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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 —
Blue Öyster Cult, "Nosferatu"

Nosferatu (rarely used full title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauensnote ) is a German silent horror film and the first known surviving 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.

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 – though the original opening credits still acknowledge the story as being "freely adapted" from Stoker's novel.

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

The film entered the Public Domain in 2019; consequently, it may be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. 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 Murnau'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.

Another remake, directed by Robert Eggers, wrapped filming in 2023. Bill Skarsgård stars as Orlok, with an ensemble supporting cast that includes Nicholas Hoult, Lily-Rose Depp, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Emma Corrin, Ralph Ineson, Simon McBurney and Willem Dafoe.

There are a number of myths about the film, and particularly its star. Firstly, it was Max Schreck in the title role, not an unknown or Alfred Abel under a pseudonym. It was also 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. E. Elias Merhige utilized many of these myths to craft the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which portrays Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe) as an actual vampire. It also takes inspiration for its depiction of the relationship of "Murnau" and "Schreck", not from the real Murnau and Schreck,note  but from the famously insane and violent relationship between Herzog and Kinski.

Nosferatu is also sometimes listed in reference books as The Twelfth Hour due to an unauthorized sound version released the early '30s; this was never an official title for Murnau's version (see Trivia page for details).

Nosferatu provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Badass: In the book, Dracula has to visit each of his victims directly and personally bite them on the neck. Orlok, however, is a vampire of the post-WWI, post-1918 flu epidemic world, and simply by being in Wisborg he seems to be able to dish out sickness and death on an industrial scale.
  • Adaptational Dumbass: In the book, Jonathan Harker ignored some red flags while making the journey to Castle Dracula, but once he'd actually stayed in the castle, he quickly figured out that Dracula wasn't human and began trying to escape. Thomas Hutter, by contrast, completely fails to notice that there's anything off about Orlok until after Orlok has made his way to Germany.
  • Adaptational Location Change: The vampire chooses the German city of Wisborg for his new home base rather than London as in Stoker's novel.
  • 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.
  • Adaptational Wimp:
    • Dracula in the original book was merely weakened by sunlight, while Orlok just straight up died from it.
    • Prof. Bulwer is broadly analogous to the book's Van Helsing, but is much less effective against the vampire menace, to the point of being effectively Demoted to Extra.
    • In the book, Jonathan Harker was an intelligent gentleman who showed no hesitation in risking death to protect his wife. His movie counterpart Thomas Hutter is an Idiot Hero and Dirty Coward. And unlike Harker with Dracula in the book, Hutter doesn't get to be the one to kill Orlok in the end.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Despite not being an official adaptation, it's a greatly simplified version of Dracula.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: In the book, Dracula travels from Romania to England by stowing away on a ship, where he gradually picks off the crew. The movie keeps this plot point, but changes Orlok's and the crew's route to instead be from Romania to Germany, raising the question of why they were travelling by sea in the first place.
  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Dracula becomes Orlok.
    • Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter.
    • Mina Harker becomes Ellen Hutter.
    • Renfield becomes Knock.
    • Van Helsing becomes Bulwer.
    • Seward becomes Sievers.
    • Lucy Westenra becomes Ruth Harding.
      • There is a print that reverts everyone's names, yet Mina becomes "Nina" and The Twelfth Hour changed everyone's name once again with Orlok becoming Prince Wolkoff, Knock becoming Karsten, Hutter becoming Kundberg, Ellen becoming Margitta and Annie becoming Maria.
  • Adapted Out: Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris have no equivalent in this version. The vampire brides are also absent.
  • 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 give his facial features a rodent-like quality, and even his taloned hands are reminiscent of 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). He's a count and a bloodthirsy (in all senses) vampire.
  • 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 film 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 is completely bald except for tufts of hair directly over his ears. Combined with his huge eyebrows, pointy ears, hooked nose and bulging eyes, it makes for a singularly horrific and inhuman image.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Used by Hutter to escape Orlok's castle.
  • Big Bad: Count Orlok, a vampire spreading a plague across a German village.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Orlok sports some pretty thick bushy ones.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Ellen's plan to destroy Orlok works, as he forgets about the sunrise while attacking her, she ultimately dies stopping him.
  • 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 exactly be the safest guy around.
  • 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.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Two, the first being a straightforward adaptation from 1989, the second a modernized adaptation from 2010.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: Orlok's fingers are already long with pointy nails to begin with, but as the film progresses his nails lengthen until they resemble a bird of prey's talons, enhancing the effect. Exaggerated when Orlok's shadow reaches out to open the door to Ellen's bedroom, the fingers stretching inhumanly as he does.
  • Cue the Sun: The sunlight is gradually shown increasing over the rooftops the morning after Orlok attacks Ellen.
  • Danger with a Deadline: While vampires have historically been considered nocturnal, Count Orlok is the earliest example of a vampire actually being killed by sunlight.
  • 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. However, they're better off than Quincy, who doesn’t have a counterpart at all. Annie is often viewed as Lucy's counterpart. 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 Orlok to the seaside and bitten. In the novel Dracula lures Lucy to a small seaside cemetery and bites her for the first time.
  • Death by Adaptation: In Dracula, Mina survives. In this film, Ellen sacrifices her life to destroy Orlok.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Ellen dies in her husband's arms after her Heroic Sacrifice kills Orlok.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Dracula is killed with a Slashed Throat and a stab through the heart. Orlok is killed by sunlight when Ellen distracts him from the dawn by letting him feed on her.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Orlok apparently can become noncorporal at will to get through locked doors.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: In the middle of the movie, Count Orlok sees Thomas' locket of Ellen and comments on how she has a "beautiful neck". By the end of the movie, he would enter into Ellen's bedroom and sink his teeth into her neck, which almost immediately leads to his downfall.
  • Gag Nose: Orlok has a very long and beaked nose.
  • Gonk: Orlok has a grotesque, rat-like appearance, which is 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 whittling down the crew.
  • Ghostly Glide: Played with. Orlok is shown walking many times, but he has an unnaturally even gait that has little to no bounce, making him almost appear to scuttle instead of striding.
  • Happily Married: Hutter and Ellen are deeply in love. She pines for him the entire time he's gone, and is doing a needlework that reads "Ich liebe Dich"note  during the sequence where the townfolk are trying to catch Knock.
  • 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" - as in, literally damned by God - in some prints.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Ellen reads in the book that Hutter brought back from Transylvania that a vampire can be killed when "a sinless maiden makes the Vampire forget the first crow of the cock - if she was to give him her blood willingly." Thus, she deliberately lets Orlok feed on her to distract him until sunrise, and she dies soon after.
  • Hollywood Darkness: All the exterior night scenes are given a blue tint to suggest darkness.
  • Idiot Ball: Hutter, don't you know to never cut towards yourself?
  • 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, but 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, chides Hutter for picking some flowers for her.
    Why have you killed them...the beautiful flowers...?!
  • Pivotal Wake-up: Orlok rising from his coffin in this manner on the ship is the Trope Maker, and one of the creepiest moments in the movie.
  • The Plague: When Orlok arrives in Wisborg, he brings disease with him.
  • Plaguemaster: The most significant difference between Count Orlok and Count Dracula is that the former has the ability to bring pestilence all across Europe via rats in coffins full of dirt.
  • 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 a caravan of Romani to do this 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.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: When the first mate goes into the cargo hold and sees Count Orlok rise from one of the coffins, he immediately freaks out, runs back atop the ship and jumps into the ocean, much to the confusion and horror of the captain.
  • Setting Update: Inverted, with the action moved from 1890s England to 1830s Germany - what's called the Beidermeier period. At least one restoration of the film gives it a time stamp of 1838, approximately 60 years before Dracula was set and published. This does track with some of the visual details like Ellen's hair and dresses, as well as the less advanced science and technology in the narrative, most of which were overtly based on Beidermeier paintings.
  • Silent Antagonist: Being a Silent Movie Orlok has some unheard and written dialogues only in his scenes with Hutter. After leaving him at the castle he has no more lines.
  • 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.
    • Most modern releases of the movie come with two soundtracks: A conventional period orchestra score, and an organ score. On paper, this sounds like a great idea, due to the instrument's association with vampires, and it fitting the theatrical nature of silent films. The problem lies with the fact that 75% of the soundtrack consists of extremely dissonant Scare Chords played at full volume, often times with Yes-esque baroque arpeggios. This works well in actually scary moments, when the music progression is natural and unexpected. However, when mundane or even happy moments are scored in the exact way, it not only leads to mood dissonance, but it actually nullifies the scare impact of the music, as most listeners will just grow fatigued of it.
  • 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. This is played up in the remake, where Orlok had a lot more rats.
  • 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.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: One of the earliest instances on film, when the villagers organize a mob to hunt down Knock, mistakenly believing that he is the vampire. Unable to find him, they settle for tearing apart a scarecrow. Some film scholars have interpreted this scene as a comment on the atmosphere of misdirected, unproductive rage that was building in Germany at the time, and would eventually contribute to the rise of fascism.
  • Uncertain Doom: The crew member who jumps overboard 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. After Hutter is first bitten, he mistakes the wounds for mosquito bites.
  • 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.