The sun rises and sets, the world turns and people age and die, but the undead persist, principal among their hierarchy the vampires: previewed at a themed costume party on Saturday 4th March 1922 in the Berlin Zoological Gardens and with its first public screening on Wednesday 15th March 1922 at Berlin’s Primus-Palast, director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) has reached a hundred years of age, relatively unchanged in all that time.
A chronicle of “the Great Death in Wisborg of 1838,” Nosferatu was loosely adapted from Bram Stoker’s famed 1897 novel Dracula by Henrik Galeen, notoriously without first obtaining the rights to do so; Stoker having died in 1912, his widow Florence Stoker sued the producers of the unauthorised adaptation and in July 1925 it was ruled that all copies of Nosferatu should be destroyed, but as is the way with vampires it proved impossible to ensure completion of the task and the film endured.
With an extensive restoration completed in 2013 featuring newly-created intertitles in the style of the originals to replace those lost in various edits in the interim and a re-recording of Hans Erdmann’s original score, it is this version which most closely resembles the original vison of Murnau that has now been re-released to celebrate the centenary of what is regarded as one of the most striking and influential horror films of all time.
The opening acts mirroring the events of Stoker’s novel, albeit with a displaced location and character names changed, junior estate agent Thomas Hutter leaves his somnambulist wife Ellen in their home in Wisborg to travel to the distant wilderness of Transylvania to make arrangements with Count Orlok to purchase the large derelict property opposite Hutter’s own residence.
En route to “the land of thieves and spectres,” Hutter is warned of the dangers of the road and given a book, Of Vampyres, Gastlie Spirits, Bewitchments and the Seven Deadlie Sins, in which he finds a description of the creature Nosferatu “who doth live and feed on the bloode of humankind.” Dismissing it as the nonsense of superstitious peasants, his meeting and subsequent imprisonment by the deformed and undoubtedly nocturnal Count Orlok raise haunting suspicions which are impossible to dismiss.
First glimpsed as a gnarly, half-glimpsed figure driving a black-draped carriage, the image of Max Schreck as Count Orlok as fully revealed lurking in the hallway beyond the chambers of the sleeping Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is now iconic, his appearance influencing the vampire genre from Reggie Nalder as Kurt Barlow of ‘Salem’s Lot to Mark Metcalf as the Master and the primitive Turok-Hans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and of course Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre.
The unspoiled mountain locations of Hutter’s long journey magnificent, populated by a single striped hyena posing as a werewolf, Murnau’s use of Orlok’s shadow as a manifestation of his mesmerising power is emphasised by the passages of the book which accompany the action, another shadow cast over Wisborg being that of plague, a deviation from Stoker’s novel set on the island nation of Britain but a greater concern on mainland Europe where no barriers exist to the transmission of disease through wildlife populations.
Death moving door to door, the procession carrying coffins of their deceased kin down the main street of Wisborg as Orlok earlier distributed his own coffins of earth through the town, with Murnau having died at the age of forty-two in 1931 it is impossible to fully know his thoughts on his best known work but despite the permeating horror it is inescapable that some of the humour must have been intentional, Orlok commenting to Hutter “Your wife has a lovely neck,” his obsession with Ellen (Greta Schröder) ultimately leading to his downfall and establishing the greatest vulnerability of the vampire carried forward in future books and films almost without fail.