A free adaptation of the famous book, in the hands of director F.W. Murnau the film becomes a multidimensional and personal work that diverts from the original. This appropriation by Murnau explains why the title of the film is Nosferatu and not Dracula: Stoker's widow saw the plagiarism of her husband's work and brought court action against the production. Though she obtained the destruction of the film negatives, fortunately some copies survived this cinematic persecution. Moreover, a beneficial name change preserved the reputation of Murnau's vampire. While Dracula, the object of many mostly mediocre adaptations, sounds like a grotesque and hackneyed cliche, Nosferatu still resonates with a certain terror. The film has guarded a certain troubling aura, and its only true remake, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, is a majestic tribute to its master. The possessed interpretations of Count Orlok by Max Shreck and later Klaus Kinski only reinforce the myth.
In order to really appreciate Nosferatu, it is necessary to know the foundations on which the film rests. In effect, at first viewing, Murnau's work can seem overlong and tedious given how little the modern audience is used to silent black and white films with long bucolic sequences. Yet to liken this Symphony of Horror to a vulgar vampire film or the hundredth adaptation of Bram Stoker's book Dracula would be a major error. Despite its apparent simplicity, the film grows in scope in its use of suggestion and different degrees that hide behind a simple story that only serves as a vehicle for the director's intentions.
Nosferatu, like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, descended from the same artistic wave of German cinema in the 1920's, is the definition itself of artistic film, where painting, architecture, literature, psychology, and politics meet in a work that gratifies both the eyes and the spirit. Thus the film develops over several dimensions, from its artistic claim of Romantic-Expressionism, the advent of Nazism, to homosexuality, desire, globalization, and a reflection on cinema itself. Murnau's full length film gives rise to two principal currents of analysis that moreover are both justified: a prediction of the advent of Nazism and Hitler, owed to Siegfried Kracauer's book From Caligari to Hitler, and a personification of Romantic painting, according to The Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner.
Nosferatu and Nazism
While the thesis of Nazism necessitates an elaborate politico-historical explication that those interested may study in Kracauer's book, it's clear that the vampire symbolizes Hitler. Nosferatu leaves his country to spread his power abroad. His bite makes puppets of his victims, servants body and soul to their powerful master, blinded fanatics that represent the German people, while Knock, his servant abroad, is perhaps comparable to a collaborator. The rats the Count brings with him in his boat to propagate in the foreign county, carrying with them the plague, symbolize the Nazi ideology that spreads throughout Europe. Furthermore, this is confirmed when one knows that Nazism was also qualified as a black plague in its time. By this very fact, Nosferatu is without a doubt a visionary film, Murnau's camera serving as a sort of crystal ball projecting to the world the director's warning in regards to a somber future.
Nosferatu and Painting
The film marks the transition between Romanticism and Expressionism. The affiliation of Murnau's work to the Romantic movement is evident. Themes like ambivalence (subjectivity and the unconscious, mystery and imagination) as well as he idea of a double, the ambiguous, Gothic, and the communion between the artist and nature are omnipresent in the film. The ambivalence principally affects the characters, from Orlok (count/vampire) to Knock (prominent/crazy) and Hutter (heterosexual husband/homosexual lover) as well as the parallel between the vampire and human worlds (in particular the use of the negative while the coach passes from the normal world to Orlok's). The unconscious, characterized by the Count's constant fear, materializes in nature when he is not onscreen. For the Romantics, portraits, reflections, and shadows blend into a single entity. The shadow, particularly important (as in the scene as he climbs the stairs), anticipates an imminent danger, embodies a sexual desire, and always betrays the killer in German cinema. Gothic qualities are manifested in the physical characteristics of the vampire and in the architecture. Noseferatu's bald oval head reflects the Gothic archways of his chateau, while his twisted body responds to the curves of the gate. His long nails symbolize the East's despotism and correspond to the elongated lines of Gothic architecture. Finally, nature has a preponderant role, as important as a character. The stretches of land are the mental projections of the characters while the waves of the sea announce the imminent arrival of the count. The mountains have a supernatural side
The film also makes direct allusions to certain Romantic painters that Murnau transposes to the scenes. The filmmaker principally borrows from Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). In particular one notices The Monk By The Sea (Ellen Hutter along the shore), Cross In the Mountains and The Churchyard. One also notes The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt (autopsy of the captain's cadaver), the streets faithful to the lines of Carl Spiteway, The Coach On the Bridge as well as La Tour Rouge de Halle by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Finally, some assert that Nosferatu echoes the character in The Scream by Münch with his silent cry as in the film where the name of the Count cannot be pronounced.
The film ends with the death of the vampire that tolls the knell of Romanticism to make way for Expressionism.
Nosferatu and Cinema
Orlok's character is record of film's positioning facing other arts and in particular painting. The vampire is between death (immobility: painting is a rigid art) and life (movement: cinema is an art in motion). This duality also represents the technical evolution of art, cinema being the living form and the most advanced thanks to technological progress.
Nosferatu and Homosexuality
The film conceals allusions homosexuality, taboo at that time, and reflects the repressed tendencies of the director. Hutter leaves his wife for the Count and the dinner scene at the chateau resembles a seduction scene where the young man succumbs fairly easily. The vampire's bite can also be considered as a forbidden kiss between two men.
Nosferatu and Globalization
The film coincides with the beginnings of globalization and in particular the investment of foreign capital in the local economy. The Count, who is obviously a predator, here embodies the phenomenon of globalization, at that time considered a danger. Of course, the clearest allusion is that he invests in German real estate. This theme of foreign investment capital is confirmed in one of the scenes that was cut from the final version. When Nosferatu is seen attacked in the street by a thief and stabbed in the heart, instead of blood we see gold coins fall to the ground.
A visionary cinematic masterpiece, Nosferatu, is all the more topical as it shows the unequalled potential of a cinema reduced to its the most purified form and, by the same token, is the cruel report of the self-exhaustion of the modern cinema. If the end of the Nineties marked the climax of commercial cinematic exploitation, the 21st century seems to be starting off on a better omen, thanks to the return of an unadorned cinema spurred by a handful of European Dogma directors. This renaissance, or return to the values that cradled film in Europe, is confirmed by an ode rendered to Murnau's film through Shadow Of A Vampire, coming to give rise to a new artistic start from contemporary filmmakers.