Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror), typically shortened to just Nosferatu, is a 1922 horror film directed by F.W. Murnau. It is an unofficial, unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, and although several things were changed (such as Count Dracula being renamed Count Orlok for the film), it wasn’t enough to stop Stoker’s heirs from suing for copyright infringement. Courts ruled in their favour and ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed, but, much to the benefit of cinema, several survived.
The plot consists of Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), an estate agent from a fictional German town in the early 19th century, being sent to Transylvania to meet Count Orlok (Max Schreck), a potential customer. (Anyone who has read Dracula will immediately understand why Stoker’s heirs sued over copyright infringement.) On his journey to the castle, Hutter meets several locals who are terrified at the mere mention of Count Orlok, but he continues on and eventually arrives at Orlok’s residence.
Most people are aware of Nosferatu, and most can probably picture Schreck as Orlok. Even those who haven’t seen it are often aware of his haunting portrayal, which is widely regarded as one of the best and most memorable performances of the silent era. It also looks far better than you might expect for a 100-year old film – Schreck allegedly had an “innate gaunt and emaciated frame,” which are the exact characteristics you might need if you’re going to be playing a vampire. Nonetheless the makeup does wonders. The talon-like nails, elongated fingers, nails, and teeth, the bulging eyes, ghoulishly pale skin… without the talent of Schreck and the makeup he wore, it’s interesting to think about where Nosferatu would be today. Would it be nearly as iconic? The most famous shot in the film is probably Orlok on the ship, where you can clearly see his horrifying figure. It adds so much to the film.
Regardless, Nosferatu was always going to be a classic with F.W. Murnau at the helm. His direction is masterful, and while Nosferatu isn’t always considered his magnum opus (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans might have something to say about that!) it’s certainly among his best, and was the film that first brought him into the public eye. It was influential not only from a filmmaking perspective, but also for vampire stories in general – it was the first time a vampire was shown dying from exposure to sunlight, for example (other material had shown them being weak to it, but never to that extreme).
Nosferatu also inspired the 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, which was written and directed by one of Germany’s finest filmmakers, Werner Herzog. It also inspired or is paid homage to in a multitude of various media, with footage from Nosferatu being used in Queen and David Bowie’s music video for the 1981 single Under Pressure to an appearance of Count Orlok in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.
The influence and impact of Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens today is undeniable. Not only did it kickstart the career of one of the finest filmmakers we’ve seen in F.W. Murnau, and inspire countless other creators and art since its release 100 years ago, it has also terrified and entertained millions of people for the last century. It continues to be appreciated to this day, with several different restorations having been completed and available on Blu-ray from multiple different sources. There is a very strong argument to be made that Schreck’s performance as Count Orlok is still to this day the finest and most freakishly creepy vampire ever put to screen, which is as much a testament to F.W. Murnau’s brilliant direction as it is to Schreck himself.