Classic celluloid blood-suckers: Nosferatu

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Classic celluloid blood-suckers: Nosferatu

October 28, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Forget the reigning image of Count Dracula as upscale lounge lizard. Cast off the dominant picture of homegrown vampires as sex-crazed or love-struck, mixed-up kids.

F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922) uses a fanged, hypnotic demon to throw a spell that follows you home from the theater and stays with you for days — and nights — on end. It's the evil-fairy godfather of all great horror movies. Seeing it on the AFI Silver's big screen at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday, with a live score by D.C.'s Silent Orchestra, is an experience that connoisseurs of the creepy should not pass up. They will savor every Transylvanian minute — and every minute set in the fictional town of Wisbourg, Germany, too. (If you can't make it, Kino has released the film in a splendid two-disc DVD edition.)

This stripped-down adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" features Max Schreck's incomparably terrifying version of Count Dracula, here called "Count Orlok." Schreck wears his craggy bald skull like a crown. His skin is chalky white — after all, it hasn't tanned in centuries. His eyes are as darkly ringed as a comic-book bull terrier's (think Spuds McKenzie with two blackened orbs). His elongated fingers, which grow longer as the film goes on, cast giant spidery shadows. His ears are as sharp and pointy as his nails and teeth.

He dresses in long, clinging jackets and a hat that's like a parody of a biretta. At first glance, he could be a ghoulish priest. The miracle of Schreck's performance is that, despite his bizarre get-up, he projects a presence more potent than any Hollywoodian with a shirt unbuttoned to the navel. This Dracula is proud of his separateness, ruthless in his quest to find new veins of survival. He doesn't hide his hunger when he sees a human wound — he goes in for the suck.
"Nosferatu" doesn't merely boast a nonpareil vampire. It creates a world as haunting as it is haunted. From the beginning, director Murnau intermingles sensuality and morbidity. He sets the tone when Wisbourg real estate agent Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) picks flowers for his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroder). She responds to the bouquet as a bunch of gorgeous dead things. "Such beautiful flowers," she purrs. "Why did you kill them?"
The director went on location to film Hutter's journey from Wisbourg to Transylvania to sell Orlok an abandoned property near his own house. In Slovakia, Murnau found (in film critic Bela Balasz's memorable phrase) "scenes of nature in which a cold wind from another world blows." This film suggests that a heightened sensitivity to nature, like Ellen's, can be as unnatural as Orlok's rampaging evil. After all, the film points out, nature contains creatures as deceptive and deadly as the Venus flytrap. It makes poetic sense that Orlok's attraction to Ellen is what makes him vulnerable.

Murnau manipulated his negative and his film speeds for eerie special effects. He boldly cut between distant characters to suggest their psychic connections. But his simplest moments may be his best. His command of his art is so total that when the death ship carrying Orlok sails into Wisbourg, it glides into port with the sureness of a wolf that's found a long-lost jugular. When it's over, you feel spared.


Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau


Albin Grau, Enrico Dieckmann

Production Companies:

Prana-Film GmbH, Berlin


Henrik Galeen (based on the novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker)

Music Score:

Hans Erdmann


Max Schreck (Graf Orlok / Nosferatu), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter),Greta Schröder (Ellen Hutter), Ruth Landshoff (Lucy Westrenka), Alexander Granach (Knock Makler), G.H. Schnell (Harding)


1970 m (94 min at 18 frames/sec, restored Bologna version)

Filming Location:

Studio: Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal
Outdoors: Wismar, Lübeck (Salzspeicher), Lauenburg, Rostock, Helgoland, Schloss Oravsky (Karpaten), Dolin Kubin auf dem Vratna-Paß, Schlesische Hütte, auf dem Fluß Waag, Tegeler Forst
Production Dates: August - October 1921

Discussion Questions:

1. What conventions of the horror genre do you see in Nosferatu? 

2.  How does Count Orlok differ from other vampires you have seen in movies?  Why are these differences significant?  How do they inform our discussion of monsters as symbols of psychological horror?

3.  How is Orlok represented visually in the movie?  What other images are used to show his presence?  What do these images suggest allegorically?

4.  Women often occupy important, if powerless, roles in horror movies. Please respond to this observation in light of Ellen’s portrayal in Nosferatu.

5.  Describe the relationship between Hutter, Ellen, and Nosferatu.  How does the intrusion of Orlok into their relationship function thematically?  What do you make of Ellen's behavior? What parallels are drawn between Hutter and Nosferatu regarding Ellen? Why is it significant that Ellen ultimately destroys Nosferatu and not Hutter?

6. Taking a page from The Birth of a Nation and Traffic in Souls, Murnau uses cross-cutting repeatedly in this film.  How does Nosferatu’s use of this technique differ from that of the other two films? 

7.  Stoker's Dracula, the inspiration for Nosferatu, is often seen as a tale about xenophobia, that is, the fear of the foreign.  What does Nosferatu do to maintain or subvert this theme in its source material?

8.The film devotes a fairly significant amount of time to Nosferatu’s passage on board ship. Why? What is significant about the sea and its associations, and how is that significance conveyed by the film?

9.The figure of Nosferatu is continually associated with the plague. What do you make of this association? What is symbolically important about plagues, and how is that symbolism played out here?

10.Nosferatu has a narrator, whose story is often represented for us as discrete pages from a memoir. What do you make of this element of the film? What kind of information or descriptions do these pages provide us? What do you think Judith Mayne means when she writes that “The problem of narration in Nosferatu is the disjuncture between narrator and screen”?
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