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Max Schreck - Graf Orlok
Alexander Granach - Knock
Gustav von Wangenheim - Jonathan Hutter
Greta Schroeder - Ellen Hutter
John Gottowt - Prof. Bulwer
F.W. Murnau - Director
Heinrich Galeen - Screenwriter
Fritz Arno Wagner - Cinematographer
Albin Grau - Set Designer
Hans Erdmann - Film Score

Aboard the Demeter Nosferatu, subitited Eine Symphonie des Grauens (A Symphony of Horror) is the first screen version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. The first and only production of Germany's Prana Film Company, a financially troubled organization that folded soon after completion of this film, Nosferatu was unofficially adapted from Stoker's novel, with the names of the characters changed in an effort to disguise the source. "Count Dracula" became "Graf Orlok," "Jonathan Harker" became "Jonathan Hutter," and so on. It's unfortunate that a filmmaker of Murnau's talent had to resort to this subterfuge in order to acquire material, but he was shooting on a limited budget, and had successfully pulled off the same routine two years earlier when he filmed Der Januskopf, an unofficial adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the case of Nosferatu, though, the ruse failed, and on the film's release Bram Stoker's widow sued, seeking the destruction of all prints. Fortunately, for the sake of posterity as well as anyone who just enjoys a well-made film, she did not achieve her goal, and Nosferatu survives today as one of the great silent classics.

Looking at Nosferatu now, and comparing it to American films of the same period, it is surprising how much older Murnau's film looks, and its lack of studio gloss and polish is entirely to its advantage, since the story is set in 1843. Another surprise in comparing Nosferatu to German films of its period is Murnau's unconventional use of real scenery in lieu of the exaggerated studio sets prevalent at the time. This was, after all, only three years after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But although Nosferatu was economically filmed on actual locations, those locations were carefully chosen and expertly photographed to the fullest possible advantage. Murnau's shrewd use of existing landscapes and structures in establishing mood and building atmosphere is impressive; his affinity for natural scenery and meticulous, painterly compositions reveal a visual sophistication equal to D. W. Griffith's. Murnau's sensitivity and talent, so abundantly evident in this and his other surviving films, particularly Faust (1926) and the docudrama Tabu (1931), make it all the more tragic that so few of his pictures exist today.

Aboard the Demeter If there is any fault at all to be found in Nosferatu, it is in the script's somewhat lop-sided construction. After much expository (though atmospheric) footage with the real estate agent Hutter journeying to Transylvania, falling prey to the vampire, and escaping from the castle after Orlok has apparently left him for dead and travelled to Wisborg in search of fresh prey--including Hutter's wife--the film doesn't really begin to move forward in a narrative sense until it is nearly two-thirds over. Orlok does not even threaten Ellen Hutter until the last scene, in which, martyr-like, she willingly allows him to feed on her blood until the sun rises and Orlok dissolves in the first shafts of light entering the room. This seems like nit-picking, though, when discussing a film that is so rich visually.

As Orlok, Max Schreck is a genuinely frightening character; his bald-headed, pointy-eared make-up, with obscene, rat-like fangs protruding from the mouth and grasping, clawed hands adding up to one of the foulest, most repulsive creatures in the annals of screen horror. Schreck is seemingly centuries old; surprisingly, he was only 43 when he appeared in this film. Orlok's very appearance suggests pestilence and death. Fittingly enough, he is trailed by an accompanying horde of rats wherever he goes. Gustav von Wangenheim as Hutter and Greta Schroeder as Ellen are adequate in their roles, while Max Schreck gets some tough competition from Alexander Granach as Knock, Hutter's employer and Orlok's mad servant, a character patterned after the maniac Renfield in the novel. Granach is flamboyant and wildly over the top with his drooling, cackling performance, but, after all, he is supposed to be mad.

Max Schreck Comparisons between Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi's much more famous Dracula of 1931 are inevitable but pointless. Even though Dracula did rely on Nosferatu for the structuring of its opening two reels, while the rest of the film was based on a 1927 Broadway play adaptation (which also starred Lugosi), the two films approach the same material from opposing conceptual directions. Schreck's Orlok truly is one of the "children of the night," to quote Lugosi, and could never, under any circumstances, be mistaken for a human being, while Lugosi's Dracula is capable of being accepted in high society and even welcomed into his victims' homes, blending perfectly in his formal evening attire.

In a dramatic sense, the Lugosi concept is superior, imparting greater flexibility to the vampire's interactions with his potential victims and adversaries. While Dracula is undeniably a flawed movie in terms of dramatic pacing, its opening passages still thrill, and it remains a great classic; instead of choosing one over the other, both Dracula and Nosferatu should be accepted together, as equally interesting variants of the same theme.

Without Murnau's knowledge (he had since gone to Hollywood), Nosferatu was extensively reedited and reissued, with a soundtrack, under the title The Twelfth Hour in 1929. The original music was part composition and part compilation by Hans Erdmann. There are occasional performances of this orchestral score at film festivals and special screenings but there are no video releases with this score. In 1997 James Bernardcomposed an orchestral score for Nosferatu that was performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic for a BBC television presentation of the film.

Nosferatu was remade in 1979 under the title Nosferatu, the Vampyre by German director Werner Herzog, whose serious if artistically pretentious approach was welcome after a decade of vampire spoofs and comedies, but star Klaus Kinski's physique was ill-suited for the vampire make-up, based on Schreck's original. Lovely actress Isabele Adjani's beauty was put to good use as Kinski's victim, but despite Herzog's good intentions, his film was miscalculated and failed to equal Murnau's classic, even with the addition of color and sound.

--ROY KINNARD, from Horror in
Silent Films
, 1995

Note: Despite the DVD era, finding the best overall copy of Nosferatu remains problematic. The Image Entertainment and Kino International versions contain by far the best visuals of the film itself with completely restored footage and appropriate color tinting; unfortunately the titles are not as good as other versions and the Kino is accompanied by the worst soundtrack of any version available. Far and away the best soundtrack is on the Kartes Video Classics VHS version which is no longer in print, but a treasure if found used--though the titles have been changed to Dracula, and it suffers from a poor black-and-white transfer of the film which can be a strain to watch at times. For an in-depth comparison of the DVD editions check out Gary Johnson's article in Images Journal.

A selection of Nosferatu related films.

Find Nosferatu on

A selection of Nosferatu in books.

A History of Horror

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