing. Her husband catches her in his arms and gently lays her back in bed. Hutter, in the excitement, fails to realize that the window is open, and runs from the run to fetch a doctor.

NosferatuNosferatu, meanwhile, makes his way up to the bedroom and into Ellen’s room. (I might add that these shots are very well executed.) Ellen, helpless against Nosferatu powers, falls into her bed as the vampire creeps into her bedroom and begins to feed on her blood. Unfortunately for the vampire, in his lust for Ellen, he forgets the time, and looks up from Ellen’s neck in horror: Dawn has come!

Nosferatu rises from the bed and tries to flee the room. Alas, the sunlight streams into the room and he is struck by the rays. After a brief moment, the horrible vampire is reduced to a smoldering foul spot on the floor.

Ellen struggles to rise from the bed, stretches her arms out and cries for her husband. Hutter arrives returns with the doctors just in time to see his wife expire. Devastated, he bundles up her lifeless body in his arms and weeps.

The final card informs us that Ellen’s sacrifice was not in vain:

"And the miracle shall be told in truth. At that very hour the Great Death ceased and the shadow of the vampire vanished as if overcome by the victorious rays of the living sun."

The End.

Dennis Grisbeck (October 2005)

2 comments to Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

  • Guts3d

    … Awakened by the commotion, Nosferatu rises up from his coffee and the mate flees in panic and jumps into the sea. <– Was he drinking coffee? I figured him more for a "Bloody Mary" type of guy. Hehe! ( I apologize for that )

  • Joe

    Nicolas Cage produced a fantasy version of the filming of this movie. A movie about a movie about a vampire produced by a real life vampire.

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