What's the Big Deal?: Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu! The very word conjures images of vampires -- and not the sexy, awesome vampires of recent pop culture, but the hideous, old-school monsters. The word's origins are obscure, but Bram Stoker used it in Dracula and F.W. Murnau used it as the title for his influential (and unauthorized) Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Since then, it has been part of our language. And what about the movie? Why does it still matter 89 years later? Let's put on our finger-lengtheners and investigate.

The praise: Nosferatu pre-dates the Oscars and the other movie awards. Heck, it was released in 1922: it pre-dates most movies. Then there's the fact that a copyright-infringement suit almost wiped the film out of existence, making it hard for people to, you know, see it. Nearly all of its acclaim came later, but come it did. It's now firmly on the list of the best or most influential silent movies, foreign movies, and horror movies (e.g., Empire magazine's list).

The context: You know who was huge in the movie world in the 1920s? Germany! They were crankin' 'em out by the dozens over there, and in the process contributing significantly to the development of cinema as an art form. This was, after all, the era in which many of the basic things we take for granted now as part of the "grammar" of moviemaking were being discovered, invented, and standardized.

German Expressionism was particularly influential. As you will recall from your Humanities 101 class, Expressionism was an art movement that began in the early 20th century in which the artist sought to convey subjective emotion -- the feeling of a thing -- rather than a strictly realistic view. All the arts were touched by Expressionism (painting, poetry, architecture, music), and it spread to cinema in the late 1910s.

Part of the reason for this trend was that Germany was financially ruined after World War I, and German movie studios simply didn't have the money to create realistic-looking sets and costumes for lavish period pieces and historical epics, which is what Hollywood was into in those days. Expressionism was cheaper. A set of a castle, for example, need not look exactly like the real thing. Through the careful use of shadows, angles, perspective, and set decoration, an Expressionist castle would not only be less expensive to construct than a realistic one, but would actually be more effective in terms of conveying fear and apprehension. Expressionism often took on a dreamlike quality, which fit perfectly for the films that dealt with psychological or other terrors.

German director F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) was one of the top Expressionist filmmakers, along with Fritz Lang (Metropolis). Standing 6'9" and possessed of an cold, intimidating personality, Murnau probably seemed like a figure from an Expressionist film himself. He was a combat pilot during the war, and made his first film in 1919. Nosferatu, his 10th picture, is easily his most famous, though The Last Laugh (1924) and Sunrise (1927) are also significant. (The latter cleaned up at the very first Academy Awards, sharing the equivalent of "best picture" with Wings.)

Several of Murnau's films are lost now, a fate that almost befell Nosferatu. You see, Murnau wanted to make a movie version of Bram Stoker's Dracula but couldn't secure the rights from Stoker's widow. (The novel was less than 25 years old when Murnau went after it. It wasn't some dusty old relic.) Murnau made the movie anyway, changing the character names and some of the plot details and apparently thinking this would be good enough. It wasn't. Stoker's widow sued, successfully, for copyright infringement, and the court ordered that all copies of Nosferatu be destroyed.

Like its title character, though, the movie was hard to kill. A few prints survived, and the film eventually resurfaced, gaining admirers who appreciated all that had happened in the world of horror films (and vampire films specifically) since 1922.

The movie: You're familiar with the basic plot of Dracula, right? Well, it's that. The ghastly Count Orlok (Max Schreck) of Transylvania seeks to buy property in Germany, so a real estate agent named Thomas Cutter pays him a visit. But Count Orlok has a dark, terrible secret: He cannot afford a mortgage! No, it is not as bad as that. He is just a vampire. (Some public-domain versions of Nosferatu, pieced together years later, dispensed with the pretext altogether and changed the character names back to the Dracula versions: Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker, etc. The best versions, though, use Murnau's alternates.)

What it influenced: Pretty much everything vampire-related in cinema, that's what. The famous Bela Lugosi Dracula, from 1931, gets most of the credit for directly influencing modern movie bloodsuckers, and rightly so. But it was producer Carl Laemmle Jr.'s love of Nosferatu that made him buy the rights to the Dracula novel and spearhead a big-screen adaptation. Granted, it was fairly likely that someone would make a successful Dracula movie at some point (there was a Russian one in 1920, now lost), even without Nosferatu. But Murnau's film got the ball rolling, perhaps sooner than might have happened otherwise.

In 2000, the film Shadow of the Vampire cast John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Defoe as Orlok actor Max Schreck, and suggested that Murnau had hired the actor for the lead role in Nosferatu because he actually was a vampire. Not only is that a fun idea for a fictional behind-the-scenes story, it also plays off real stories that were told about Schreck. A theatrically trained actor, he was an oddball and a loner who specialized in grotesque characters and had a dark sense of humor. His last name -- which was not a stage name -- means "fright" in German (see also: the ogre named Shrek), lending credence to the theory that there was no "Max Schreck" and that Count Orlok had been played by a more famous actor using makeup and a pseudonym. 'Twasn't true, but it made for a good story. Shadow of the Vampire simply took it a step further.

What to look for: First, you are faced with a question: Which version do you watch? Only a handful of bastardized prints were available for decades, and the film fell into public domain for a while, and so now there are numerous incarnations out there. The one that's currently on Netflix Instant is suitable (though it's mislabeled as 1929 instead of 1922). The 2001 Image Entertainment DVD and the 2007 Kino two-disc set are considered the best. You know you have a good version if it meets these criteria:

- It uses color tints. It's a black-and-white movie, of course, but Murnau tinted certain scenes blue to indicate nighttime, for example. Without these tints, everything looks like broad daylight, which is a little silly when the vampire is walking around.

- The intertitles identify the characters by their Murnau names: Count Orlok rather than Dracula, etc. If you have a version that calls him Dracula, it's not the one you're looking for.

Murnau and his screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, did make a few significant changes from Bram Stoker's novel. Most obvious is the appearance of the vampire. Stoker had Dracula as a courtly and refined gentleman, one whose gracious manners could easily seduce a visitor. Count Orlok, on the other hand, is a ghastly monster, with a rat-like face, long fingers, and an overall vibe of ugliness. While sexuality is still an undercurrent in Nosferatu, there is nothing erotic or suave about the vampire himself. He's one creepy-looking mofo. (The makeup effects on actor Max Schreck would be impressive in any age, but especially in 1922.)

It's unlikely that a modern viewer is going to find Nosferatu "scary" in the usual sense. Certain images are creepy and haunting, for sure. But the way horror stories are told in cinema has changed so much, and we have seen so many of them, that there's probably nothing here that will make you jump.

Still, if you're a fan of scary movies at all, you might find it fascinating to compare Nosferatu with its successors and notice how many things haven't changed. Murnau uses very simple devices to create a sense of unease: shadows that creep across the screen; the way Orlok rises to his feet and sometimes appears to move without walking. Special effects have gotten more advanced, but those basic tricks are still used all the time to make an audience feel like something is wrong.

Another change from the novel is that Nosferatu is devoid of any religious symbolism. The critic James Berardinelli notes the significance of this: "Murnau has removed God from the equation, stripping the movie of a spiritual underpinning. The conflict presented here is not one of good against evil; instead, it's an externalization of the struggle between the opposing halves of human nature."

What's the big deal: We can trace just about all of our cinematic vampires back to Nosferatu, which is reason enough in itself for the film to hold an important place in movie history. But it was also a superb example of German Expressionism, a style whose emphasis on subjective, emotional perspectives rather than strict reality would become part of the basic grammar of film. (When a character is drunk or drugged and the picture goes fuzzy and wobbly to reflect how he feels? On a very simple level, that's Expressionism at work.) Movies have been obsessed with vampires and other haunted creatures ever since.

Further reading: Here are three good essays about the film: one by James Berardinelli, one by Roger Ebert, and one by Jerry Saravia.

Related columns: What's the Big Deal?: Dracula (1931).

What's the Big Deal?: Metropolis (1927).