Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is the earliest adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula coming as it did just over 20 years after the novel’s publication in 1897. In some ways, however, that’s where any similarity ends. Book and subsequent film emerge from different worlds and through different mediums. In both good appears to triumph, and whilst this was to be expected from a Victorian novel the same could not be said of the film. Stranger still, that the film has an ending with an unexpected symbolism that the filmmakers could not have envisaged. It is one far removed from the then prevailing decadence of post-War Berlin, and speaking of a supernatural reality directly opposed to that of the Undead, namely the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
After the Great War, the German Weimar Republic came into being, an entity as unstable politically as it was to become economically. Defeat clung like a shroud to the nation’s consciousness. Nevertheless, the country’s nascent film industry flourished. So much so, that for the next decade, its films were to rival those of Hollywood. With no language difficulties, the image was everything, and movies travelled to the four corners of the globe regardless of their origin. German film was then more internationally known than it would ever be again. Its leading studio being the Berlin based, Universum-Film AG (UFA). It was to be from there that both surreal and realistic tales of love and betrayal, of war and peace, of obsession and desire, were to come. Noteworthy too was the theme of the occult in the nation’s cinematic output. It was a subject matter that was to be at the forefront of some of the most important films then being made. From this artistic twilight, Nosferatu came forth.
Stoker had died in 1912. When the movie’s production was underway eight years later, his estate knew nothing of it. Nosferatu was Dracula in all but name. Even the few names that were changed did little to hide the source material. In time, this would come back to haunt the film’s producers.
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From the start, the film was conceived and then created by two men: Albin Grau, its producer, and F.W. Murnau, its director. A production company was formed; and, by August 1921, principal photography had started. It would continue until October of that same year. The look of the finished film is striking, especially in its use of location. The Carpathian Mountains, the Upper Tatras, the eerie Orvasky Castle in Silesia as well as a number of Baltic ports were all used for filming. This gives Nosferatu an almost documentary feel. Needless to say the realism of the locations was an effective counterbalance to the unreal nature of the film’s subject matter.
Nevertheless, and despite, or maybe because of, this fantastic subject matter, the movie succeeds in film making terms. Much of the credit for this lies with Murnau. His use of location, as much as his use of sets for the interior shots, was all pure cinema as well as being technically accomplished. There is one sequence, in particular that, even when watched now, is as gripping as it is deftly executed. It concerns the doomed ship, Empusa, the vessel bringing its Undead cargo to Wisborg. The initial sweeping shot that comes across the sea to the masted craft toiling through the waves is as breathtaking today as it was for audiences nearly one hundred years ago. In fact, the whole episode on board ship is a marvel still. Murnau was equally adept at either location or studio shooting. The use of light and shade evident throughout, especially in the interior shots, is as evocative and oppressive as the story dictates, and, as we shall see, perhaps more so than the film’s creators realized or even intended.
The film is also notable for its use of some of the Expressionist techniques then à la mode in German cinema. Such techniques, expressing as they did the internal world of the characters as much as the action presented on screen, were to lend themselves particularly to German horror films of the period. In Nosferatu, the cinematic moods and emotions conjured up are as striking as any conveyed by an artist applying paint to a canvas, even if, in the case of this film, it is, ultimately, a nightmarish vision. The end result lingering in the mind of any audience long after viewing has ceased as its curious dreamlike quality continues to strangely haunt the imagination.
Perhaps this is because, from the start, the orientation of the production was clear. Stoker’s novel is condensed and reshaped into something much more immediate, menacing, and, therefore, more disturbing. There is little of the novel’s Victorian optimism in the filmed version. There is, instead, much of the decay and despair engendered by the horrors of a war only just concluded. Whereas Stoker was nominally a Christian, those making Nosferatu followed a different path. Little is known of Grau except that he was deeply immersed in the occult. The company he founded for the production, Prana Films, took its name from a Buddhist term for the soul. Notably, he was to prove more than simply the film’s producer. He was also to be its art director, responsible for the costumes and the sets—in effect, the whole look and feel of the film.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the occult symbols that suffuse the film appear authentic. Maurnau, too, was known to have a personal interest in the occult, astrology and such like, and was to make a surprising number of films on this theme. He was also a first class director, one that Hollywood was to woo before the decade was over. For now, however, he set about creating a world on screen that was unreal and yet one that in many ways was soon to manifest itself in reality. This was a tale of horror for the cinema, yet for some it would come to prophesy another horror then waiting to be loosed upon Germany’s streets.
In the ever-changing carousel of film criticism, Nosferatu has had many interpretations given it: an allegory about the state of the post-war German mind; a visual representation of the sexual repressions of Maurnau; a collective wish for the coming of the ‘Superman’; a subconscious plea for an authoritarian leader to bring order to chaos; a representation of fears around Soviet aggression then threatening from the East—all these readings and many more besides have had an airing. There is another, however, one rarely explored, if one seeing the film as an ‘instrument of darkness’ telling of a truth.
The filming of Nosferatu began in August 1920. Just three years previously, a series of apparitions had occurred in the Portuguese village of Fatima. It was there three peasant children had caused consternation by what they had claimed to see and later by what they talked of, namely the triumph of the Immaculate Heart. During the course of Nosferatu the inter-titles—that is, the speech and descriptions inserted into the running of a silent film—speak of the sole thing that will defeat the evil pestilence brought to Germany in the form of the Undead, and all that represents. It is this: only a woman with a pure heart shall stem and indeed turn back the contagion then raging.
As alluded to earlier, the makers of the film were not Christian. Their work was influenced by other supernatural sources, ones diametrically opposed to that faith. And yet, the central female character in the film, Ellen, is a woman of pure heart and the one to whom falls the challenge of confronting the then scourge of the Undead bringing untold evils into the lives of the inhabitants of Wisborg. That confrontation between these two principals takes place just prior to the dawn. It is this coming of the light into a darkened world that will ultimately destroy the vampire and the grip he exercises over all those around him. Ellen is the conduit of that light’s power but also a willing sacrificial victim to it. With a crucifix clearly displayed in the background when she realizes what she must do, the allusion is clear.
There is another reference, one that is as apparent, but, paradoxically, easy to miss. Look closely once more at the film’s final scenes, and more particularly at what is displayed upon Ellen’s bedside table. There is the crucifix, but there is something else besides. Prominently draped around it is what appears to be a set of rosary beads. Given the northern German and distinctly Protestant setting of the film, this is indeed surprising. In the Apparitions at Fatima, the Rosary was central to the message given there, one that spoke of the ultimate triumph of the woman with a pure heart, an Immaculate Heart. In light of this, could the beads in these final images be more than just a coincidence?
Earlier, it was stated that the lack of permission from the Stoker Estate came back to haunt the filmmakers. This happened almost immediately after the film was released. Stoker was dead but his widow Florence was very much alive. She sued the producers, and, in so doing, won a court injunction for the destruction of all copies of the film due to copyright infringement. She pursued this with a vengeance throughout the 1920s. So much so that the only copy exhibited in London in 1928 was seized by authorities and burned. (The film remains with us only on account of a few copies that managed to survive and which since have been restored.) Perhaps, this time, it is no coincidence that Florence Stoker, unlike her late husband, had converted to the Catholic faith in 1904, and, subsequently, was to live close by and worship at the Brompton Oratory, a church dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.