Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau: Nosferatu Jubilee (Nosferatu the Vampire)

“Murnau knew not only how to avoid any concession to the anecdote, but also to dehumanize the subjects richest, in appearance, in human emotion. Nosferatu the Vampire is built entirely around visual themes corresponding to concepts that have physiological or metaphysical counterparts in us: concept of suction, absorption, influence, crushing, etc. » Eric Rohmer

NOTosferatueine Symphonie des Grauens, Nosferatu the vampire by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was released on Berlin screens in 1922, 100 years ago. More than a silent film, a masterpiece horror cinema with multiple twists in its production, and which owes its survival to a handful of miraculous copies. Masterpieces like vampires are immortal.

1895, in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumière complete the development of the cinematograph. In Vienna, the same year, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer published Studies on hysteria. The father of psychoanalysis baptizes the cinematograph: “The Strange Familiar”. The images on a screen are both strange and familiar, inanimate and alive. The actors and actresses do not realize the gaze placed on them. Captivated, disturbed by their real and yet illusory emotions, moviegoers hungry for images find themselves in the situation of the voyeur. With this premise, wouldn’t moviegoers around the world be an army of vampires? Deviant voyeurs fleeing reality to better take refuge in dark rooms/dark crypts where a big screen quenches their thirst for light, emotions, feelings?

Albin Grau, the producer and decorator of Nosferatu, is keen on occultism. During the Great War, he meets a Serbian farmer who claims to be the son of a vampire. This story haunts Grau, to the point of creating a film of ghouls and ghosts. He founded Prana Film, a company that produced only one feature film: Nosferatuone Grauens Symphony. For the screenplay, Albin Grau hires Henrik Galeen who shamelessly pumps his script on the novel Dracula of Bram Stoker, without informing Florence Balcombe, widow and beneficiary of the writer. Galeen changes the names of the protagonists: Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Mina/Ellen, Harker/Hutter, Renfield/Knock, London/Wisborg, imaginary city on the North Sea.

When FW Murnau accepted the realization of the project, he was not yet the wonder boy expressionist German cinema. To his eyes, Nosferatuone Grauens Symphony is only an order, a penniless “indie” film. The wild adaptations are not foreign to him. At 33, he shot eight short films that no longer exist, except Der Gang in die Nacht/The March of the Night. Some recycle classics by Victor Hugo and Robert Louis Stevenson: Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin/The Hunchback and the Dancer ; The Januskopf/Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the wake of Nosferatuit will adapt Faust of Goethe and Tartuffe by Moliere.

Nosferatu © Films Without Borders

1921, in the Carpathians, Murnau and Grau go on location scouting in the land of Dracula. Slogan: make the most of natural settings to break the diktat of filming in studios of the Germanic expressionist current, also favoring exteriors for budgetary reasons. This unprecedented artistic bias is the masterstroke of the film, with its phantasmagoria and surreal beauty. Dynamics of inventiveness for Murnau. Technical prowess for its chief operator Fritz Arno Wagner who, during the shots, will adapt to untimely changes in light, will have to make do with a single camera in the steepest and most isolated places.

Murnau shoots his first feature almost in contraband in the Romanian mountains captured like a pictorial composition. Visionary and intrepid, perfectionist and ambitious, he challenges the cinema: shoot a horror film in natural settings, flush out anxiety in old houses, place the camera to support and increase the power of horror. With Nosferatu blooms all the art of this designer and builder of images who takes advantage of the requirements of the narration, flawless frame, seizes all the resources of editing and special effects. Murnau uses for the first time the stop motion when Orlok gets out of his boat; the negative image when Hutter arrives in Transylvania. It also colors entire sequences: yellow symbolizes the day; green/blue, night; pink, the course of the sun. With Nosferatu, Murnau invents the cinematographic codes of fantastic cinema.

Nosferatu © Films Without Borders

This manifest plagiarism of Dracula by Bram Stoker, nearly, like a vampire, never saw the light of day. Florence Balcombe, Bram’s widow and founder of the Stoker Foundation, is one of the first rights holders to defend copyright in the history of literature.

1922, shortly after the release of Nosferatu in Berlin, she received a package containing the poster of the film accompanied by an anonymous note: “Freely adapted from Dracula by Bram Stoker. His blood just turns. The widow joins the British Incorporated Society of Authors, hires a German lawyer who sues Prana Film for copyright infringement.

Alas, the overly lavish marketing campaign of Nosferatu with a costumed premiere worthy of the Mexican Day of the Dead with skeletons, ghosts and other stryges, got the better of the production company’s funds. Albin Gruau has put the key under the door. When Balcombe realizes she won’t make a penny of Nosferatu, she demands that all copies of the film be destroyed. A German court argues in his favour, orders that every reel of film be burned.

1925, the book burning Nosferatu is accomplished, but it is without counting on spectators bitten of the film, of their delight to defy the prohibition. Over the next few years, surviving copies were shown undercover in the United Kingdom and the United States. Count Orlok keeps rising from his ashes. Florence Balcombe, until the end of her days in 1937, relentlessly tracked down copies of Murnau’s first feature film, and herself incinerated those that fell into her hands!

Nosferatu © Films Without Borders

Like all masterpieces, Nosferatu shows much more than it gives to see, ready for many interpretations:

Geopolitics: The arrival of Orlok by sea foreshadows the unspeakable threat of Nazism, announces Hitler’s accession to the chancellery, in 1933. The plague inoculated in Wisborg by the vampire with the hooked nose, rat teeth and endless fingernails , is a metaphor for anti-Semitism then galloping in Europe. The shadow of the hand of Nosferatu which stops on Ellen’s heart, foreshadows the final objective of the Third Reich: the eradication of populations considered inferior.

Pictorial: Murnau, passionate about painting, translates the symbolism of evil through the color black, the sharp angles and the disproportion of forms, such as the deformed shadow of Orlok on the stairs, when he is about to vampirize Ellen, symbol of good and virtue. Heroine defined by white.
Ellen and Hutter are locked in different frames. She in Wisborg, in comfortable alcoves, reassuring windows and half-open doors. Him in the castle of the Carpathians, maze of worrying warheads, where to engage amounts to allowing oneself to be trapped by the vampire.

Psychoanalytic: The erectile plans of Orlok who magically arises from his grave. Its phallic verticality in the warheads which opposes the childish game of Hutter, too carefree, leaping in the open air. Darkness and radiosity: the two men are opposite sides of a single coin. Ellen, between attraction and repulsion, chooses the vampire and surrenders to the bite of his kiss. At sunrise, the erotic fantasy dissipates. Dark Orlok literally fades from the picture. Hutter, diurnal, tumbles to the bedside of his wife who dies (decline of orgasm?) in his arms. Ambivalence of the vestal.

Vampirized by his chilling interpretation of Count Orlok in the History of 7e art, Max Schreck was one of the first actors in Bertold Brecht’s troupe. It appears in the credits of more than forty films. According to his biographer Stefan Eickhoff, his theater colleagues consider him a ” loyal and conscientious loner with a quirky sense of humor and a knack for playing the grotesque “. At the exit of Nosferatu, Schreck’s composition frightens. “Isn’t the actor a real comeback from the dead? “, swells and questions the rumor.

1979, in Berlin, Werner Herzog presents Nosferatu : Phantom der Nacht/ Nosferatu, ghost of the night, a talking remake of Murnau’s film starring Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula who has reclaimed his surname. Like Schreck, Kinski assumes a theatrical game although introverted, stingy with words. In this Dracula, no splash of blood, no outburst of rage; isolation and melancholy well up in her gaze, which embodies the Sehnsuchtthe desire in permanent suffering, the inability to die opposed to the inevitable erosion of feelings. “Lack of love is the most abject of suffering”, notes the monster in a breath. Later in the film, Lucy played by Isabelle Adjani coming out of a Flemish painting, prey as pale as the rat man who will vampirize her, answers her: “Death is almighty, we all belong to it. Rivers don’t need us to flow. Time passes. Look outside: the stars turn confusedly. Only death is cruelly certain”. And Dracula to conclude before the final suction: “Death is cruel to the ignorant. But death is not everything. It is much more cruel not to be able to die. I would like to share the love that exists between you and Jonathan”. The sun rises and Nosferatu is consumed in the name of desire. We are not serious when we are 100 years old.


Nosferatu the Vampire
by FW Murnau, Prana Films, 94′, with Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Gustav Schröder, Gustav Von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, Limited Metal Edition Combo Blu-ray DVD 2K restored version, released December 6, 2022.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau: Nosferatu Jubilee (Nosferatu the Vampire)