One of my blog readers who lives in the shadows and doesn’t leave comments in posts recently pointed out that this year is the centennial of F.W. Murnau’s film Nosferatu. This is the earliest cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Notably it was not a sanctioned adaptation and Florence Stoker sued Murnau. All prints of the film were ordered destroyed. What we have of the film today are prints assembled from bits and pieces that survived in personal collections.
I first became aware of Nosferatu around 1983 when I watched Werner Herzog’s remake of the film starring Klaus Kinski. I was captivated from the opening credits of that film, which showed rows of mummified bodies. The implication is that you’re seeing Dracula’s victims over the years. Even though Dracula drinks blood in the film, the real horror comes because he brings the plague with him, which kills far more people than he does alone. One of the things I really loved in Herzog’s adaptation is the dark, creepy ending.
I loved Herzog’s remake so much, I wanted a copy on home video almost from the moment I could afford my own home video player. I married in 1990 and my wife had not seen the film, and I wanted to show it to her. I looked, but soon discovered that Herzog’s remake had not been released in the United States. So, we decided to rent the original. By the 1990s, many prints of the 1922 Nosferatu were available. It wasn’t officially in the public domain, but it was treated as a public domain property. These were often poor quality prints with a public domain music track of some form in the background. Versions like this are still widely available both on video and on websites like YouTube. Despite the poor transfer, Murnau’s cinematography was still compelling. I loved his used of light and shadow. I enjoyed the special effects such as Count Orlock rising from his crypt or the tarp on the ghost ship sliding back and the hatch lifting on its own.
When I watched the original, I had been surprised that Murnau changed the character names. Dracula became Orlock, Mina Harker became Ellen Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so forth. I’ve heard it suggested this was done to disguise that Nosferatu was an adaptation of Dracula, but it doesn’t seem to make sense, since all versions of the 1922 Nosferatu I’ve seen have an early title card indicating it’s based on Dracula. I’ve also seen it suggested that Murnau simply made the names more Germanic to match the German setting of his film, which seems more likely. Of note, Herzog’s 1979 remake doesn’t change the names from the novel.
Since that early print, I have found DVD prints where a serious effort is made to restore the 1922 original to the best possible quality. I have the version from Germany’s Kino Lorber, which restores the tints to the original film and made a serious effort at restoring the film. It is lovely to look at and, for the most part, the cinematography still holds up today. There are points where the acting is very broad, as was the case in many early, silent films, but there are also really effective moments. I find it striking in most scenes with Count Orlock, the other actors look genuinely afraid or worried. So, if you’re going to celebrate the centennial of this classic film, I do recommend finding the best possible copy you can.
Both the 1922 original and the 1979 remake influenced the look of the vampire super soldiers who appear in Vampires of the Scarlet Order and will also appear in the sequel that I’m currently plotting. You can explore the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html