Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nosferatu (1922)

The first film version of Dracula was made in 1922, twenty five years after the publication of the novel and ten years after Bram Stoker's death. As far as I can ascertain, it was the first movie to ever feature a vampire. The production company did not acquire the rights to adapt the novel, and so changed all the characters' names. The movie was almost lost forever after Stoker's widow sued, but fortunately some prints survived the court's destruction order.
The story follows Stoker's novel reasonably faithfully for the first two-thirds. However, this only covers the very first part of the novel - Thomas Hutter (Jonathan Harker in the novel) travels to Transylvania to sell a property to Count Orlock (Dracula), and runs afoul of the vampire's machinations. The vampire then travels to Hutter's home town, the fictional German city of Wisborg (London in the novel).

Nosferatu then departs sharply from the original text. The vampire brings to Wisborg rats that carry the plague; this combined with his own blood-drinking proclivities lead to many deaths. Hutter's employer Knock (loosely based on the novel's Renfield) is driven insane by Orlock's influence. Meanwhile, Hutter's wife Ellen (equivalent to the novel's character Mina, who was engaged to Harker) has uncovered the secret to killing the fiend: a woman who is pure of heart must delay him with her blood, so that he loses track of the break of day.

This is an amazing movie. Obviously like most silents the storytelling seems alien by modern standards, the acting seems over-done, and the special effects have a hand-made quality; but the movie is stuffed with memorable and creepy images, Orlock is one of the most grotesque of all screen vampires, and the level of imagination is high. The influence of Nosferatu on subsequent vampire movies cannot be overstated; you will notice throughout scenes that have been imitated many times since.

This version of Dracula almost completely erases the sexual undertones of the character. He is portrayed as the personification of disease, with a rodent visage to match the rats he brings with him to spread the Black Death. There is a sexual element to Orlock, especially in his obsession with Ellen, but there aren't many people who would consider him to be erotic. This is also the first version of Dracula (and I believe, the first vampire of any sort) that can be destroyed by the sun. There is no mention of the vampire being bothered by crucifixes or other religious symbols, or by silver or garlic, and there is no hint of destruction with a stake. Orlock is not seen to shapeshift (though there is the hint of a werewolf in an early scene) but great importance is given to his shadow, which some subsequent vampire movies would make more of.

Most of the supporting characters are absent, e.g. Dr. Seward, Quincey Jones and Arthur Holmwood. Van Helsing (here renamed Bulwer) has a very small supporting role, and is mostly shown teaching his students about carnivorous plants and likening them to vampires. Hutter/Harker is portrayed as a buffoon; the main conflict is between Orlock and Ellen.

 The movie is long since in the public domain, so free downloads are everywhere (for example here. If you're going to watch it for the first time, I'd recommend the the 2007 F. W. Murnau-Stiftung restored version, which looks amazingly sharp and restores the original tinting as well as some missing scenes. If you live in NZ, this is available on the Umbrella dvd that your local library or rental store must have; elsewhere it's available from Image in the US and Eureka Masters of Cinema in the UK.

1 comment:

  1. Nosferatu is one of my favouritist ever movies. Steph