Movie Discussion: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror [Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens] (1922)

  • Monthly Theme: Protohorrornosferatu-a-symphony-of-horror-movie-poster-1922-1020417356
  • The Film: Nosferatu
  • Country of origin: Germany
  • German title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
  • Alternate title: Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror
  • Date of German release: March 4, 1922
  • Date of U.S. release: June 3, 1929
  • Studio: Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal, et al.
  • Distributer: Film Arts Guild
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: F.W. Murnau
  • Producers: Enrico Dieckmann & Albin Grau
  • Screenwriter: Henrik Galeen
  • Adaptation? Yes, this is an unauthorized adaptation of the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.
  • Cinematographer: F.A. Wagner
  • Make-Up/FX: Albin Grau
  • Music: Hans Erdmann, et al.
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Yes. Stoker’s novel has been adapted for the screen many, many times. Murnau’s film was explicitly remake in 1979 as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht by Werner Herzog.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: n/a
  • The Lowdown: Horror cinema’s first vampire movie is this German Expressionist classic starring Max Schreck as the sepulchral Count Orlok, a Transylvanian landowner who is also an undead bloodsucker. Orlok travels to England in order to stalk and claim the body and soul of Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder) after he seduces her husband Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) during the man’s visit to his remote castle. The film is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is, thus, the first filmed adaptation of the novel (the character of Dracula has gone on to be featured in over 200 films).

If you haven’t seen Nosferatu our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: Count Orlok looks like how I think I look in my most paranoid moments. The nose? The sepulchral pallor? The limp, pansy-ish wrists?

Kristine: Are you being serious? Because, I love Orlok’s appearance and I am firmly on the side of animal/grotesque vampire (i.e. Nosferatu/30 Days of Night) over glam/male model vampire (i.e. True Blood/Jerry from Fright Night).

Sean: Yeah, Orlok is so fucking cool-looking.

Kristine: So cool.

Sean: There are so many great, cinematic moments involving him…

Kristine: I have some favorites I’d like to discuss/revisit with you.

Sean: Please.

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Diva say “Boo!”

Kristine: Obviously the moment when Orlok rises out of the coffin on the ship is amazing, but my favorite scene is when he is stalking the captain from the upper deck, while the captain watches at the helm, paralyzed by fascination and dread. Also, Orlok floating up from the lower galley through the trap door. And just the image of him staring, outside of Ellen’s window, waiting… With those eyes! He might be my favorite monster out of all the movies we have watched.

Sean: My favorite moment is when Hutter is spending the night at the castle and he opens the door and looks down the hall and Orlok is standing there against the wall, a look of perverse desire and malice on his face. And Hutter screams like a nelly and slams the door.

Kristine: I hate Hutter and I hate Ellen. The first third of the movie dragged for me because of those fools. I couldn’t even appreciate Hutter as an over-the-top rube. When he was scoffing at the vampyre book? I was glowering at the screen and praying for him to be murdered quickly. But once Orlok enters the situation, things get awesome fast. I was upset when Ellen (UGH!) fang-blocks Orlok with her mystical feminine powers. When Orlok is denied and slinks away? I felt bad for him.

Sean: I have so much to say. But let’s ridicule Hutter and Ellen for a minute. Hutter = fat woman butt.

Kristine: Lady lips.

Sean: Throat sack.

Kristine: Golden curls.

Sean: I did laugh when he threw the vampire book across the room in the morning after it scared him at night. But I was laughing at him, not with him.

Kristine: He was insufferable.

Sean: Ellen = hair like a squid. Their friends, Harding and Annie, were so much more stylish and cute (despite Harding’s Hitler moustache, which I cannot even handle).

Kristine: I agree. Did you notice that Ellen’s needlepoint said, “I love you”?

Sean: For Chrissakes.

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Diva consults her reflection in the glass

Kristine: I found the end confusing – does Ellen die, or survive? The movie was very ambiguous about that. I went online and read that we’re supposed to understand that she’s dead, but I wasn’t sure. But I’m glad she died, because she needed to, but I find the whole ‘pure woman sacrifices herself for the greater good’ trope to be pretty gross.

Sean: Oh, I couldn’t even believe how sexist and terrible the movie was with Ellen’s character.

Kristine: Right?

Sean: How Ellen’s care needs to be entrusted to Annie and Harding because she’s ‘anxious’?

Kristine: How she can’t walk normally, only on her tippie-toes?

Sean: Also, did you catch the Eve/Pandora action with Ellen not being able to resist opening the book?

Kristine: Yes, but how fucked is it that she was forbidden in the first place? Fuck you, Hutter. I did like how Ellen is the only other character, besides Knock, who is somehow spiritually connected to Orlok. I mean, she also has powers and is uncanny/otherworldly, right? In her feminine way? She knows things and has visions… I was curious as to why the movie didn’t explore that more.

Sean: “The doctor described Ellen’s anxiety to me as some sort of unknown illness. But I know that on that night, her soul heard the call of the deathbird. Nosferatu was already spreading his wings.” Ellen sleepwalking on the balcony, all limply gesturing across the ocean to Orlok was… Well, it was something.

Kristine: Something indeed. I was uncomfortable with how rapey all the Orlokvictim scenes are. I mean, it was very effective with Hutter, but when Ellen is like, ‘I resign myself to this’ and opens the window for Orlok to come in and ravish her, it is just so gross and icky. I did think Orlok’s shadow-fist squeezing her heart was awesome, though. We haven’t mentioned Orlok’s awesome hands.

Sean: His entire physical presence is amazing. That erection moment when he stands up in his coffin. His hunched shoulders and limp-wristed claws. His eyebrows.

Kristine: I don’t understand why every other costume on Halloween isn’t Orlok.

Sean: Right?

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Diva takes out her rival

Kristine: Knock also had some amazing eyebrows.

Sean: He was the Renfield. Your chosen area of study.

Kristine: He was a good and merry Renfield. I loved him cheerfully luring the mob away so Orlok could do his thing.

Sean: In my notes, I wrote: “Knock – The unambiguous evil of the real estate agent?”

Sean: To your comment about how rapey Orlok is, that really struck me, as well. I noticed how much the Hutter/Orlok scenes are infused with gay panic. This movie doesn’t scrimp on the psychosexual elements of the vampire story. With those psychosexual elements in mind, what do you think the movie gains by imagining Orlok as a ghoulish monster, rather than a dashing Euro-playboy? What does his creepy appearance bring to that sexual element? Or just in general?

Kristine: Hmmm. You mean, other than awesomeness? I think it is just that he is so clearly the Other, right? I liked his connection with loathesome, rabid animals – rats, hyenas – and the ensuing connection of those animals with the spread of infection (i.e. the Black Plague). All that was cool, and also works as a presentiment to the AIDS crisis (more gay panic). I appreciated that (unlike the seductive, sexy vampire model) Orlok is objectionable right from the start and makes no attempt to hide his true self. He seems to delight in creeping Hutter out from the get go; at the very least, can’t possibly help himself or hide it. I’m not sure if I answered your question – what do you think?

Sean: In my notes, I wrote a lot about all of Orlok’s connections to plague. In fact, the whole movie is told as an origin story for the Black Plague. I thought his appearance made him much more obviously a symbol of contagion, disease and death. I also noted how all the date rape/seduction scenes really foresee the perception of the AIDS crisis in linking male/male sexual seduction to plague and death. Are you aware of the common argument about what Orlok is meant to represent?

Kristine: No.

Sean: Think about if for a sec and you’ll get it – This movie is made in Germany during the Weimar period (that is, Germany’s brief Golden Age between the two World Wars).

Kristine: He’s a Nazi?

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Diva’s minion

Sean: No, He’s commonly read as a representation of the Jews.

Kristine: I am dying. You killed me. I am dead now.

Sean: Anti-Jewish propaganda from the time is very much about how the Jewish people are subhuman, diseased, about how they’re ‘infecting’ Europe. Orlok is often interpreted as a paranoid, exaggerated anti-Semitic fantasy/nightmare.

Kristine: And they have rat teeth and bat heads???

Sean: Remember when Hutter says he has to go see Orlok in “the land of thieves and phantoms”? There’s an anti-Semitic subtext to that (Jews = control of money, resources = ‘thieves’).

Kristine: Please stop. I can’t handle it. Ugh, I knew I hated Hutter, that goddamn Nazi youth. And Orlok is wealthy. Of course, it all makes sense.

Sean:  Right, he’s a wealthy landowner and cultural ‘invader.’ When you think about it that way, you begin to see the perversity involved in how the movie portrays Orlok, like how the message he sends to Knock is all runes and symbols…

Kristine: But what about this? The only background research I did was about Albin Grau (the film’s art director and producer). Do you know of him?

Sean: No.

Kristine: He was a lifelong occultist and a big deal in those circles. He was persecuted by the Nazis during WWII and had to flee Europe. Besides being responsible for all Orlok’s awesome style and flair, he was the one that put all the occult stuff in the film, like the letter to Knock. So I wonder if he really created Orlok as the ultimate nightmare Jew. Not to say you can’t be an enemy of the Nazis and also be anti-Semitic, but it does make the argument less cut and dry (for me, anyway).

Sean: Interesting. It could be less about the intentions of the filmmakers and more about how the film was received by the public when it first came out.

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Diva’s got her own language

Kristine: Also, there was a widely spread rumor that Max Schreck, the actor who played Orlok, really was a vampire, because there was no other way he could be so creepy without it being real. Which is amazing.

Sean: Oh yeah. There’s a movie called Shadow of the Vampire that imagines the making of Nosferatu in which Max Schreck really is a vampire. Willem Dafoe plays Schreck and was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Kristine: Oh, crazy. Every time I see Dafoe’s name, I think of his penis being smashed by a log. Thank you, Lars Von Trier.

Sean: Also, concerning the release of the movie, it is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Stoker estate sued the filmmakers and won. A judge ordered all copies of the movie destroyed, and so they were. But one copy had all ready been shipped overseas and so then people made copies of that and distributed it and so and so forth. So it lived on as a cult film – it’s one of the first cult films, in fact.

Kristine: That’s awesome. Which reminds me: the characters’ names were changed from Stoker novel, but the intertitles on the Netflix version I watched were Stoker’s. For instance, they used Renfield instead of Knock, Lucy instead of Ellen, and so on.  I guess, at some point, someone changed them? I don’t know, it was weird.

Sean: That is weird. Netflix is a cheapass company that stocks crappy DVD versions of their movies (in fact, their streaming versions can be shit also). If they’d bothered to purchase the restored version, you wouldn’t have seen Stoker’s character names in the intertitles.

Kristine: Yeah, also, the image didn’t fit on the screen. I kept going to my settings to make sure the tv wasn’t in widescreen mode but nope, it was the DVD.

Sean: Cheap bastards.

Kristine: Yeah.

Sean: So, I have a horror trivia question for 1,000 Horror Movie Points.

Kristine: I am sweating…

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Regular people can’t handle Diva’s realness

Sean: When Hutter first arrives in the Carpathians, he goes to a tavern and all the locals are regaling him with dark folktales about the region. What movie (that we’ve watched and discussed on the blog) has an extended homage to that scene?

Kristine: An American Werewolf in London.

Sean: Good work.

Kristine: Duh. I thought of it right away.

Sean: While you were watching Nosferatu, did American Werewolf pop into your head during that scene?

Kristine: Absolutely.

Sean: The Slavic folk costumes were cracking me up.

Kristine: The innkeeper looked like an exaggerated version of my Dad at a Slavic festival.

Sean: He does. Your dad pops up a lot in our horror movies (like the European businessman in The Game).

Kristine: I know, right?

Sean: I just want to add that the movie’s penchant for hyperbole was really cracking me up. Like this intertitle: “At night that same Nosferatu digs his big claws into his victims and suckles himself on the hellish elixir of their bloode. Beware that his shadow does not engulf you like a daemonic nightmare.”

Kristine: I loved all of the over-the-top Victorian purple prose. Did you feel bad for Orlok when he was fang-blocked and denied in Hutter’s bedchamber?

Sean: Not really. Because Orlok always gets what he wants in the end.

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Diva gets lucky

Kristine: Also, the first night when Hutter teases Orlok with a glimpse of his “beautiful blood” and then he passes out and has “frightful nightmares” – that was such a date rape, right? The Noz slipped him some Rohypnol. Don’t you imagine that Orlok had his way with Hutter all night?

Sean: I wrote in my notes: “DATE RAPE!!!!” Orlok fucked him 20 ways from Sunday. Remember in the U.S. version of Queer As Folk when Ted becomes a crystal addict and then hits rock bottom when he finds a video of himself being gang-raped at an orgy and he has no memory of it? That is what Orlok’s night with Hutter was like.

Kristine: Yes. It is crazy how well this movie works in the modern context of AIDS and date rape drugs.

Sean: The later image of Ellen’s bedchamber, where all you can see is Orlok’s head feasting on her blood in the far left corner of the screen? That gave me chills, and it powerfully reminded me of a very famous scene from one of our favorite pop culture texts: Bob crouched at the end of Laura Palmer’s bed in the pilot for Twin Peaks.

Kristine: Christ. I still and forever cannot handle it with Bob. Sometimes I still get the willies looking at ceiling fans.

Sean: There was one scene in Nosferatu that I had no memory of whatsoever, and its that random aside with the scientist/RIMA (Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority) and his diatribe about carnivorous plants and the horrors of nature. And then they’re all studying that “polyp with tentacles”? (Disgusting). And the polyp is described as “transparent – almost ethereal – little more than a phantom.” I was struck by how weird that moment was, because it seems to connect Orlok to Nature itself when the movie spends so much effort the rest of the time connecting Orlok to the uncanny/supernatural.

Kristine: I noticed that scene, too, and thought it was odd and seemed tacked on. Orlok is so beyond the comprehension and control of the RIMA.

Sean: Why does the movie make Nature into something monstrous in that scene? It seems at odds with the rest of the movie to me.

Kristine: It doesn’t seem that at odds, to me. The early introduction of the rats and the hyena scaring the horses and already establishes that there is a dark and ugly side to nature and that is where Orlok resides. Shades of Antichrist again.

Sean: True. He lives in “caves, tombs, coffins filled with cursed dirt from the fields of the black death.”

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Non-divas got to just mope by the ocean

Kristine: Right, he is part of the earth.

Sean: So, natural things (like diseases) are also unnatural (curses).

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Well, this is the first cinematic vampire. Pretty good start for a monster that eventually becomes Robert Pattinson.

Kristine: This is definitely my favorite vampire depiction, by a long shot. A couple quick things: Something that really struck me was Orlok’s obsession with Hutter and Ellen and his stalking of them. I know these are known vampire behaviors, but it never really resonated with me before. How terrifying it is that he is actually getting on a boat and traveling for weeks to come and get them.

Sean: Yeah, he is the world’s first cyberstalker.

Kristine: Also, I thought of Fright Night when Orlok gleefully tells Hutter how he is going to buy the house next to his and “we can be neighbors.”

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Diva in her riding coat

Sean: I think Fright Night is a movie that tries to pay homage to both traditions of representing the vampire – as a debonair gentleman, but also as a hideous monster.

Kristine: Lastly, I loved the super-fast coach that comes to pick up Hutter after he crosses into the “phantom” land. Just a cool and weird detail.

Sean: Oh yeah, that coach, with the robed horses and Orlok all swaddled in layers and pointing with his whip like a superfreak. So awesome.

Kristine: Of the four silent movies we’ve watched, this was the most successful to me as a silent movie. Somehow, the lack of spoken dialogue added to the eeriness and established that the story existed outside of society. Does that make any sense? Plus, it just allowed the focus to be on the dread manifested solely by Orlok’s appearance. Pretty powerful stuff.

Sean: I totally agree. The stillness and quiet and lack of conventional sound made it all the more uncanny and weird.

Kristine: Also, I was grateful I didn’t have to hear Hutter’s baby shrieks of terror.

Sean: I just want you to know that there is an “Industrial Gothic Remix” of this movie where the entire musical score is substituted with like, bad mid-’90s industrial metal.

Kristine: That is disgusting and I wish I didn’t know it.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece AND Queerer than you think AND Stylistic triumph

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece AND Queerer than you think AND Stylistic triumph

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5 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror [Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens] (1922)

  1. When ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ was released, it played in a double bill with ‘Nosferatu’ at our local arthouse. It was so good, though Nos did blow Shadow off the screen