Nosferatu – Monster of Mitteleuropa

A street in Sighisoara (formerly Schassburg) – home town of Vlad “Dracul” Tepes, the 15th century Wallachian prince whose bloodthirsty reputation helped inspire Bram Stoker

NOSFERATU – MONSTER OF MITTELEUROPA

The dreadful concept of the vampire is common to many cultures, but although there are vampire stories native to Britain (such as that surrounding Croglin Grange in Northumberland), the version that will be most familiar to readers is Dracula – Bram Stoker’s compelling conflation of central European folk beliefs, exaggerated stories about the mediæval Wallachian princeling Vlad Tepeş and 19th century obsessions with sex, science, Gothicism and occultism. The idea of a nocturnal, blood-drinking creature that is neither alive nor dead is terrifying even now – yet vampire-themed films have tended to be underwhelming.

It may be partly because we are so saturated with the story that we cannot take it seriously. Bela Lugosi was risible (although he was more innocently employed in Hollywood than he had been in his former incarnation as Hungarian Communist politician under the bloodthirsty Bela Kun regime), Hammer was just hammy, and even Francis Ford Coppola could not make us afraid of Gary Oldman’s Count. Some vampiric variations on the theme were more successful, but most film fans would probably agree that the genre leader in this admittedly small field is Prana Films’ 1922 Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”).

Nosferatu is preeminent not just because it has the spontaneity of having been the first vampire film, but because of the carefully-constructed cinematography and the lyrical script, which we relish all the more because we are not distracted by absurd approximations of Romanian accents. Darkly Expressionist direction by F. W. Murnau ensures that every frame pulsates with feeling, like the human prey whose life-force Max Schreck’s cadaverous “Count Orlok” seeks so urgently. The distinct eccentricity of the film’s chief progenitors must also have contributed subtly to the film’s outré quality. Murnau was an occultist, a fanatic and an overt homosexual. Schreck was so reclusive that many thought he was not a real person; one of the few who knew him reported that he was always in “a remote and strange world” and enjoyed long, solitary walks in forests – a suitably Mitteleuropäisch fixation. (Coincidentally, the German verb schreck means to frighten.) In Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a film about the making of Nosferatu, John Malkovich camps it up believably as the unbalanced Murnau, so desperate to ensure authenticity that he employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to take Shreck’s role.

Schreck’s character was dubbed “Count Orlok” because the film rights to Dracula could not be secured and so the names and many of the plot details had to be altered (eg, Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter). But the debt is clear – so clear that Stoker’s widow sued Prana and won, ensuring that the company filed for bankruptcy and never made another film. The court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed, but luckily copies had already been distributed widely. (1)

Nevertheless, those seeing Nosferatu for the first time will find the vampire very different from, and probably much more frightening than, the over-familiar Lugosi/Lee/Oldman avatar (spoofed neatly by Leslie Nielsen in the 1995 Dead and Loving It!). The film is set in a different period (1830s rather than the 1890s) and the latter segments in Germany rather than England (although both agree on the vampire’s Carpathian homeland). The Germanic setting makes it look all the much more otherworldly to British viewers – especially when we bear in mind that many of the beautiful streets that were used as film sets, with their leaning, half-timbered mediæval houses, nail-studded doors and small-paned windows, are now themselves phantoms, obliterated by Allied bombing.

But it is Orlok who commands all eyes. Far from being the suave, handsome, aristocratic, lupine figure bequeathed to the popular imagination by Christopher Lee, Orlok is every incubus inch an emissary of evil – bald, blank-staring-eyed, with teeth that are too big for his mouth and clutching nails that curve around like scimitars. He is a rat-faced carrier of fear and infection, a creeping germ that lives only to gorge, a tick tortured by bloodlust, a thing of darkness, despair, dirt, disease and death. Unlike Dracula, he does not turn his victims into fellow bloodsuckers as if seeking company, but just kills them as efficiently as a snake. When the crew of the ship unknowingly transporting him to Germany open the crates, they are boiling over with vermin, and when the ship finally crashes unmanned in the quay wall at Bremen (its crew all vanished or murdered at their posts) Orlok glides ashore, a shadow in the shadows as unobtrusive as the bubonic plague, while thousands of frantic rats rush through the chocolate-box streets. His horrid presence permeates the city, towering up at the end of dismal alleyways, slinking around the edges of stricken squares, staring greedily in through windows, a hunched silhouette heart-stoppingly coming up the stairs.

Bremen’s ultimate saviour is Thomas Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) who discovers that only a woman “pure in heart” can distract the creature long enough to make him neglect the onset of sunrise – and so she offers up her soft sacrificial throat to his gnawing until a rooster crows outside like all the dawns that have ever lifted men out of feverish dreams. Orlok contorts and dissipates in smoke, and the camera goes back for one last smouldering shot of his castle, the monster’s simultaneous home and headstone.

Many of the other German masterpieces of that period – such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis, M and Der Golem – still resonate with modern audiences, but Nosferatu retains a unique creepiness – partly because some of its imagery was hijacked to make the infamous Der Ewige Jude (“The Eternal Jew”) of 1940, a film which notoriously also contains scenes of scurrying rats, likening them to Jews. Such a borrowing would certainly not have been welcomed by the visionary makers of Nosferatu, but by then Murnau and Schreck were both dead  – Murnau in a car crash in 1931, which rumour has it was caused by his performing fellatio on his Filipino chauffeur, and Schreck in 1936 from a heart attack just after coming off stage.

The imagery and even the nomenclature have recurred more recently – Werner Herzog’s well-regarded 1979 remake starring Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu the Vampire). The repulsive “Kurt Barlow” in the 1979 film of Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, starring David Soul, was based physically on Orlok. Max Schreck was also the name of a Bond villain, and the title of the hugely successful Shrek cartoons is derived from the same German source. It would seem that the literally awful motif of the ichor-imbibing, shape-shifting beast from the lowest circles of our imagination clearly still has a dancing and flickering life-force of its own.

This article appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2009

NOTE

1. The well-regarded 2007 Kino International version has just (October 2013) been superseded, but I have yet to see the new version. DT

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