NOSFERATU - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens; Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror)

Germany, 1922

Director: F. W. Murnau

Production: Prana-Film (Berlin); black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 74 minutes. Released 5 March 1922, Germany. Re-released as Die zwölfte Stunde or Eine Nacht des Grauens in 1930 in a sound version, but it was re-released under mysterious circumstances as the original negative had been taken by a Dr. Waldemar Roger some time earlier. Filmed in Jofa studios, Berlin-Johannistal; exteriors shot in the Upper Tatras, Czechoslovakia, near Zakopane, Propad, and Smokovec; also at Wismar, Rostock, and Lübeck.

Scenario: Henrik Galeen, from the novel by Bram Stoker (out of copyright); photography: Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf; production designer: Albin Grau; original music: Hans Erdmann; costume designer: Albin Grau.

Cast: Max Schreck ( Nosferatu, or Graf Orlok ); Alexander Granach ( Jonathan Knock, an estate agent ); Gustav von Wangenheim ( Hutter ); Greta Schröder ( Nina ); G. H. Schnell ( Harding, a shipbuilder ); Ruth Landshoff ( Annie Harding ); John Gottowt ( Professor ); Gustav Botz

( Town doctor ); Max Nemetz ( Captain of the "Demeter" ); Wolfgang Heinz ( 1st mate ); Albert Venohr ( 2nd mate ); Hersfeld ( Innkeeper ); Hardy von François ( Hospital doctor ); Heinrich Witte.



Galeen, Henrik, Nosferatu , in Masterworks of the German Cinema , edited by Roger Manvell, London, 1973; also included in Murnau , by Lotte Eisner, Berkeley, 1973.


Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film , Princeton, 1947.

Huff, Theodore, An Index to the Films of F. W. Murnau , London, 1948, 1976.

Byrne, Richard B., Films of Tyranny , Madison, Wisconsin, 1966.

Anthologie du cinéma 1 , Paris, 1966.

Eisner, Lotte, The Haunted Screen , London, 1969.

Eisner, Lotte, Murnau , Berkeley, 1973; revised edition, 1979.

Collier, Jo Leslie, From Wagner to Murnau: The Transposition of Romanticism from Stage to Screen , Ann Arbor, 1988.


Variety (New York), 25 December 1925.

New York Times , 4 June 1929.

Blin, Roger, "Murnau—ses film," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), July 1931.

Mori, Phil, in Bianco e Nero (Rome), April 1951.

Eisner, Lotte, "L'Enigme des deux Nosferatus," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1958.

Guillermo, Gilberto Perez, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1967.

Guillermo, Gilberto Perez, and Robin Wood, in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1971.

Kerouac, Jack, in Focus on the Horror Film , edited by Roy Huss and T. J. Ross, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.

Toeplitz, J., in Kino (Warsaw), February 1972.

Beylie, Claude, in Ecran (Paris), July-August 1973.

Milne, Tom, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1974.

" Nosferatu Issue," of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 228, 1979.

Tulloch, J., "Narrative/Structure/Ideology in Murnau's Nosferatu : Another Start from Propp," in Australian Journal of Screen Theory (Kensington, New South Wales), no. 5–6, 1979.

Roth, L., "Dracula Meets the 'Zeitgeist': Nosferatu as Film Adaptation," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 4, 1979.

Petat, J., and others, "De Murnau à Herzog: L'Eternel Retour de Nosferatu le vampire," in Cinéma (Paris), March 1979.

Termine, L., in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), October 1979.

Exertier, S., "La Lettre oubliée de Nosferatu," in Positif (Paris), March 1980.

Todd, Janet M., "The Classic Vampire," in The English Novel and the Movies , edited by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, New York, 1981.

Rognoni, L., in Cinema Novo (Porto), January-February 1981.

BirĂł, G., in Filmkultura (Budapest), January-February 1981.

Ishaghpour, Y., in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1981.

Bouvier, M., and J. L. Leutrat, "Pour mémoire," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1982.

Cherchi Usai, P., " Nosferatu : Dal film all'orchestra," in Segnocinema (Vicenza), January 1985.

Elsaesser, Thomas, "Secret Affinities: F. W. Murnau," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1988–89.

Wolf, R., and others, "De films van F. W., Murnau," in Skrien (Amsterdam), February-March 1990.

Perez, G., in Raritan (New Brunswick, New Jersey), no. 1, 1993.

James, C., "Critic's Notebook: Nosferatu , the Father of All Horror Movies," in New York Times , 2 April 1993.

Holt, Wesley G., in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 38, April-May 1993.

Dalle-Vacche, Angela, "Murnau's Nosferatu: Romantic Painting as Horror and Desire in Expressionist Cinema," in Post Script (Commerce), vol. 14, no. 3, Summer 1995.

Dilivio, Lois, "Two Reviews: Music for Silent Films in Contemporary Performance," in Cue Sheet (Hollywood), vol. 11, no. 4, October 1995.

Lansing Smith, Evans, "Framing the Underworld: Threshold Imagery in Murnau, Cocteau, and Bergman," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 24, no. 3, 1996.

Larson, Randall D., "James Bernard's Nosferatu ," in Soundtrack (Melechen), vol. 15, no. 58, June 1996.

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* * *

Nosferatu was the first film version of Dracula ; more than 70 years later, it remains easily the most intelligent adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel (its nearest, not very close, rival being John Badham's 1978 version with Frank Langella).

Given the way in which Stoker's vampire aristocrat has haunted popular culture since the appearance of the novel in 1890, the figure's social/ideological significance can scarcely be exaggerated. Conceived at the height of Victorian sexual repression, the Count Dracula of the novel embodies, to varying degrees of explicitness, all the sexual dreads that our culture has still not exorcised or come to terms with: non-procreative sexuality, promiscuity, bisexuality, the socalled "perversions," incest, even (indirectly, through the preferences of the vampirized Lucy) the sexuality of children. Much of our sexual social history can be traced through the transformations the Count has undergone from Stoker's novel to Badham's movie. With his origins in sexual repression, he transplants very logically and easily into the climate and ethos of German Expressionism.

Between Stoker's novel and Murnau's film came Freud, to whose theories of repression and the unconscious the Expressionist movement, like the Surrealist movement later, was heavily indebted. The essential difference between the two movements lies in their contrasting inflections of Freudian theory: the Surrealists were committed to liberation and the overthrow of repressive bourgeois norms whatever the costs, whereas the Expressionists consistently conceived the repressed forces as evil, their release cataclysmic. The extraordinary power, and continuing fascination, of Murnau's film are rooted in this vision.

The distinction of Nosferatu can be partly suggested by examining the changes Murnau and his scriptwriter Galeen made from novel to film. What novel and film have in common (and no other film version to the same degree except the Badham) is the perception that it is the woman who is the centre of the conflict, that the work is really about her . The uses made of this insight are, however, quite different. In Stoker's novel the battle is fought for the woman; in Murnau's film she becomes the vampire's active antagonist and destroyer. In Stoker the battle is fought between van Helsing and Dracula (conceived, in the terms of Victorian sexual morality, as "good" and "evil"—in Freudian terms they represent superego and id); Murnau reduces van Helsing to an ineffectual old fuddy-duddy who lectures on Venus flytraps but contributes nothing whatever to the vampire's overthrow. In the novel, the woman (Mina) must be saved from contagion and corruption: the Victorian dread of a released female sexuality is basic to the conception; in the film, the woman (now called Nina) realizes that only she can save civilization from the vampire's contagion, by offering herself to him. Murnau's Nina is a character of quite extraordinary ambivalence: emaciated, as if drained of blood, she suggests both vampire and Christian martyr; the strange abandon with which she gives herself to Dracula (first throwing open a window, then prostrating herself on the bed) suggests the close relationship between religious ecstasy and sensual fulfilment. The ambiguity is set up much earlier in the film, in the protracted and elaborate crosscutting between Nina (ostensibly awaiting Jonathan's return) and the journeys of Jonathan and Dracula (a sequence that makes nonsense of Bazin's claim that "in neither Nosferatu nor Sunrise does editing play a decisive part"). Jonathan, who travelled by land, is returning by land; the vampire (having taken over a ship) is coming by sea. Nina sits by the shore, gazing out to sea, awaiting her "husband." Her exclamation, as she awakens from sleepwalking ("He is coming! I must go to meet him!") follows a shot, not of Jonathan, but of Dracula's ship.

Jonathan and Dracula also undergo significant alteration from their originals. Stoker's Jonathan is a conventional "noble hero" (although he doesn't actually achieve much of note). Murnau transforms him into the vampire's double, through an intricate series of "mirror" images involving arch-structures: at their first meeting, for example, Jonathan enters the castle under one arch, and this is immediately "answered" by Dracula emerging out of darkness under another. Murnau, following Freud, dramatizes the vampire quite explicitly in terms of repression: he is the repressed under-side of Jonathan, of civilization. As he falls under Dracula's influence, Jonathan is reduced to total impotence: even when he discovers the vampire asleep in his coffin, during the day, he can do nothing but cower back; when Dracula visits his bedchamber at night, to suck his blood, he can do nothing but prostrate himself. At the film's climax, when Nina reveals to him the vampire's presence at the window of the house directly opposite, across the water (another mirror-image), he once again collapses, helpless.

In the novel, Dracula himself is at first quite old, becoming progressively rejuvenated in England by fresh blood; but he is never as grotesque as Max Schreck in Murnau's version and never as romantically attractive as Frank Langella in Badham's—the two films inflect him, significantly, in precisely opposite directions. Murnau's most striking development of the original material is his elaboration of the vampire. In the novel, Dracula disappears quite early from the surface of the narrative (which is told entirely through letters, diaries, etc.) appearing only in brief glimpses; in the film he becomes the dominant figure, a redevelopment especially clear in the long central section of the voyage (for which the novel has no equivalent). Murnau greatly extends Dracula's association with animals, and with a dark, nocturnal underside of nature: he has pointed ears, is visually connected with a jackal, emerges from his castle as out of the blackness of an animal's lair. Above all, the film associates him with rats and plague: wherever he goes, rats swarm, and the precise nature of the spreading pestilence is kept carefully ambiguous.

The re-thinking of Dracula in Badham's film offers a fascinating comparison, an attempt at a "progressive" re-interpretation with a far more positive view of the repressed forces the vampire represents: the heroine becomes a "liberated" woman who freely chooses Dracula as her lover, and it is the father-figure, van Helsing, who is finally impaled on a stake. In fact, what Badham's film proves is the intractability of the material for such a purpose: Dracula becomes a kind of sexual superman, the film develops disturbing Fascist overtones, and many of the complex connotations of the vampire are eliminated. While Murnau's film—heavily determined by its Expressionist background—can depict repressed sexuality and its release only in the most negative terms, it manages to endow it with far greater force and potency, dramatizing the basic Freudian quandary— the necessity for repression, yet the appalling cost of repression— with a much more suggestive complexity.

—Robin Wood

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