Nosferatu turns 100 – SPIN
This Friday, March 5 marks the 100th anniversary of German silent horror film Nosferatu. An early example of German Expressionism, the film was directed by FW Murnau, who directed other cinematic masterpieces such as Sunrise (1927) and city girl (1930) and starred Max Schreck as a Transylvanian vampire named Count Orlok.
Orlok is looking for new digs, which brings in real estate agent Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim). Hutter has heard stories about the mysterious Orlok, mostly from locals who shudder at the mere mention of the Count’s name. Without paying attention, Hutter goes to Orlok Castle and is invited to stay for dinner. Hey, nothing better than a free meal!
While having dinner, Hutter cuts his thumb with a steak knife and begins to bleed profusely. Like any good host, Orlok offers to suck the blood. Hutter politely refuses medical help and begs to lie down. In the morning, the agent notices two strange puncture wounds on his neck, but blames it on nasty mosquitoes.
After signing a few deeds, Orlok notices a picture of Hutter’s wife, a real flat out named Ellen (Greta Schröder). Orlok comments that Ellen has “a nice neck”. Unaware of Orlok’s weakness, Hutter stays one more night in the castle, eventually stumbling across the coffin in which Orlok rests. “Ah, man is a vampire,” Hutter thought to himself.
Orlok settles into his pad and sets out to get Ellen. Ellen, however, has plans of her own, having read a book about vampires which states that a pure-hearted woman can defeat bloodsuckers with their beauty. Feeling up, Ellen invites Orlok into her bed through a window, but the Count is too much for her and starts sucking. Unfortunately for Orlok, the window was left open, and with the rising sun, he ended up disappearing in a puff of smoke. Dead dead. Well, at least he didn’t leave in the middle of the night. Hutter rushes over and hugs his wife. Unfortunately, her fate is sealed and she dies in her husband’s arms. The city then burns down Count Orlok’s castle, paving the way for a T-Mobile store in its place.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel Dracula or searched Ted Cruz’s Pornhub account – Count Cuckula is actually a good idea for a parody porn (Author’s note: Apparently it’s a video game. God, why did I google this?)
Anyway, Stoker’s estate also found Nosferatu to be quite similar to the book and they sued Prana Film, the studio behind the movie that turned the century. And they won. Every copy of the plagiarized film had to be destroyed. Court orders. But like a vampire, the movie was hard to kill. A handful of prints survived, thankfully, and the film, despite its sin of intellectual theft, remained a cinematic classic.
Like it should be.
Brimming with brooding cinematography and creepy organ accompaniment, the film is, as its opening title card suggests, a “symphony of horror.” Even the architecture is scary. Filmed primarily in the steel port city of Wismar in northern Germany, Parna took full advantage of Gothic-style brick buildings that were erected around the 13th century. Many figures are depicted standing in an arched doorway, harsh light streaming through the walls. Film noir would later owe all of its aesthetics to German Expressionism. Like where this quintessentially American genre used the contrast of dark and light to reveal the gloom of post-war society, Germans were mostly scary men.
Towards the end of Act I, when Hutter opens his bedroom door and we see the revelation of Nosferatu in bloodsucking mode, with his railroad fangs, pointy ears and bug eyes staring at us. look directly, I have to admit, even after watching the movie many times, and the fact that it was broad daylight outside, it gave me the shivers.
One person who is often overlooked when discussing this film is producer and production designer Albin Grau. Born in Leipzig-Schönefeld, Germany in 1884, Grau was a member of the German magical order called Fraternitas Saturni – or Brotherhood of Saturn for you English speakers. The group, which is still active today, is concerned with “the study of esotericism, mysticism and magic in the cosmic sense”. As opposed to your practical magic.
Grau wanted to make a film about vampires since his service in the German army during the First World War. There he met a Serbian farmer who told him that his farmer was a vampire. Being one to believe such a narrative, Grau returned from the war and started Prana Studios, where he intended to create several films revolving around occult and paranormal activities. Unfortunately, we never got to see Prana’s multiverse slate come to fruition. After Stoker’s trial, Prana rode the boobs and Nosferatu ended up being her only production. In the mid-1930s, any mention of the occult was banned in Nazi Germany. That was enough for Grau to leave the city and end up in Switzerland.
One last thing I’d like to touch on, and it’s a bit of a touchy subject, but that would be the allegations of anti-Semitism at Nosferatu. For some, they find that Count Orlok’s physical appearance matches some terrible stereotypical caricatures of the Jewish people of the 19th century: hooked nose, bald head, rat-like facial tics.
Look, it’s hard to argue against these claims. At one point in the film, Orlok arrives at his new village by ship, joined by a mischief of rats, who then spread the plague throughout the town. Not good. To complicate matters, many of the people involved in the film, including its screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, were Jewish. Alexander Granach, who plays the right-hand man of the vampire Knock, was not only Jewish, but had been a Yiddish theater superstar. Worse still, Hitler repeatedly referred to Jews as a “sunshine race” in his Mein Kampf manifesto.
While I can still enjoy the movie, I just can’t ignore the crude on-screen depiction. Neither should you. So do what I do and pair it with a pro-Jewish movie. It’s like the person who eats at Chick-Fil-A who then donates to an LGBTQ+ charity. So yeah, put Yentl or Neil Diamond’s version of The Jazz Singer in the VCR and even Steven. Wait…maybe not the Diamond movie.
Filmmaker and outdoor enthusiast Werner Herzog then remade Nosferatu in 1979, starring his best friend Claus Kinski as the titular vampire. Available for free on YouTube, it’s worth the detour. The opening scene shows a collection of shrunken skulls and corpses as a heart beats over the soundtrack. True to the mad genius of Herzog, the journey on foot to the castle of the Count (here known as Count Dracula) is a spectacular backdrop. Herzog, one of the leaders of what was then called “The German New Wave”, delved into the cinematic origins of his native country, making perhaps his most accessible film to date, while maintaining the qualities we love about him: held cinematography, perilous locations and an ever-evolving thesis on masculinity.
Seventy years after Murnau delivered his take on Stoker’s novel, DIY impresario and wine merchant Francis Ford Coppola has released his overloaded, yet still riveting version, starring Gary Oldman as a restless dandy. Dracula doing his best to seduce a wide-eyed Winona Ryder. The film was a minor success.
OK, if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pretty big fan of vampire movies. To quote Marge Simpson, “I just think they’re fine.” Spooky mansions, long draped dresses, rock ‘n’ roll all night and sleeping in every day, what’s not to love?
Here are four other vampire movies that I highly recommend.
From dusk till dawn (1996)
Following his success with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino is writing and co-starring (opposite a badass George Clooney) in this crime/horror hybrid. Easily in my top 10 cinematic experiences, because not only was I there on opening night, but, being an expert in all things QT, I knew what to expect, unlike 90% of the public. . As Salma Hayek goes from baby to bloodsucker, a whiff of WTF filled the theater. Heads were turning left and right as the movie went from a bang-bang shoot ’em up to a bite-bite vampire flick. More movies like this need to exist.
Cri Blacula Cri (1973)
The sequel to the ’70s Blacula blaxploitation, Scream Blacula Scream is a real mess. The script is confusing, the camerawork is shoddy, and the acting is lackluster. But that’s also part of why I love him. To hammer (Movies) my point, on the syndicated Siskel & Ebert TV program, reviews were split. Ebert gave it a big thumbs down, while Siskel, thumbs up, said he was superior to the original. It’s the kind of movie you and your friends can have fun with, but never get bored of.
almost dark (1987)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, this film, about a band of traveling vampires, is 10 times better than The Hurt Locker. Both horror and western, Near Dark is a meditation on the suffering of such an existence. It’s a dusty, grimy, dimly lit masterpiece that features a scene of hellish slaughter, penned by John Parr’s “Naughty Naughty.”
A girl walks home alone at night (2014)
Set in the Iranian ghost town Bad City, this Persian-language film heralded the arrival of writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour. Shot in lush black and white, the film tells the story of star-crossed lovers, laborer Arash and a mysterious woman dressed in all-black candor, who has a penchant for biting necks. The film often evokes the spaghetti western style made popular in Italy in the 1960s.