Nosferatu – the first vampire film

I like the reality of things, but not without the fantasy – they must dovetail. Is that not so with life, with human reactions and emotions? We have our thoughts and also our deeds. – Murnau

Murnau’s Nosferatu with the very creepy Max Schreck

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens is really the first vampire film and has been one of my favourite films for a while. My husband and I saw a wonderful screening of it at the Melbourne Town Hall, accompanied by a live organ recital (it’s a silent film, in case you haven’t seen it yet). It has beautiful visuals and I’ve found that it’s influenced my writing. It’s had a huge influence on film makers, and once you’ve seen it, you’ll probably find it appearing in all sorts of pop culture references.

Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It was directed by the German director F.W. Murnau in 1922. There was no permission from Bram Stoker’s estate to use the story so, despite the fact that all names were (cunningly) changed, Stoker’s widow, Florence Stoker was able to successfully sue for copyright infringement. The court ordered all existing prints of Nosferatu destroyed, but luckily the film had already been distributed so copies survived (much like a pesky, fictional vampire).

There are a number of changes from the Stoker novel, the most obvious being that the heroine sacrifices herself in order to distract the vampire until dawn – at which time he vanishes in a somewhat underwhelming puff of smoke. The Harker character is almost unbearably useless, but that is not entirely distinct from the book – where you sometimes wonder if he and Van Helsing actually want Mina to be attacked. Dracula is called Count Orlok and is far from the charming villain we’ve learnt to expect from years of Bela Lugosi and others. So what’s the enduring appeal of Nosferatu?

You can see why vampire films lend themselves to the application of cultural theory. I had a number of happy years studying gothic fiction. Let me just say, there’s a lot of fun to be had. You could see Orlok’s shadow on the wall as a literal embodiment of the Jungian shadow – that part of ourselves we try to exclude, or in Freudian terms, the other that we try to repress, but that keeps reappearing until it is acknowledged. Gender Studies departments also have a field day with these texts. Dracula and Nosferatu are both also significant for their representation of homosexual desire, somewhat suppressed in Stoker’s work but perhaps more apparent in Murnau’s (unsurprising considering that he was openly gay). There are some hilarious things written about Count Orlok’s rise from the tomb on the ship. If you watch it, you will immediately see what I mean.

But academic fun aside, the pleasure of watching Murnau’s Nosferatu is in the amazing imagery. Murnau makes use of superimposed images, negative images, and strange architectural forms to create a dreamy otherworld. He’s really iconic for his use of contrasting light and dark – the whites are so white and the blacks so lush! The scene with Count Orlok’s shadow climbing the stairway and stretching his long fingers out to Mina’s doorway is unforgettable. Coppola had a lot of fun with this shadow play in his Dracula, but it never quite reaches the beauty of Murnau’s visuals.

The really striking thing in Nosferatu is the way that the vampire moves – this in itself provides much of the creepiness of the film. It seems like Murnau recognised film as an ideal way to represent the dreamlike quality of the supernatural with sped and slowed film adding to the confusing sense of unreality. In writing my current novel about vampires this was a big question for me – how to express this difference in movement? I would definitely like to blog on this as it’s something writers probably don’t think about as much as they would, say, dialogue. So there’s a project for me!

Nosferatu goes rock and roll in Ava Adore

Nosferatu has influenced so many films and visuals in popular culture. Here Billy Corgan rocks Nosferatu in the music video for Ava Adore, directed by Nick Goffey and Dominic Hawley. This video was filmed as a continuous shot, with movement sped up and slowed down (apparently making the lip-synching and choreography a bit of a chore to say the least). The alteration in movement is positively Murnauesque (that must be a word).

Some have been even more direct in their homage. Celebrated director Werner Herzog felt Nosferatu was one of the greatest German films and he made his own version in 1979, with Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani. He reproduced many of Murnau’s classic shots. The film has a truly dreamy feeling about it and is beautifully shot by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein. As a personal aside, Werner Herzog is famous in our household for having slapped my husband hard across the face, without warning. James was a little boy at the time and on the set of Man Of Flowers. When challenged Herzog replied that he had to really hit him – for realism. He’s a scary man.

Herzog’s Count – he’s tortured and he won’t shut up about it

 Shadow of the Vampire, directed by Merhige (2000), is a more recent incarnation. It imagines the filming of Nosferatu – in which Murnau (Malkovich) hires a real vampire (Willem Defoe) as his leading man, creating predictable problems on set.

I’m not sure what it is that makes a film iconic, but the imagery in Nosferatu can only be described this way. What can sometimes take a writer a full paragraph to express is communicated within a few brief seconds. It’s elegant and economical, but most of all, it seems to stir something in our minds – a kind of dream state where the vampire lives.

If you enjoyed this post please check out my free gothic fiction novel Indigo. Happy reading!

Murnau works the shadows

Murnau’s wonderful Nosferatu shadow scene

The slight silliness that is Shadow of the Vampire


12 thoughts on “Nosferatu – the first vampire film

  1. Oh yeah, and Voldemort’s look is pretty clearly based on Nosferatu too. (Who’s Voldemort?? You ask).


  2. What an awesome film as-well. I do agree with the Voldermort, and i think there is a reference to others such as hell raiser, Doctor evil and villians in dramas. they all seem to be bald and pale!

    I heard there is this new film out called ‘Vampire Wedding’ its meant to put a classic twist on a modern theme! It includes silent movie stars, a bit of gory and romance- ahhh.

    If you are interested there have a face book page-

    Very excited for its release!

    Keep up the good work on the blog!



  3. Great review. You are so right, the way that Orlok moves is so effectively creepy. I prefer it too the contemporary whizzing around vampire speed that we see a lot now!

    And I totally agree with your point that Van Helsing and the others are so incompetent in the run up to Mina getting bitten in Stoker’s Dracula. I feel it was a rare moment where a feminist reading could be possible, as by shutting Mina out the men invite disaster… It is also interesting that Murnau’s Nosferatu leaves Van Helsing and his band of heroes out entirely, so that the woman takes control, does the research and defeats the vampire, albeit in a self sacrificing way!


    • By the way, I loved your site and have added it to my Blogroll. Would love to see your thoughts on Nosferatu – I’ve been amazed by the response to my post on it – about ten people a day visit even now (well, I think that’s pretty good!). There’s clearly not enough out there on Nosferatu…


  4. The women are definitely the heroes. I can’t help but think that Mina would have made a pretty impressive vampire – Dracula certainly needed some help with his plans for world domination. Or at least London domination.

    Definitely re movement – I think as far as contemporary films the Ava Adore clip did so much better with creepy movement than most vampire movies. The standard super fast movement with a ‘whoosh’ sound effect is a little underwhelming. You should feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck – not be reminded of a cartoon character!


    • Thanks, I really agree with those two points too! Have got a Nosferatu post coming up next week. (Am currently working my way through a very jumpy and sketchy history of vampire fiction!) Thanks for the linkage!


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  6. Wow! A very well written, informative and captivating piece! I knew nothing about Nosferatu. He was not mentioned in my class on studies in film those many years ago…I would have enjoyed it. What a shame. Good thing you came along! Thank you.


  7. Pingback: March 5th, 1922: Nosferatu Premieres in Berlin | silence cunning exile ... maple syrup

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