not in our stars, but in ourselves
The trouble with silent films that were aggressively hunted down to be destroyed is that the few prints we’re lucky enough to be left with are, shall we say, rather lacking in quality. Such is the case with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). I hope someone finds a miraculously pristine print someday and restores it fully, but the odds of that aren’t great.
Why was it so aggressively hunted? Well, consider this: Nosferatu is about a Transylvanian nobleman, Count Orlok (Max Schreck), who is in fact a dangerously predatory vampire. He draws his strength from the “goddamned” earth in which he was buried – and also from human blood. Happily hapless real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) travels to Orlok’s dilapidated castle in the Carpathians, ignoring the advice of locals along the way. Orlok buys a house across the street from Hutter’s own house, after seeing a picture of Frau Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder) and remarking on her beautiful neck. (If they were to remake Nosferatu yet again, I think Jeremy Irons would be fabulous in the role.) Then he terrorizes Hutter, bites his neck a few times, and leaves with a carriage full of coffins. Traveling by sea to the town of Wisborg (where in central Europe are these people, anyway, that they have to travel by sea to get from Transylvania to Germany?), every member of the ship’s crew succumbs to the mysterious “plague” that also spreads out from every port at which the ship stops.
The ship arrives in Wisborg, with no living bodies on board – only the terrified captain, stiff and dead, with an expression of holy dread on his face and two tooth marks on his neck. Wisborg too succumbs to the plague, and Ellen despairs of Hutter ever being well again. She invites Orlok into her room and lets him feast on her blood, thus distracting him until morning. The sun’s light kills him instantly, and that’s the end of the movie.
Sounds a lot like Dracula in virtually every detail, doesn’t it? The widow of Bram Stoker thought so, too. She thought it sounded so familiar, and so in breach of copyright, that she sued the production company (Prana Films – its first and only foray into filmmaking) to have all the prints destroyed. One lucky print survived, but not in the kind of condition we cinephiles would hope for. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: if you want to film an adaptation of a novel whose copyright hasn’t yet run out, simply changing the names (Orlok instead of Dracula, Hutter instead of Harker, Ellen instead of Mina), the time and place (1838 in a fictional German town instead of the 1890s in London) won’t be enough to fool the author, the author’s surviving spouse, and the author’s estate’s legal eagles. (Of course, given the recent spate of smutty teenager vampire fantasies, all of which seem to be exactly alike as far as I can tell, maybe you can get away with it nowadays.)
All of that is interesting enough background information, but what about the film itself? The imperfections of the print aside, it is still as creepy and unsettling as any bad dream. This is mostly due to Schreck. Tall, rail-thin, with bulbous eyes and a rat-like mouth, he plays a vampire that has none of Count Dracula’s seductive power. He is repulsive, and all the more so because he seems to be so voraciously hungry.
When regarding Ellen and her lovely neck, he brings new meaning to the word “bloodlust.” A predator is horrifying no matter what he looks like, obviously, but a hideously ugly predator who is visibly aroused by what he’s about to do to his victims, who wouldn’t know what remorse or human empathy was if it whacked him on the head, is in a particularly horrible league. By removing the vampire’s attractiveness, and thus any vestige of Romantic desire for a conflation of sex and death, Nosferatu establishes itself as a very early and very effective horror film. Granted, I am something of a wimp when it comes to horror films. But I’ve seen enough (usually through my fingers, as I hold my hands up to my face) to know that Nosferatu is a much closer cousin of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1977) than Dracula (1931). There are much better people to read on this subject than me, so go read some Linda Williams or Carol Cleveland or something.