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FW Murnau's expressionist horror - and the world's first vampire film - still casts its long shadow over the history of both Germany and cinema
Sometimes a single sequence can come to encapsulate not only the film in which it appears, but a whole style of filmmaking. In Sergei M Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925), the Odessa step massacre showcases the full dramatic potential of montage. In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), the shower scene demonstrated the suggestive power of rapid cutting. And before either of these, in FW Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), the expressionist silhouette of an angular figure ascending a staircase to a young woman's bedroom would cast its long shadow over the nascent horror genre.
Not that Nosferatu was by any means the first expressionist film, or even the first horror. Its antecedents included Paul Wegener's Der Golem (1920), also scripted by Henrik Galeen and itself a sequel to Wegener's lost Der Golem (1915) - as well as Robert Wiene's The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1921), and Murnau's own lost The Janus Head (1920).
The release of Nosferatu would also coincide with that other cult classic of horror from the 1920s, Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922) - a work which tried to debunk, ridicule and rationalise the very supernatural forces that Murnau's film sought to realise as vividly as possible.
Nosferatu, however, offers the world its first celluloid vampire, and was also the first horror film to depict an evil as abstract as it was incarnate, threatening the well-being not only of individual characters, but of an entire populace. Coming in the wake of both the Great War and an influenza pandemic, the plague-bearing Count Orlok (Schreck) embodies all the anxieties of a nation that had recently lost millions to indiscriminate, implacable death.
Nosferatu was famously subject to a lawsuit from Bram Stoker's widow Florence and removed from distribution for decades, after Galeen adapted his screenplay from the novel 'Dracula' without permission (the film's production company Prana could not afford to clear the rights). In the first German version, the characters were renamed to disguise their illicit status, although few were fooled by this, and subsequent English-language versions of the film restored Stoker's original names.
Though Nosferatu's story may, at least in its shadowy outline, follow closely the narrative of 'Dracula', there are also significant differences. Religion has no part to play in Murnau's film. Jonathan Harker's equivalent Hutter (Wengenheim) may pack a Bible in his traveling bag before setting off for Transylvania, but the only literature he reads once underway is a book on vampirism that he finds at the inn - and the only role of crosses is to mark the doors of those who have already, irrevocably, fallen victim to the deadly plague.
Science and rationalism, too, play little part here, with Van Helsing's equivalent Professor Bulwer (Gottowt) marginalised and ineffectual, too distracted by his vampire-like biological specimens to see the real vampire in his midst. In the end he will arrive only after Count Orlok has already been dispelled.
Perhaps the biggest change of all is in the characterisation of the vampire himself, here no charming, attractive seducer but a hideous monster, impossibly tall and thin, with craggy eyebrows, a skull-like pate, a rodent's teeth, pointy ears, an enormous hooked beak for a nose, hands that stretch into claws, and enough strength to carry his own coffin about. He is the Other made flesh, a grotesquely-featured foreigner, foreshadowing the sinister, rat-like Jew as later portrayed in the anti-Semitic propaganda films of the Nazis - an invader from without who corrupts and destroys Teutonic civilization itself.
Though he only appears on screen for some nine minutes of the film, Schreck cuts an unforgettably menacing figure, and his mere presence attracts all manner of uncanny effects (sped-up film, superimposition, images shown in negative, breaches in spatio-temporal continuity) that transform his every environment into a landscape of twilit surrealism.
Where all else fail to stop Orlok's deadly progress, in the end Hutter's wife Ellen/Nina (Schroeder) will defeat the vampire by herself, transferring something of her own vulnerability to his otherwise cold heart - and while Orlok's ultimate evaporation before the rising sun may serve to exorcise post-war Germany's anxieties about death, disease and degeneracy, viewers are left in no doubt that as part of "nature's mysterious ways", the Sun is sure to set again, returning the world once again to nightmarish darkness and decay. After all, without this constant interplay of light and shadow, there could be no cinema in the first place.
Cursed by its own subsequent influence, much in Nosferatu now seems cliched - but there are still chills aplenty to be found in Murnau's uncanny vision.
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