Frazer MacDonald on German Expressionist cinema and the influence of F.W. Murnau’s most famous film…
1922’s Nosferatu: Symphony des Grauens (translated as Symphony of Terror) is F.W. Murnau’s most famous film, and one of the best-known in German film history. Despite being an unofficial adaptation of Dracula (Bram Stoker’s wife famously sued the studio who made the film), it has since become the archetypal adaptation of the film.
Before Nosferatu, the idea that vampires could burn to death in sunlight didn’t exist, and many of the more traditional vampire films—Fright Night, From Dusk ‘til Dawn, and Werner Herzog’s own adaptation of the film—were all heavily influenced by Murnau’s rendition, and the film has even been spoofed in children’s cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants.
Born in Bielefeld (Westphalia) in 1888, Murnau came to Berlin to study philology at the city’s Humboldt University, witnessing first-hand the devastation of World War One and the subsequent economic and psychological depression throughout Germany.
The German government’s banning of foreign films during the war (in 1916) led directly to an increased pressure on German film (and theatre) directors, who rose to the occasion, producing 130 films in 1918 compared to just 24 in 1914. It was while seeking new methods of attracting and engaging audiences that the genre of German Expressionism, which borrowed heavily from theatre, was born.
Murnau, who was friends with local theatre director Max Reinhardt, made his first feature film (The Boy In Blue) directly after the war in 1919 but it was Nosferatu that made him famous. The movie possesses many of the now-classic Expressionist tropes: angular, stage-like sets, the stark blocking that usually puts one or two of the cast members front and centre—Schreck always appears in windows, doorways, and on gangplanks, and always with a bare light behind him to accentuates his gaunt features—and much like a stage production, movement is kept to a minimum.
There’s a huge emphasis on tableaus, and the most dynamic scenes in the films are ones in which Schreck himself is making his way slowly up a stairwell or something similar. Indeed, more than any other film from this period, Nosferatu is the purest example of the Expressionist style, and the smoky exteriors and dimly lit interiors of the film are arguably the most influential of the era.
Berlin became something of a creative hub for Expressionist cinema, both as a base and an urban backdrop, featuring most famously in Phil Jutzi’s 1931 adaptation of Alfred Dobin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Fritz Lang’s M, with Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire utilising many techniques typical of the twenties and thirties, and even recent colour films—the smoky nightclub interiors of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria for example, or the angular, neon-lit bedroom scenes in Tom Tykwer’s Lola Rennt—nodding to the era’s distinctive style.
But Nosferatu was filmed mostly in Slovakia or outside the capital; the film’s fictional town of Wisborg was mostly filmed on location in Lübeck. That said, the film does have one claim to Berlin fame, namely Max Schreck, who plays the leading role of Count Orlok in Nosferatu. One of the capital’s most prolific actors during the country’s silent film period, Schreck worked in the Munich Kammerspiele for three years, between 1919 and 1922, before moving into film. He starred in many theatre productions both before and after his film career, until he died early in 1936 of a heart attack.
The look of the film was devised by Albin Grau, an occultist who had met Aleister Crowley and owned the film studio Prana, which also produced the movie an declared itself bankrupt after the film to avoid paying a fee for breaching Dracula’s copyright agreements. Grau also famously spent almost as much on the ostentatious premiere, in March 1922 at the city’s Zoo-Palast, as on the movie itself.
Nosferatu’s specific themes and influences have been a mainstay of the vampire genre since its inception—or at least as far back as Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 lesbian romance novel Carmillla—and ha already been mixed in with interesting ideas of race, sexuality and religion in Florence Marryat’s 1897 The Blood of the Vampire, the first novel to feature a mixed-race vampire.
One of these main themes, of course, is a primary fear of the Other. The original Bram Stoker version was already deeply antisemitic in that sense, but the notion takes on a much darker tone in Nosferatu since it represented the fiercely antisemitic views widely held throughout Germany when it was made.
Interestingly, despite the obvious hooked nose of Count Orlok and inevitable figurative scenes featuring rats and plague, the script was written by Henrik Galeen, an Austrian-born Jew who rose to fame after writing, directing and starring in Der Golem. The film also featured several Jewish actors, including Alexander Granach, who was especially prominent in Berlin at the time.
It was not until Herzog’s tribute Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) that we see the antisemitism finally dropped from the story. Although faithful to the original novel, with character names directly lifted from the text, the figure of Dracula himself is portrayed here as a much more tortured figure, ostracised by humanity due to his appearance and spending all of his time holed up in his grand castle.
Fear of the Other is still a key component of this film, but Herzog has imbued the character with human elements which would later popularise the genre in the eighties with films like the American horror Fright Night, in which the vampire, Jeff Dandrige, looks human enough to blend in seamlessly with the local community.
Bram Stoker should, of course, be credited with creating one of the most iconic villains in history. But many people—Murnau included—created the visual language that has allowed scores of people to chop and change the formula and keep the story going over the decades. Indeed, the cult continues a century on: the Berlin-based Wir sind der Nacht, by Dennis Gansel, is an LGBT version of the vampire classic that features murder mystery elements and has a distinct gothic style.