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Film / Nosferatu

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"Mortal terror reigned
Sickness now, then horrible death
Only Lucy knew the truth
And at her window —

Nosferatu (rarely used full title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauensnote ) is a German silent horror film and the first known vampire movie, released in 1922. Director F. W. Murnau cast Max Schreck as Count Orlok, with the veteran character actor wearing a costume that left him bald, with huge pointed ears and long sharp fangs... In short, one of the most frightening characters in film history. This movie is also notable for influencing the cinematic depiction of the idea that vampires can be killed by sunlight.

Contrary to myth, this was not Max Schreck's only role; he appeared in over 20 films and hundreds of stage productions, all in Germany. For that matter, it wasn't even Schreck's only role for Murnau, as the two collaborated again on Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs two years later. The idea was perpetuated by the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which portrayed Schreck as an actual vampire.


Nosferatu was originally intended to be a direct adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but Stoker's widow, who owned the copyright, refused permission. So Murnau and his team changed the characters' names, note  simplified the plot, and tried to pass Nosferatu off as an original story.

It didn't work. The film company that produced Nosferatu was forced to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying royalties to Bram Stoker's estate for copyright infringement. All copies of this film were supposed to be destroyed because of the infringement, but a Keep Circulating the Tapes mentality among fans of the film kept it from being lost. (Pre-digital movie piracy? It's Older than You Think.) We, too, can see the greatness of Murnau's vision.


This movie is in the public domain and may be viewed in its entirety at YouTube. A re-scored version with Progressive Rock music by Isaac Baranoff and Funny Aminals can be viewed online. In 2017, a version called Nosferatu: the Non Silent Film was created by Brazilian agency AlmapBBDO and Punch Audio, which not only re-scores the film but also layers on sound effects and voice clips from Getty Images' massive audio library (a trailer can be seen here).

In 1979 Werner Herzog wrote and directed Nosferatu the Vampyre (German title: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht), a re-adaptation of Dracula heavily influenced by the Murnau film's iconic visuals and streamlined plot. Klaus Kinski played the title role (now back to the name "Dracula"), and Herzog's film is considered by many to be as good as if not better than the original. Kinski would return for the 1988 sort-of-sequel Nosferatu in Venice.

A remake is currently being planned, and is scheduled to be helmed by Robert Eggers, director of The VVitch.

The original

  • Adaptational Ugliness: While Dracula wasn't all that attractive in the original novel, he at least looked relatively normal. Orlok, on the other hand, looks like the plague-bearing monster he really is.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Despite not being an official adaptation, it's a greatly simplified version of Dracula.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Dracula becomes Orlok, Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, Mina Harker becomes Ellen Hutter, Renfield becomes Knock, Van Helsing becomes Bulwer and Seward becomes Sievers.
  • Animal Motifs: Orlok has a very subtle (yet obvious in hindsight) connection with rats and, through them, the plague. His fangs are rat-like incisors rather than the elongated canines usually used for vampires, his pointed nose and thin face gives him a rodent-like quality to his facial features, and even his taloned hands call to minds the grasping paws of a giant rat.
  • Antagonist Title: Also a One-Word Title, named after the supposed Romanian word for "vampire", that threatens the land.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Count Orlok (Graf Orlok in the original German).
  • Art Shift: A striking one. As Hutter's coach approaches Orlok's castle, one shot of the coach on the road is shown in photographic negative, likely to symbolize Hutter's entrance into another world.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The etymology of the word "nosferatu" is unclear. This movie isn't the first to use it (Stoker's novel referenced it first), but the usual origin (the Romanian word for "vampire") is false. The two most probable etymologies are a corruption of the Romanian "Necuratu," meaning "unclean spirit," or Greek "Nosophoros," meaning "bringer of plague."
  • Bald of Evil: Orlok. Not a single strand of hair on his scalp.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Used by Hutter to escape Orlok's castle.
  • Big Bad: Count Orlok, a vampire spreading a plague across a German village.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Ellen's plan to destroy Orlok via causing him to attack her in her bed works, due to his feeding on her he forgets about the rooster's crow as the sun rises while she ultimately dies.
  • Breaking and Bloodsucking: Ellen's plan to destroy Orlok is to wait for him to attack her in her bed and allow him to slowly feed to distract him from the lethal sunrise.
  • Captain Oblivious: It takes Hutter entirely too long to figure out that the ghoulish figure with sharp talons and giant fangs who wants to suck the blood out of his finger might not be exactly the safest guy to be around.
  • Captain Ersatz: Since the film was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stoker's heirs sued over the adaptation, and a court ruling ordered that all copies of the film were to be destroyed. A small number of prints survived, and narrowly avoided being wiped out of existence.
  • Captain's Log: The people of Wisborg consult the ghost ship's log in an effort to figure out what happened.
  • Comically Cross-Eyed: One of the sailors gets crossed eyes when facing Nosferatu below the deck.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: Orlok, as part of his defining appearance.
  • Cue the Sun
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • The film's equivalents of Van Helsing, Holmwood and Seward only appear in scenes that do not relate to the overall plot, and they never learn that Orlok is a vampire. But they're better off than Quincy and Lucy, who don't have counterparts at all. Annie is often viewed as Lucy's counterpart though. One English copy of the film even calls her as such.
    • It is also worth mentioning that Annie, just as Lucy, is implied to be visited by Orlok, and in a deleted scene she would be lured by vampire to the seaside and bitten. In the novel Dracula lures Lucy to a small seaside cemetery and bites her for the first time.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Orlok is at first gentle and polite towards Hutter when he meets him. This trait totally vanishes after the ship massacre and it only gets worse from there.
  • Gonk: Orlok is a very grotesque rat-like looking vampire and the first sign that he's far from a human being.
  • Ghost Ship: The one Orlok takes to Germany becomes one of these when it pulls into port because of him.
  • Ghostly Glide: How Orlok moves.
  • Happily Married: Hutter and Ellen.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The soil in Orlok's coffins (that allows Orlok to travel away from his grave) is referred to as goddamned soil.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Ellen deliberately lets Orlok feed on her to distract him until sunrise, and she dies afterwards.
  • Hollywood Darkness: All the exterior night scenes, with little more than a bluish tint to suggest darkness.
  • Idiot Ball: Hutter, don't you know to never cut towards yourself?
  • Kill 'Em All: Orlok kills everyone on the ship, except for one crew member who jumps out the porthole when he sees Orlok to save himself from the monster.
  • Lean and Mean: Orlok is skeletally thin. And yes, he's a very completely evil blood-sucking monster.
  • Looks Like Orlok: Trope Namer. Quite a contrast to the suave, attractive vampires that make up so much of the rest of vampire fiction (and a bit of a diversion from the old cranky man that Dracula himself started out as).
  • Love Transcends Spacetime: At the very moment when Orlok is readying himself to feed, fatally, on Hutter, Ellen has a sudden panic attack — which somehow makes the vampire back down and leave Hutter alive.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Hutter tells his wife that he is heading to "the country of thieves and ghosts" - and he seems awfully excited about it too!
  • Obviously Evil: Orlok is a skeleton thin, hairless man with Creepy Long Fingers who acts very shady. Yet Hutter suspects nothing.
  • One-Word Title: As the name of the monster, also an Antagonist Title.
  • Only the Pure of Heart:
    • Only an innocent young woman's willing sacrifice of her blood to distract the vampire from the coming dawn can destroy him.
    • The animated Swiss parody "Nosferatu Tango" drives a stake into this trope: The innocent young woman took Brand ZZZZZ sleeping pills, which also lay Nosferatu to (eternal) sleep when the morning comes.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: As noted above, this film originated the idea that vampires burn in sunlight. Also, Schreck's vampire is rather uniquely portrayed as a rat-like monster and the personification of pestilence, as well as having a considerable resemblance to some kind of ghost. There are numerous scenes where Orlok seems to materialise or dematerialise at will (such as when carrying his coffin into his new lair), as well as the famous sequence where Orlok seems to sneak into Hutter's home as a disembodied shadow.
  • Picked Flowers Are Dead: Ellen, in the opening scene.
  • Pivotal Wake-up: The Trope Maker, and one of the creepiest moments in the movie.
  • The Plague: When Orlok arrives in Wisborg, he brings disease with him.
  • The Renfield: Knock, who was already under Orlok's control before the start of the film.
  • Royal Decree: Plague victims are decreed to be kept out of the hospital to stop the spread of the disease.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Count Orlok is shown loading his coffins onto a horse-drawn wagon by himself (whereas Count Dracula had hired gypsies doing this in the book and the 1992 film). He's even shown carrying his coffin to his new home later on. Of course, the absence of any noticeable servants at his residence should be some cause for concern on Hutter's part, if the innkeeper's warnings and the Count's appearance hadn't already been.
  • Silent Movie: Commonly regarded as one of the greatest.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Some versions of the film feature a near-constant usage of a strange, cheerful little tune that sounds more like it would belong in an old Mickey Mouse cartoon than a classic horror movie. It becomes increasingly hard to get into the mood of the film when this song is in nearly every other scene, even in perfectly innocuous ones, such as the simple act of walking up stairs.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Orlok? Orlock? Both spellings have been used frequently, though the former seems to be the correct one.
  • Stop Motion: Used in a deliberately crude manner for scenes of Orlok's carriage ride and other shots in which Orlok is moving around. This results in a creepy, unnatural effect befitting a ghastly monster.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Hutter. His wife Ellen's presence protects him from Orlok while he's in Transylvania, and it is only through her sacrifice that Orlok is killed.
  • Swarm of Rats: Orlok brings them with him aboard his ship.
  • Terrifying Pet Store Rat: The Swarm of Rats includes several of the hooded (dark head, white body) variety, which is a domesticated strain of rat.
  • Uncertain Doom: The crew member who jumps out the porthole to escape Orlok. We don't know if he drowned or stayed afloat long enough to reach land or be rescued by another ship, though the first option seems more likely.
  • Vampire Bites Suck: Orlok's needle-like incisors leave two small pinprick-holes in the victim's throat.
  • Weakened by the Light: Sunlight makes Orlok catch fire and disappear. (As noted above, this film is the Trope Maker.)
  • Weather Saves the Day: Despite being a thinly veiled stealth-adaptation of Dracula, the film's Van Helsing equivalent, Bulwer, has a greatly diminished role. Count Orlok is instead anticlimactically killed by an unexpected sunrise rather than being slain by Hutter and a Quincey Morris equivalent.

The Herzog/Kinski remake

  • Adaptation Name Change: In this version, Orlok is actually called Dracula.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: In the original, Orlok was a pure evil vampire who enjoyed his lifestyle and had no regrets of being one. Here, Dracula is portrayed more sympathetically as a Tortured Monster. Crosses over with Adaptational Nice Guy.
  • Affably Evil: Dracula always speaks kindly and politely. In particular, he has a nice conversation with Harker when he welcomes him in the castle.
    Dracula: Please, help yourself. Please, I'm afraid you must dine alone. It's nearly midnight and I partake of nothing at this hour. Unfortunately, the servants are not at our disposal. So allow me to see to your comfort.
  • Blatant Lies: When Harker asks to go to Dracula's castle, the coachman tells that he has no coach and no horse, even if the coach and the horses are right next to him.
  • Downer Ending: Lucy is dead, Van Helsing is arrested for killing Dracula and Harker is now a vampire who will presumably continue to spread death and disease. Lucy's sacrifice ultimately meant nothing.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Lucy (Isabelle Adjani).
  • Tortured Monster: Dracula. His voice carries a perpetually depressed tone, and he just generally doesn't seem to enjoy his cursed existence.
  • Villainous Crush: Dracula falls for Lucy when he sees her portrait in a medallion.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: A major theme. It's not so much that he's outliving his loved ones, it's that no one could ever love a monster like him. And living forever, eternally unloved, is almost unbearable. It's possibly the most tragic interpretation of the Dracula story ever.

Alternative Title(s): Nosferatu The Vampyre


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