How do you describe F.W Murnau’s classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)? Nearly 100 years old, it is an icon of cinema and the icon of horror. Even if you’ve never seen it, all can recognise the father of the vampire genre, the infamous Count Orlok. Both rodent and arachnoid like; so utterly alien to the suave gentlemen of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Multi-layered, it uses psychology, folklore, and sexuality, all mixed in a dark, dreamlike world. Part of the German Expressionist movement it is unlike modern horrors as it doesn’t shock or even overtly horrify.
What it does do is leave you feeling uncomfortable, tapping into something hidden and forgotten in your psyche, like making you admit a terrible truth to yourself.
Nosferatu is an unofficial adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with names changed for copyright reasons. Set in the fictional German port town of Wisborg, the film’s framing device is a written account by an unnamed narrator about a devastating plague that came to the city in 1828. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) the childlike solicitors’ clerk, is dispatched by his clearly insane employer, Knock (Alexander Granach) to Transylvania to sell an old property Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Leaving his young wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), Hutter sets into motion a series of events that will bring an undead plague bearer to his home and risk the life of Ellen.
Nosferatu is more than a vampire film; it’s a waking nightmare. Everything within it is both familiar and truly uncanny, from the characters two-dimensional attributes and over the top performances to the breaking of scenes geography. A film where only the audience knows deep down that this film, peopled with Jungian archetypes, is the unconscious mind of an incubus. When Ellen in a trancelike state in calls out for “her beloved” with a desire she never before shown, it is not Hutter but Orlok that hears her.
Orlok, meanwhile, is the monster from your childhood you thought you outgrew. When it first reveals its full vampiric glory, it’s like sleep paralysis. A slow-moving figure draped in shadow, Orlok never rushes in the film, taking its time, moving steadily with nothing to stop it.
Nosferatu is, probably, one of the most faithful adaptions of a novel ever done. Not because it’s infallible in its accuracy, but because it taps into the sultry revulsion of Stoker’s Dracula. Count Dracula was never the smooth, sexy Byronic Hero that glides through high-society as later films have him. He was a cruel sociopath, a serial killer, who didn’t seduce his victims, he viscously attacked them over a long period. He both repulsive us, and intrigues us as Orlok does.
Murnau, drawing on a range of mystical, occult, and pagan themes, attempts to remind the viewer of the folklore and superstitions we thought we put behind ourself. In many ways, Nosferatu is a Folk Horror on the same lines as The Wicker Man (1973) or The Witch (2015). Orlok was not once human but the spawn of a demon, bringing the seed of the plague in the cursed earth of its grave. The people of Wisborg hunt the madman Knock, an offering to fields to end the scourge while Ellen is the virgin sacrifice, to appease and destroy the dark god Orlok.
There have been better horror films from the expressionist era, and more frightening performances, but never one that mixes passion and disgust as much as Nosferatu. It’s legacy ranges from the comedic, the downright terrifying.
In the public domain, copies of Nosferatu are free to watch over YouTube and other streaming platforms.