Nosferatu: The first vampire on the big screen


Nikolaus Johnson, Writer

The vampire is easily one of the most recognizable monsters of all time. It is also one of the oldest. You can find a humanoid creature that stalks at night and takes the life force of its victims in just about every culture on the planet. These horrid creatures have tales in every medium imaginable, so it was only a matter of time before one made an appearance in film. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is a 1922 silent film by the Director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was this movie. 

Perhaps the most notable feature of this film is the art direction, which draws from German Expressionism: a style characterized by long shadows and mildly warped features. Art gives a reflection of its creators and this is certainly true for those who survived through the horrors of the First World War. Right before the end of The Great War, a massive outbreak of the Spanish Flu killed millions more than the conflict did. Since horror films prey on the fears of this time period they were made in, it is no surprise that plague and disease is a large theme in Nosferatu. In the context of the early twentieth century, bleak times lead to some grim works. 

While the art direction is original, the plot was plagiarized from Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Once Bram Stoker’s widow heard of this, she immediately tried to sue the studio. When she realized she would not receive anything from the lawsuit because the studio was bankrupt, Mrs. Stoker instead had all copies destroyed. For a long time, Nosferatu was considered to be a lost film, but it was rediscovered in the 1960’s. The film never truly died – like a vampire. 

As for decrepit bloodsucker in the film, Count Orlok, is not exactly what you think of when a stereotypical vampire comes to mind (The caped, dark haired, Hungarian accented Lugosi vampire didn’t gain traction until 1931.) Instead, his appearance is influenced by folklore and the features of a rat with a bald head, long fingers, pointed ears, pointed front teeth, tall stature, and an imposing silhouette, he certainly has an ominous appearance. In fact, the actor who played the Count did it so well that an urban legend began to circulate that he was an actual vampire. This concept is a bit more believable once you consider that the actor’s last name was Schreck, which means “terror” in German. Nosferatu was also the first tale to have vampires killed by sunlight. No other form of media had listed that as a weakness to the undead, let alone depict it.  

Being a silent film, it’s naturally in black and white. This only adds to how surreal the movie feels to watching it. This is why the movie is best watched alone. Because the film was created during cinema’s infancy, Nosferatu’s pace is quite slow. Don’t let that put you off, though. There are a good number of unnerving scenes and because it’s silent, it doesn’t rely on gimmicky jump scares or loud noises to build suspense, as too many modern films do. So if you’re looking for an atmospheric, iconic, classic, this Halloween season, Nosferatu might be the right choice for you.