Dracula/Dracula Analogue Performed by: Max Schreck
Director: F.W. Murnau
Character Type: Monstrously Othered Foreign Invader
Before we begin, yes, I’m aware that F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu isn’t exactly the first film adaptation of Dracula. There’s a Hungarian film called Dracula’s Death that, like a great many silent films, is presumed lost, though we may yet find a print of it in someone’s grandparents’ basement. As is, there’s really no way for anybody to watch it, so we’ll gloss over it. Dodgier still, there’s reports of a Russian Dracula film from 1920, simply titled Drakula, but there’s not enough evidence to properly conclude that this film even actually exists, so for our purposes, Nosferatu is the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.
And what an adaptation it is.
I dare say Nosferatu has produced the most iconic imagery and contributions to modern vampire-related popular culture of any of the material on this list. It’s been visually quoted (particularly this shot) in everything from Batman Returns to Spongebob Squarepants, and its introduction of sunlight as a vulnerability for vampires has influenced multiple generations of vampire fiction. It’s also a huge standout of the German Expressionist movement, a wave of bizarre anti-realism that influenced hundreds of filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Dario Argento to Wes Craven. Its pop culture imprint is so vast and powerful that it’s almost become its own thing, apart from the novel it’s adapting: it’s been remade by Werner Herzog (we’ll talk about that later) not as a re-working of Stoker’s novel but specifically as an expansion on Murnau’s film. It was also re-envisioned as Shadow of the Vampire, this time from the perspective of a fictionalized Murnau realizing that “Max Schreck” is actually a vampire just like the character he’s portraying in the film, but I’m not going to talk about that in this retrospective (though it is well worth checking out).
Sort of the reason why Nosferatu is so independent of Dracula in the popular consciousness is that it wasn’t allowed to be, at first. Murnau had not secured the rights to adapt the novel from Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Stoker, so he and screenwriter Henrik Galeen made several alterations to characters (particularly names) and moved the setting from London to a fictional town in Germany to wiggle around copyright laws. It ultimately didn’t work, as Florence Stoker eventually sued for copyright infringement and won, resulting in almost every copy of the film being destroyed.
But that’s all trivia: what really sets Nosferatu apart is how fiercely Murnau builds his story as a tale of pure, surprisingly modern horror from its first frames. Nosferatu is unencumbered by Stoker’s fascination with Victorian social politics, romance and glamor; Murnau is only interested in scaring the life out of you.
Perhaps the biggest change to the Dracula mythos here is that Count Orlok, the Dracula analogue here, does not change his victims into the undead: he simply kills them. While Count Dracula did commit several murders in the novel, most notably that of the crew of the ship he sneaks aboard to cross the ocean to London, he primarily relied on using his hypnotic charm and transforming people like Lucy Westenra and the brides into vampires to help carry out his will. Orlok is a much more primal, less genteel figure than Dracula in pretty much every way, beginning with his appearance. Max Schreck’s iconic makeup and deliberately artificial, jerky performance removes almost every trace of humanity or normalcy from the character, rather than tweaking conventional codes of human interaction into something unnatural as later incarnations of the character (most notably, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal) often did.
Count Orlok is a monster who’s only out for the precious lifeblood of the innocent, but his seductions of those innocents aren’t terribly sexual in nature. Note the iconic scenes where Orlok lurks outside Ellen’s window, the shadow of his hand grabbing her by the throat, or remarking that she “has a lovely neck” upon seeing Thomas Hutter’s picture of her. His presence is dominating, controlling, objectifying, even; erotic only by the furthest stretches of one’s imagination. His only lust is bloodlust. He has little interest in humans beyond their use as food, calling back to the origins of vampire folklore.
This characterization of Orlok as monstrous and completely without humanity is somewhat complicated by the “modernity” of the film, however. By “modern,” I mean for its time and place, namely Weimar Germany, which means, you guessed it…
When Orlok is Othered by his appearance, mannerisms and lack of identifiable characteristics as he is, it’s difficult to ignore the frankly rampant anti-Semitic undertones pervading the film. This isn’t something I’ve pulled out of my ass to score Godwin points: Siegfried Kracauer, a German-Jewish film critic known for his popular and controversial book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, includes Nosferatu in a list of popular films produced in Weimar Germany that underscored the rise of German nationalism that inevitably enabled the Nazi Party’s ascent to power (if you don’t want to/can’t read it, there’s a video explainer here).
It’s not surprising that he did: Orlok is depicted as having a large hooked nose (eerily resembling Nazi caricatures of Jewish people) and is visually associated with rats (a detail from Stoker’s novel that can’t help but new significance here) and invades from the east, bringing despair and disease from the shadows, unseen by all. In addition, the Renfield figure in this story, Knock, is no longer an asylum patient enthralled by Dracula but now Hutter’s employer, secretly leading Hutter into Orlok’s clutches and away from the homeland he must protect. Knock is depicted as repulsive, unknowable and strange, with a man warning Hutter of the “many strange rumors” about him, and he’s played by Jewish actor Alexander Granach.
You see where I’m going with this.
Hutter is, with his stereotypical Aryan features and breezy optimism and humor in the face of terror, diametrically opposed to Orlok and Knock, representing the spirit of German nationalism: ever looking forward, even in when in physical danger (as Hutter frequently is). He is powerful, unaffected even by Orlok’s feeding, ready to travel vast distances to save his lady love even when injured. This nationalist subtext even creeps into the treatment of Ellen, the Mina analogue here: her destiny is to nobly sacrifice herself to Orlok so that he is killed by the rays of the sun after being distracted by feasting on her blood (he even dies as a rooster crows, in case the symbolism wasn’t clear), in the grand tradition of women’s bodies being used as both national “property” and idealized images of a country as it wishes to be. She’s even depicted early in the film holding flowers in the Madonna pose, foreshadowing her fate through images of purity. Die for your country, ladies!
I’m not trying to say that Nosferatu is literally saying “Jewish people are evil monsters who want to kill us all” the way that, say, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is literally saying “black people are evil monsters who want to kill us all, and also the KKK are the real heroes.” In fact, I’m more than willing to bet that Murnau was not aware of the stereotypes he was perpetuating, given that he fled Germany before the rise of the Nazi party and that Galeen, his co-writer, was Jewish. But really, the intentionality of the anti-Semitic subtext is sort of beside the point. On purpose or not, Murnau and Galeen were tapping into the contemporary social anxieties of the German people, and it happened to manifest in the form of an invading shadowy physically Othered figure from the east that feeds on the lifeblood of Good German Citizens. That tradition of projecting social ills onto foreign invaders or unsavory types in our midst is pretty much what Dracula is all about, so really, making Nazi allusions is kind of the logical conclusion of the typical Dracula narrative. Sure doesn’t make that aspect of it easier to swallow in a year like this one, though, despite it being a classic.
Nosferatu is available to watch for free on Amazon Prime, or for rental on Youtube or Amazon Video.