Nosferatu: THE Classic Vampire Movie

Most know it by just one name, but the full title is “Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens” (A Symphony of Horror). You cannot be a fan of horror films and not know about Nosferatu. You’re a real fan of horror films if you’ve actually watched Nosferatu.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau directed this now-iconic piece of cinematic history. Many of his films have been lost to time, and this one was a commercial failure, but Nosferatu stands as a cornerstone of the horror genre. His expressionistic style created an artistic atmosphere that would be emulated for decades to come. This movie is so legendary that it would even inspire a Hollywood movie about its making – 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire”.

Despite its modern iconic status, Nosferatu almost didn’t make it to the current day. Filmed in 1921 and released the following year, Nosferatu was a knock-off of Dracula. It was actually intended to be a legitimate film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but the studio (Prana Film) could not secure the rights or permission to do so with the Stoker Estate, so they changed the names of the characters (something easily done in a silent film) and other names as well (“vampire” became “Nosferatu”, for example) and released it in theatres. Stoker’s widow successfully sued and a judge ordered all copies of Nosferatu to be destroyed. The lawsuit bankrupted Prana Films and Nosferatu would be the only film the studio ever produced. Only four original copies are known to exist, and one painstaking modern-day archival restoration was created in 1994.

Ellen, realizing the grim task that lay before her

One poor quality black and white copy of the original 93-minute 1922 German-language edition (German-only intertitles) is preserved in the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum in Germany. Three of the surviving copies are in French film museum La Musée de la Cinémathèque. One is a shortened (72-minute) French-language black and white version from a 1926 re-release of the film just before the first lawsuit. Another is a black and white edited German print from 1930, titled “Die Zwölfte Stunde” (The Twelfth Hour). The third at La Musée de la Cinémathèque is the original 1922 French release. It is in poor condition, but it is the only print that has the original scene tints. Like many films of the day, Nosferatu used single-colour tints as part of the setting. Night scenes were tinted blue, sunsets were tinted yellow, danger scenes were tinted red, and so on. The tinting was done in the development process for uniformity.

European experts in 1994 undertook an ambitious restoration project that produced the fifth print of the original edition. All four of the existing prints were used to produce the best possible quality modern print of the original length German release with the original scene tints. This version has never been released to the public for home consumption.

Only bits and pieces of the original symphonic score by Hans Erdmann have survived, but that has only encouraged several musicians over the years to produce their own scores. Since Nosferatu pre-dates films with audio, the score was performed live by a symphony in each cinema.

Shot on a modest budget, the entire film was shot using a single camera – as much a nightmare for the editor as it is for the director.

Max Schreck as the grotesque Nosferatu

Ironically, many Dracula fans consider Nosferatu to be the best film adaptation of Dracula ever made, and many vampire fans consider Max Schreck’s performance as the Count as the best film vampire ever depicted. Roger Ebert gushed about it, saying “Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films.” and “The vampire should come across not like a flamboyant actor but like a man suffering from a dread curse. Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being

The movie follows the dealings of Count Orlok (Count Dracula). A German real estate agent named Hutter makes his way to Orlok’s castle in Transylvania to conduct some business. The locals do their best to discourage the German traveller, but he makes it to his destination. Hutter’s stay is marred by a nocturnal neck bite from Orlok. Hutter manages to close the deal with Orlok, convincing him to buy a house near Hutter’s own in the German town of Wisburg. After some peculiar events, Hutter begins to suspect Orlok’s true nature as a Nosferatu, or “Bird of Death”. One big clue is when Hutter discovers Orlok’s penchant for sleeping in coffins by day. Orlok’s killing spree in the town of Wisburg is conveniently masked by an out break of the plague. Orlok becomes smitten with Hutter’s wife Ellen, but she discovers the way to overcome a Nosferatu.

You can watch a tinted version of the 93-minute film for free at the Internet Archive, or watch this black and white version with a beautiful orchestral score also for free at the Internet Archive.

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