Nosferatu: The Worlds Oldest Vampire Film Turns 100

The black and white silent film Nosferatu first premiered on March 5th, 1922, almost exactly one hundred years ago. From its release, the film was laden with legal issues and should never have survived to this day, but has since become a beloved cult classic among the horror community and film lovers alike. In recognition of this rare achievement of lasting for a solid century as well as being widely regarded as the first vampire movie in the history of cinema, let’s take a walk through the hundred years of history and facts about this unofficial adaptation of Dracula.

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Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula brought the quintessential idea of vampires to common use at the start of the twentieth century, and along with it has come countless interpretations of vampires over the past hundred years. Of all of the media in this time, one film brought Stoker’s story to life on the silver screen before any others, and it wasn’t even an official adaptation. F.W. Murnau’s Expressionist silent film Nosferatu brought the story of Dracula to German viewers on March 5th, 1922, one-hundred years ago today.

Not many films make it to their 100th anniversary while still being known to the modern-day viewer, let alone survive in the multitude of vampire clichés that have become common over the past century. Despite numerous factors that should have led to its destruction, Nosferatu survives to this day. As a way to celebrate this anniversary, let’s take a look through the various trials and high points in the film’s creation and legacy.


Massive Legal Battle

From the start, Nosferatu was destined to fail. Not because of the quality of the film, it received rave reviews in its short-lived viewing period, but because Murnau and the producers of the film used the plot of Dracula and adapted it without the permission of Stoker’s widow and estate. Florence Stoker began the legal proceedings shortly after the release of the film, claiming that despite the changes made to the story to separate it from Dracula, it was still stealing the intellectual property of her husband.

These legal repercussions caused the film company, Prana-Film, to declare bankruptcy after making Nosferatu, its only production. After running the film company into the ground, Mrs. Stoker pushed even further to be compensated for the plagiarized work, and after failing to receive the monetary amount requested, she ordered the makers to have every copy of the film destroyed. Ordering every copy to be destroyed sounds like it would be the end for the famous film, but luckily for the present-day viewers, a single copy survived the purge and went on to be copied and recopied so that we still have access to the film today.

Changes Made: Film vs Novel

Despite all of the legal trouble, it’s not to say that Murnau didn’t try to make change aspects of the story. Many of characters from the source material were eliminated completely, and those that remained were renamed.

The titular Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok in the film, and rather than a noble and suave count, he is the image of a malformed humanoid, with exaggerated, almost rat-like features and a bulbous, bald head. Other notable changes were switching the character of Johnathan Harker to one named Hutter, and his wife Mina to a character named Ellen. The character Renfield becomes Knock, the unhinged servant to Orlok, and the vampire-slaying Van Helsing is reduced to Professor Bulwer, a minor side character who hardly has any screen time at all, let alone faces any vampires himself.

The most notable of changes besides alterations to the character names is the end of the film. Not only is the end of the film significantly different from Stoker’s original novel, but Nosferatu can be credited with one of the most well know pieces of vampire lore: vampires burn in sunlight. This was a significant change from Stoker’s work, where Dracula only weakens in the light of day.

After weeks of haunting and feeding on Ellen, Count Orlok is defeated not by a vampire hunter or anything of the sort, but by Ellen luring the vampire to stay out in the sun where he would burn up and die, sacrificing herself in the process. This noble sacrifice from Ellen strays very far from the acts of the men of Dracula defeating the count themselves by sheer force. In Murnau’s adaptation, we see the female lead take the power away from the Count, while her husband and the Van Helsing stand-in simply stroll outside in the garden trying to decide what to do next.


Artistic Choices and Production

As a film coming from the start of the German Expressionist movement, it can be expected that Nosferatu would contain some strange and unique artistic choices. Over the years Nosferatu has been picked apart and studied for its cinematic qualities, one of the most iconic being the “worms eye view” shot of Count Orlok stiffly walking aboard a ship’s deck.

The use of color in the film as well provides a large part of its unnatural atmosphere. Admittedly, it does sound strange that a black and white film would contain any color, but in the case of Nosferatu, some surviving copies of it contain sharply contrasting filters on the lighting for various scenes. The use of pink for early dawn is most significant to the film, as well as varying shades of blue for evening and night, and yellow tints to represent candlelight all make each scene feel like more than just the same bland time of day. While the use of these colors can come across as jarring to some, it helps to show the artistic qualities of the film.

The film is also notable for the one, particularly strange casting call, one asking for “30-50 living rats” to take part in the filming. The rats themselves play a small but very memorable role in the film, in which they are released from the coffins Orlok is bringing with him to Germany by an unknowing ship’s crew. Yet another scene which adds to the sense of peculiarity if not to horror, is what appears to be a striped hyena in one shot, that is described to be a werewolf patrolling the woods around Orlok’s castle.


Criticism of Nosferatu

Despite being widely accepted as a classic piece of cinema, Nosferatu has received a fair amount of criticism for its content as well. The most common criticisms of the film are the themes of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, mainly coming from the appearance of Count Orlok. His rat-like features have been characterized as being similar to Jewish stereotypes, such as a hooked nose and the tufts of hair from his ears, as well as his general association with rats in the film.

The themes of plague, being carried by the Nosferatu (Undead), and the large volume of rats he brings with him from Transylvania, can be considered to be a symbol of the fear of foreigners and another common stereotype of Jewish people bringing the plague with them. That being said, it has also been mentioned that given the time of the film, in a country that had been ravaged by The Black Death (primarily transmitted by rats) far in the past and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic just years before, this imagery of disease from outsiders could also be attributed to this.

It is also worth noting that while the film does seem to display undertones of anti-Semitism, there is no evidence that Murnau or the screenwriter Henrik Galeen were anti-Semitic themselves. Galeen himself was Jewish as were other actors in the film, and Murnau being widely regarded as an openly gay man gives even less reason to believe that any stereotypes in the film were done intentionally. Despite its controversy ,however, Nosferatu is still regarded as one of the most classic films in cinema history.

A Legacy of Horror

Even with all the trials and tribulations, the film has gone through in the past century, its influence has spread far and wide in pop culture.

The 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre by director Werner Herzog was one of the first to remake the classic with modern filming technology and brought the grotesque undead to life again in muted full color. Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 film starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich doesn’t remake the original movie but gives a fictional account of its filming, one in which Max Schreck (Count Orlok) is played by an actual vampire. A recent spin-off film, Mimesis Nosferatu, revolves around a high school stage production of Nosferatu, in which the vampires are far more than what’s on stage.

Outside the straightforward adaptations, Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot took influence from Nosferatu for the miniseries adaptation of it, and the film Batman Returns features the name Max Shreck for one of the leading villains as an Easter egg referring to the actor who portrayed Orlok. Even an episode of Nickelodeon’s series Spongebob Squarepants featured Orlok in an early episode.

Needless to say throughout past and modern media Nosferatu has left a massive impact on pop culture.


An Upcoming Remake

Even with all the influence that Nosferatu has had on pop culture, there hasn’t been a direct remake in decades. It appears that this will change very soon. Recently, filmmaker Robert Eggers has been discussing more and more his ideas for a Nosferatu remake that he has been talking about since 2015. With critically acclaimed projects such as The Witch and The Lighthouse under his belt, as well as the forthcoming The Northman, it could be expected that such a film would be met with open arms.

Also featured alongside Eggers in this project is Anya Taylor-Joy. Taylor-Joy is no stranger to collaborating with Eggers, having starred in The Witch as well as being cast in The Northman. Her involvement with the project seems like a good sign in its development, and she confirmed to The Los Angeles Times that she and Eggers are involved in working on the project. Given this, perhaps we will be able to expect another remake of the classic horror film in the coming years. Though it won’t be here for the hundredth anniversary sadly (as nice as that would be) we still should be able to see a remake of the classic film coming within the next few years.