Early & Silent Film

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Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922).

Posted by keith1942 on November 13, 2013

Nosferatu title

This film appears to be the earliest adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. It was made out of copyright, with Dracula becoming Graf Orlok (Max Schreck), Jonathan remains but is named Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina is changed to Ellen (Greta Schröder) and Van Helsing to the Professor (John Guttowt). The film does follow the book quite closely in parts, but changes not only the names but also the character of major figures. Orlok is the most distinctive characterisation of Dracula on film. And the resolution of the film is strikingly different. The role of the Mina/Ellen is transformed and “it is the woman who is the centre of the conflict” but in the film “the uses made of this insight are, however, quite different [from the book]”. (Robin Wood).

The Production Company, Prana-Film (Berlin) lost a copyright court case bought by the Bram Stoker’s widow. All copies of the film were supposedly destroyed, but fortunately one did survive.

The director F. W. Murnau is reckoned one of the outstanding filmmakers in German cinema and across international silent cinema. His later masterpiece The Last Laugh (Der letze Mann, 1925) is the film that embodied the German skills in the ‘unchained camera’ (entfesselte Kamera). And all his films, including Nosferatu, demonstrate the German prowess in the use of lighting, i.e. chiaroscuro effect. Murnau was recruited to the Hollywood’s Fox Studio later in the 1920s where he made one of the outstanding silent dramas, Sunrise (1928). Murnau clearly had a taste for what we call the gothic. Prior to Nosferatu he had directed The Blue Boy (Der blaue junge, 1919) about a nobleman inflicted by a curse: The Head of Janus (Der Januskopf, 1920) a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story: and The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogelöd, 1921).

Murnau relied upon a very skilled production team. The German film industry, dominated by the giant UFA studio, was the most technically advanced in Europe. Their films generally offered high production values, often approaching those of the emerging Hollywood Majorsollywood majors. . . And their technical expertise was at the cutting edge of film in this period. The producer of the film Albin Grau worked on the script and production design. The scenario was mainly credited to Henrik Galeen. He had scripted and co-directed the 1913 Der Golem. And the cinematography was by Fritz Arno Wagner. Wagner had worked with Murnau on The Haunted Castle, and he later worked on another expressionist classic, Schatten (Warning Shadows, 1925).

The film is notable not only for its cinematography but also for the editing. The crosscutting draws parallels across the story. And it uses special effects of the time: speeded-up action at one point achieved by under cranking the camera: stop-motion techniques at another: and using the negative film to reverse white and black in a sequence. The film was shot both in the German studio and in several locations including the Baltic cities of Wismar, Rostock and Lűbeck and in the Upper Tatras Mountains in Czechoslovakia. Murnau uses recurring motifs across the film, framing characters in archways, windows and behind bars. And he suggests doubling through the use of mirrors.

The film references both Expressionism and German Romanticism. The characterisation of Orlok recalls Cesare [Conrad Veidt] in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, 1919). Whilst it does not use the artificial sets of the earlier film, there is the similar use of chiaroscuro and the dark and abnormal settings. Murnau consciously used the approach of a romantic painter like David Friedrick. The arch was a particular symbol in such romantic work. And the scenes of Ellen waiting by the seashore recall romantic paintings.


This restored version from 2007 includes the original tinting added to the black and white film stock. Blue is used for night, and degrees of yellow are used for daytime or internally lit scenes. The title cards have been reproduced in the original gothic script. This version is taken from several surviving prints and it is apparent. Moreover, a number of the original title cards which feature are off-centre and the subtitling overlaps these. And, particularly in the later stages, the film seems overly dark. On its release the film enjoyed a specially prepared accompanying score by Hans Erdmann. When it was screened at the National Media Museum we had an excellent live accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla, bringing out the unheimlich [uncanny and creepy] quality

The film has been re-issued by the British Film Institute as part of their Gothic retrospective and it was screened at the National Media Museum as part of their Euro-Gothic series [[not really a recognisable genre]. The BFI Gothic project revisits what is one of the most potent areas of cinema. However, this is also an area that is tricky to define exactly. The Museum’s series of Euro-Gothic includes films that deals with a witches coven: zombies: a mad doctor: and [this film] a vampire movie.

The roots of these genres lie in the English Gothic tradition. David Punter, un The Literature of Terror (1980) defines the classic gothic literature in this way: “an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic-settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense ….’Gothic’ fiction is the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves.” This literary genre, which he places between the 1760s and the 1820s, is most famously associated with Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto 1764) and Mrs Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho 1794). In 1817 by Lake Geneva a famous house party produced two of the most famous variants on the Gothic. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley came up with the story of Frankenstein – or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Lord Byron and his physician Polidori told tale about a Vampyre. The latter was developed by writers like Sheridan LeFanu and then Bram Stoker produced what seems to be the definitive version with Dracula (1897). Another strand is in a novel like Robert Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Early cinema made frequent use of both C19th literature and drama. And there were innumerable theatrical versions of the classic literary gothic tales. Edison in the USA made a version of Frankenstein in 1910: and there is a 1915 version titled Life Without Soul. There are versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1908 (USA), 1910 (Denmark), 1912 (USA) and 1913 (UK). Häxan (Witchcraft through the Ages) was produced in Sweden in 1921.

German culture and film had a particular penchant for a type of gothic. The C18th Romantic Movement marvelled at nature but also had a religious or pantheistic aspect. The latter lent itself to the use of magical or supernatural elements. The most influential writer in terms of gothic was E.T.A. Hoffman. His first collection of stories was Fantastic Pieces in Callot’s Style (Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, 1814-15, the title after a C17th French engraver of grotesque pictures) was full of gothic tropes and tricks.

The romanticism fed into the C20th movement of Expressionism. Reacting against forms of realism, the members used large almost abstract shapes, with bright unrealistic colours. There were also element of the grotesque. One member, Franz Marc declared, “art is nothing but the expression of our dreams.” Theatrical expressionism used forceful characterisation along with highly stylised sets. The expressionists were radical and modernist, but there was also a fear of what change might unleash.

Expressionism became a force in German cinema after the ‘changes unleashed’ in World War I. One factor was theatre personnel familiar with expressionism who moved to working in the film industry. The key film is The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. It exemplified expressionism on film. Visually it utilised abstract and stylised settings. The acting was both stylised and heightened. Settings and characters employed the exaggerated and the grotesque. The most notable aspect of the style was the use of chiaroscuro, or light and shadow. This combination also gave the films a strong gothic sense. Caligari and its successors gave German film reputation for distinctive and skilful imagery.

The expressionist films of the 1920s were not totally new. There had been earlier films with these tendencies. In particular there should be noted The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag, `1913) a film about a doppelgänger or shadowy double. The film uses elements from the tales of Hoffman. And there is The Golem (Der Golem, 1913) where a man-made figure is bought to life and used to wreak havoc. Unlike Expressionist art many of the films hark back to the past and take on the gothic milieu. Thus Nosferatu combines gothic elements with Romantic imagery and with Expressionist techniques.

David Punter attempts to formulate a more general view of gothic literature, which is seen to include North American writers like Edgar Allan Poe and modern writers like Angela Carter. He emphasises that it is [in opposition to realism] a non-realist genre. He posits three general characteristics – paranoia, the barbaric or fear of the past, and breaking taboos. The film is clearly non-realist and all three chracteristics are central to Murnau’s Nosferatu. There is increasing paranoia for nearly all the characters as the film develops, and frequently for the cinema audience as well. The film is soaked in period detail, which becomes more menacing as the tale runs its course. And breaking a taboo is central to the film and to the striking climatic scene as Orlok visits Ellen.


Even allowing for the developments in style and technique since the silent era the film remains the most potent expression of the dark, threatening and sexual disturbance in the Stoker novel. At the time there was an air of mystery around the central character of Orlock and the actor who played him. This has been pick up in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire. Writer Stephen Katz and director Elias Merhige play with the notion that Max Schreck was a real vampire. That an effective drama can be made of this myth speaks to the continuing fascination and influence of one of the most famous of silent films.

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