Monday, February 7, 2011

Nosferatu: The Plague-Carrier

Reviewed by Jerry Saravia (originally written in 2001 and updated since)
Max Schreck as the Count Orlok
The name "Nosferatu" is actually derived from the Old Slavonic word "nosufuratu," which is borrowed from the Greek word "nosophoros," meaning "plague-carrier." The term does not actually signify "undead." That meaning exists thanks to Bram Stoker, who of course wrote "Dracula" back in 1897. Stoker's novel is set in Transylvania and London, but the famous author had never set foot in Transylvania. Thus, his knowledge of the country came from Emily Gerard's travelogue entitled, "Land Beyond the Forest" (1885). This travelogue is a essentially a guide to the wonders of Transylvania but it is also the first to mention the nosferatu as an actual being, or as someone "undead." Here is an excerpt from Gerard's book: "More decidedly evil is the nosferatu, or vampire, in which every Roumanian peasant believes as he does in heaven or hell."
Thus, to correct one of many misconceptions regarding the character of Dracula and his origins, plague-carrier (or bringer of plague) is the correct definition though no Romanian dictionaries illustrate this significance or mention the word. This is why it never made sense that the film Nosferatu would be titled as such, or that such remarks about the undead would occur in almost every vampire film since. Naturally, F.W. Murnau's extraordinary and "loose" interpretation of Bram Stoker's novel actually has a title that is being correctly used, if they only knew.

Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim)
The vampire in this adaptation is known as Count Orlok (played magnificently by Max Schreck), who is really the plague-carrier. Initially, he makes his real-estate deal with Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) back at Orlok's castle in Transylvania, finalizing the purchase of an abandoned house in Bremen (or Wisborg depending on which film version you've seen). Hutter is bitten by Orlok later that night, though the next day Hutter assumes the bites were from some insects. Orlok later leaves from Transylvania via coach and a ship where the plague spreads, mostly from crates filled with Transylvania dirt and rats. He arrives in Bremen and the plague immediately rises in the town, resulting in numerous deaths (an actual plague occurred in Bremen in the 1840's, which is the time period of this film, depending on which version you see. Some prints indicate the date as 1838 or 1843). Orlok's desire is to seek Ellen (Greta Schroeder), Hutter's wife, who has a psychic connection to Hutter and Orlok. Orlok arrives in her bedroom (remember that his property is a building directly opposite to her house seen through her bedroom window) and she keeps the vampire in blood drinking mode throug the night until the first cock's crow. The sunlight peers through the window and destroys Orlok in a wisp of smoke but Ellen also dies having had her body drained of blood.

Ellen's sacrifice is a fascinating addition to the vampire lore. Traditionally, the women in "Dracula" films tend to become vampires but only until the Count is dead, thanks to the heroics of Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing and other male heroes. When the Count dies, the curse is lifted and usually Mina or Lucy (depending on which of several versions you have seen) is saved from bloodthirsty tendencies. In this case, Ellen sacrifices herself to the Count to save her beloved Thomas, (who of course is dangerously close to becoming a vampire) and who remains powerless and useless through the whole film. She does it all on her own by reading up on how to find and destroy vampires in a book simply called "Book of Vampires" (maybe feminists today would love that a woman would go through such lengths to protect her lover since she ultimately triumphs over evil).

And where is Van Helsing in all this? Nowhere to be found since here he is referred to as Bulwer, and is seen teaching classes about plants like the Venus flytrap and its vampiric similarities. This may be the only Dracula film where Van Helsing has a fleeting cameo and where his biggest line is, "Never walk away from your destiny!" Interestingly, in Herzog's remake, Van Helsing is arrested for staking Dracula in the heart!

Count Orlok is an ugly, rat-like creature, not your typical vampire in any sense of the word (thus with exceptions to homages in Herzog's remake or Stephen King's homage in "Salem's Lot," no vampire in film history has ever looked remotely like Orlok). Generally, Count Dracula or any distinguished count is depicted as an European aristocrat with charm and elegance - Mina or Lucy in Stoker's novel always invited the Count to bite them because of the Count's charm or sex appeal. Let's face it: Bela Lugosi had it, Frank Langella had it, as did John Carradine. Women swooned over them but they would likely be repulsed by Orlok, the kind of creature you would want to stay away from. He has big, pointed ears, bushy eyebrows, a long, semi-V-shaped chin, two prominent fangs in his mouth, extended shoulders, long fingernails or claws (which grow longer as the film progresses), and a bald head. Not someone you would want to invite to dinner or want to see in an dimly lit alley! He is also not someone personified in a Halloween costume unlike Bela Lugosi's famous visage.

Such a visage lends a tragic quality to the character that few other Counts have since possessed. Orlok is so animalistic that he seems to have been ravaged by vampirism as if it was a disease. In a sense, the many years of being a vampire reduced his body to a frail, gauntlike shape. He walks at a slow pace, carries coffins wherever he goes when arriving in Bremen, and never blinks. When he rises from his coffin, it is as if Death itself has risen. Schreck's snail-paced walk was an inspiration, some say, for Boris Karloff's interpretation of the Frankenstein monster in 1931 (this homage is likely since Karloff played a horror movie actor named Orlok in Peter Bogdanovich's "Targets"). As the film leads to its startling conclusion, Schreck's frightening features become more and more pronounced to the point that he emerges as a full-bodied animal.

"Nosferatu" was an unusual film for its time. Shot in 1922, director F.W. Murnau ("The Last Laugh," "Sunrise") used mostly exterior locations rather than studio sets. His approach was to aim for realism and authenticity, and it worked remarkably. At times, "Nosferatu" resembles a documentary of the times with subtle, barely noticeable German Expressionist motifs on first viewing. On second or third viewing, you'll notice that almost every shot is diagonally composed, such as the arrival of the carriage carrying Hutter near Orlok's castle or the scenes of Orlok carrying the coffin to his new domicile. Diagonal shots create distortion, definitely an Expressionist visual cue. Extreme shadows and one negative shot in a forest further enhance the distortion. The acting is certainly over-the-top, mostly Wangenheim's performance as the child-like Hutter and of course, Alexander Granach as the harried Knock (inspired by Renfield from Stoker's novel) who dances around and makes wild gestures with his arms and legs and laughs uncontrollably. This type of acting style was common in silent films (this is long before the Method style adopted by Marlon Brando) but in German Expressionism, a heightened emotional response was necessary to convey subjective feelings over an objective reality. "Nosferatu" is not meant to be realistic, merely a fantasy where real feelings and emotions, as expressed by Ellen, Hutter and Knock, are preferred over any concrete reality. In other words, the Expressionists were interested in dealing with themes through an emotional reality, rather than simply making a literal translation of text.

As for Schreck, he does not give an exaggerated performance. Instead his makeup and features are plainly exaggerated fitting in with the grotesque characters of something akin to "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." The film is not frenzied in terms of pacing but its overall feeling and mood are - time-lapse motion, superimpositions, shadows and low-angle shots are used to represent Orlok who is usually centered in every scene. Also, whenever Orlok enters or exits a room, there is a transitional cut to him either exiting or entering instead of a complete shot showing both. As played by Schreck, he may not be sympathetic or empathetic in any way nor does he express any singular emotion, but he is a tragic figure nonetheless, a monster devoid of humanity. (Klaus Kinski brought a touch of humanity and tiredness to the character in Herzog's excellent, highly underrated remake).

"Nosferatu" has had a troubling history. When first released in Germany, Florence Stoker, Stoker's widow, sued the filmmakers with the help of the British Incorporated Society of Authors for using Stoker's novel without permission. Although the names and locations were changed, there is no doubt that Murnau's film used "Dracula" as its basis (some prints do not even have the names changed!) Nevertheless, Florence Stoker won the suit and had almost every print destroyed. One copy managed to find its way to the United States, and by the 1960's, "Nosferatu" emerged as a film classic of its period and an important film in the German Expressionist movement.

What is especially enigmatic about the film is its production. Who the heck was Max Schreck? His last name in German means "fear," and he had it changed though he came from the Max Reinhardt company, as did Murnau and leading lady Greta Schroeder. Nobody knew Schreck's true identity (was he in hiding or was he in fact a real vampire as the recent "Shadow of the Vampire" suggests?) yet he went on to make several films as a character actor. I wonder if Murnau knew Schreck's true identity.

"Nosferatu" was close to being the genesis of "Dracula" on celluloid. Two previous "Dracula" films were shot prior to "Nosferatu," one was Russian and the other Hungarian. Neither film is known to have any existing prints so we have "Nosferatu" as the official template and standard of all vampire films to come (reportedly, the first vampire film ever made was Great Britain's "The Secret of House No.5" in 1912).

It is important to note that Orlok is the first cinematic vampire to have fangs! He has only two in the front of his mouth (appearing like a rat) rather than the typical canine teeth. He also is the first vampire to die by the rays of sunlight, an invention of Murnau's that differs from Stoker's novel. In the novel, Dracula dies by having a stake driven through his heart - sunlight was essentially harmless. Do not forget that Dracula was able to walk around during the day without getting burnt to a crisp - the difference was that sunlight made him powerless. Though "Nosferatu" was not initially popular nor did it receive too many theatrical showings for many years, the other film better known to audiences to introduce sunlight as deadly to a vampire was 1943's "The Return of the Vampire," which starred Lugosi as Count Armond Tesla who had a werewolf as an assistant (not one of my favorites in this genre by any means).

Many versions of "Nosferatu" exist today. Some have the correct tinting of shots, blue for night, sepia for day. Most versions known to audiences are strictly in black-and-white with no tints, thus inducing laughter when seeing Orlok walking around as if it was daylight since no scenes were actually shot at night (contrary to what the film "Shadow of the Vampire" shows). Also, some prints run 60 minutes and others run 90 minutes. This may have to do with the correct projection speed and perhaps elimination of some scenes or transitions (one shot not seen in the 60 minute version that I recall was the shadow of Orlok's hand as it grabs Ellen's heart - if only the "Saw" sequels had a tenth of that visual magic). Whatever version you happen to see is not significant except to purists (such as myself). "Nosferatu" is a haunting mood piece, frightening and ugly and disorienting - a stellar example of German Expressionism. Not quite a scary film, it does manage to shock thanks to Max Schreck's appearance and performance as Orlok - a vampire ahead of his time in conveying the dread of being a vampire (certainly long before Anne Rice was published). He will also live on as the definitive plague-carrier.

Review of Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

References: The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead by J. Gordon Melton. 1994. Visible Ink Press.

Also, special thanks to Lokke Heiss's invaluable commentary on the DVD edition of "Nosferatu." A must-hear(?) for any film buff.