First released in 1922, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is definitely one of the titles that paved the way for the wider horror cinematic genre. There was no way, then, for it not to be the first movie in our new segment: Steps in the Dark.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – Synopsis
Bremen, 1838. Real estate agent Knock invites young Hutter to Transylvania to help finalise a contract with Count Orlok. Before leaving the city, Hutter asks a couple of friends to take care of his wife Ellen. He finally manages to get to the castle on the Carpathian Mountains after a series of strange and mysterious events.
A controversial movie from the moment it came to be, Murnau’s Nosferatu is certainly one of the most icon films ever, both when talking about vampire stories and for the horror genre itself. The movie was shot in black and white and it was then added a monochromatic tone to regulate the lighting according to the scenes. As is usual for silent movies, the dialogue is shown in writing through specific sequences throughout the narration.
In the film, the vampire is represented with the typical traits of the monsters of Eastern Europe legends and the story reminds of Stoker‘s own – something that his heirs did not fail to notice.
The movie is also famous for its soundtrack by Hans Erdmann that lends itself as a background for the entirety of the work, and for a series of urban legends that surround the figure of Count Orlok.
Before proceeding, we want to warn you that, even though it’s a movie from the 1920s, there are two sections in this analysis that will contain spoilers and that will be marked by a red banner.
Nosferatu and the character of the vampire
The vampire of Nosferatu appears almost immediately, as we’ve already mentioned, as a horrible creature capable however of bewitching with his manners and his supernatural “gifts”. When one truly looks at him, it is obvious that Orlok is certainly not good-looking. His baldness, his sharp and angular features, his aquiline nose and even pointy ears immediately remind us of something from our worst nightmares. The original title Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror) is definitely an apt description. If we were to compare his appearance to someone we’ve already talked about, the first to come to mind is Lord Ruthven from Polidori‘s The Vampyre.
Nosferatu does indeed resemble a spectre, both in the way he moves and in his unnatural paleness, but also because of his piercing stare that freezes you to the spot.
Take heed that his shadow not encumber thee
like an incubus with gruesome dreams.
That is one of the lines of the book of legends that poor Hutter finds at the tavern and that contains all the tales about the vampire. At first, they only appear like folktales of a mostly illiterate nation, but as time goes on, they seem to become truer and more real. The little book is a well-researched work by experts that seem to have already had to deal with the monster in the past. We would even dare to say that it resembles one of the documents we’ve explored in our segment dedicated to Draculea.
The dispute with Stoker’s heirs
The story, as we already said, is very similar to Stoker‘s own.
A man is sent to Transylvania, land of ghosts and monsters, to finalise a sale with a Count that wishes to buy a house in Wisborg, where he will live with his future wife. Once there, the man will come face to face with the ominous figure of the Count who will make him his prisoner before leaving for his new house.
We can already see how the two stories resemble each other. Orlok wants to buy a house in Germany, just like Dracula wanted to move to London. Jonathan – like Hutter – leaves behind the woman he loves to visit the Count and get his signature. As soon as he sets his eyes on Ellen, Orlok wants to possess her just like Dracula did with Harker’s Mina. Both vampires imprison their guest to prevent him from going back and find an “ally” at the destination in Renfield and Knock.
There is also a very similar scene in both works. Harker cuts himself with a razor while shaving, not having noticed the Count in the same room as him, whereas Hutter accidentally wounds himself with a knife during dinner. Even though the two scenes are not perfectly identical, both vampires seem to change at the slightest sight and smell of blood.
Although Murnau never denied that Stoker’s work was a source of inspiration for him, it’s not difficult to understand why the author’s heirs, and specifically his widow Florence, filed a lawsuit against him for violation of copyrights. And won it to boot. That is the main reason why almost all of the film’s copies were destroyed. It is immensely lucky that some other clandestine copies survived.
Nosferatu, a real vampire?
Another legend linked to Nosferatu is related to the character of Orlok, officially played by Max Schreck. Some stories say that under Orlok’s make-up was actually Murnau himself, while others allege that the director travelled to the Carpathian Mountains looking for a real vampire to play the part. Some people even believe that Schreck himself was a vampire.
Ellen, atypical heroine.
A simple, graceful woman by the humble appearance even though she’s clearly wealthy. Her mannerisms and personality remind us of The Betrothed‘s Lucia Mondella (or at least that’s how I always imagined her).
Ellen is not only Hutter’s future wife but at the same time, she’s the one heroine of the entire story.
In fact, the book Hutter finds reads:
Wherefrom there is no salvation
except that a woman without sin
should cause the vampire to forget
the first cock crow.
Of her own free will
she should give him her blood.
And that’s who Ellen is. A woman who loves her man, a woman who sees a city afflicted by a horrible monster and sacrifices herself for the greater good. She will be remembered for her virtue, her purity of soul, and her sacrifice. All things considered, Ellen comes across as kind of an “angelic” entity. It’s true, the Count manages to exert his power over her right from the moment he sees her picture which is also when Ellen knows that Hutter is in peril. There are various instances throughout the movie that showcase her strange ability, her sleep-walking and how her sleep is troubled by nightmares.
However, as we already said, Ellen’s strength is a moral one. Her character accepts her destiny, a fate of death, without even trying to oppose it and as if it came from some greater force.
Maybe there were other ways to defeat Nosferatu, but Ellen chooses the path of sacrifice and finally frees her town from the vampire’s sickness.