100 years of 'Nosferatu,' the vampire movie that won't die

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100 years of 'Nosferatu,' the vampire movie that won't die
In this photo from Eureka Entertainment, Greta Schröder as Ellen in a scene from “Nosferatu.” F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film continues to live on in the popular imagination, as a fairy tale, a meme and a cinematic revenant. Eureka Entertainment via The New York Times.

by Roisin Kiberd

NEW YORK, NY.- His silhouette precedes him: spindly limbs and a long black coat, fingernails like claws — an otherworldly shadow that has loomed over cinema for 100 years.

F.W. Murnau’s silent film “Nosferatu” and its villain, Count Orlok, celebrate their centennial this year. The movie will return to theaters across Europe, and, around the world, festivals, conferences, art exhibitions and screenings accompanied by live music are scheduled to pay tribute to the undying influence of “Nosferatu,” which lives on as a fairy tale, a meme and a cinematic revenant.

Across the decades, “Nosferatu” has inspired filmmakers, artists, musicians and designers, with Orlok’s figure surfacing in places as varied as the video game “Red Dead Redemption 2” and as a visual gag in an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Werner Herzog released his eerie, romantic remake, “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” in 1979, while E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire,” released in 2000, re-imagines the production of the film if its leading actor, Max Schreck, were actually a vampire. Orlok even served as an unlikely muse for Dutch fashion designers Viktor and Rolf, who sent a “Nosferatu chic” collection down the catwalk in Paris this year.

Yet while today it is celebrated for its ingenuity, filmgoers were almost denied the chance to watch “Nosferatu” at all — because of a dispute about how new its ideas really were.

“Nosferatu” begins with an unsuspecting young couple. Thomas Hutter leaves his wife, Helen, and his home in Wisburg, Germany, to sign a property deal with Orlok, a mysterious count living in a castle in the mountains of Transylvania. Orlok is eccentric, then sinister. He refuses food. He sleeps by day, in a coffin, atop a pile of other coffins. When Hutter accidentally cuts his finger, Orlok tries to suck blood from his hand. The last straw is when Orlok catches sight of a picture of Hutter’s wife; praising Helen’s “lovely throat,” he sets off by boat for Wisburg to stalk her and feast on the blood of the townspeople.

If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost identical to that of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” with some minor changes. When Stoker’s widow, Florence, heard about the movie, she tried to sue, only to find out that the production company for “Nosferatu,” Prana-Film, had no money left. (Prana-Film spent enormously on promoting the movie — more than on the shoot itself.) After three years in court, a Berlin judge ruled that every copy of the film should be destroyed.

The order was followed in Germany, but prints of “Nosferatu” had already made it to the United States, where “Dracula” was in the public domain. Murnau died in a car accident in 1931, age 42, and did not live to see his film become a cult classic, with the movie’s reputation accelerating in the 1960s, when the copyright on “Dracula” expired worldwide and “Nosferatu” could be screened everywhere.

“With films from the silent era, it’s often tough to find even a few shots or newspaper clippings,” said Jon Robertson, a producer at Eureka Entertainment, the distributor bringing “Nosferatu” to movie theaters in Britain and Ireland this year. “At the time, people saw films as expendable. It was like how broadcast TV is now; they’d just make the films, and if no one wanted to watch them after a few months, then they’d throw them away.”

The version of the film being screened this year was restored by Luciano Berriatúa, a movie director and historian who pieced it together from surviving copies and repaired the print frame by frame, using photo cleanup tools and automation to remove shaking and scratches.

“Old film was printed on nitrate,” Robertson said. “It has a strange, shimmering glow that can’t be replicated, thanks to how chemicals react when light hits it. This adds to how beautiful ‘Nosferatu’ is.”

While the film set Murnau on the path to a career as a Hollywood auteur, his producer, Albin Grau, also played an essential role in creating the strong visual identity of “Nosferatu.” A trained architect and practicing occultist, Grau was responsible for the storyboard sketches and for Orlok’s costume design, including false teeth, ears and signature talons, along with the distinctive black overcoat. Departing from portrayals of Dracula as an urbane sophisticate, Schreck, the actor, brought to life a new archetype: the vampire as outsider, embodying fears of contagion and death.

While other German expressionist films of the era, like Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” made use of highly stylized indoor sets, much of “Nosferatu” was filmed outdoors, with shots inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s coastal paintings. The movie drew inspiration from a number of artists; handwritten notes in the script refer to works of German Romanticism, while Grau’s set designs echo art by Francisco de Goya, Alfred Kubin and Franz Sedlacek, and Hugo Steiner-Prog’s illustrations for the silent film “Der Golem.”

An exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, “Phantoms of the Night: 100 Years of Nosferatu,” planned for December, will bring together works that inspired the movie and that the movie inspired in turn, including posters designed by Grau.

Frank Schmidt, one of the exhibition’s curators, said that, soon after its release, “Nosferatu” began to inspire artists — in France, in particular. “The surrealists discovered the film for themselves,” Schmidt said. “André Breton named as a key scene the intertitle that comments on Hutter’s passage into the realm of the spirits.” Referenced in Breton’s 1928 book “Surrealism and Painting” and in “Communicating Vessels,” from 1932, the line in question — “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him” — appears during the final part of Hutter’s journey to Orlok’s castle. It is a threshold crossing made by a human rather than a vampire, signaling a narrative shift from reality into a world of nightmares.

Music is another part of the afterlife of “Nosferatu.” It has long been screened at concert venues and nightclubs, as well as in movie theaters, with the original score by German composer Hans Erdmann remixed, reinterpreted or replaced. Film composer James Barnard created a new orchestral score in 1995, and Berlin-based DJ Shed debuted a techno “Nosferatu” soundtrack at the nightclub Berghain in 2013.

In May, Jozef van Wissem, a Dutch composer and avant-garde lute player known for his collaborations with film director Jim Jarmusch, will perform a live score at a “Nosferatu” screening at a large church in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Beginning with a solo played on the lute, his performance will incorporate electric guitar and distorted recordings of extinct birds, graduating from subtlety to gothic horror. “My soundtrack goes from silence to noise over the course of 90 minutes,” he said, culminating in “dense, slow death metal.”

Orlok himself has also been remixed and reinterpreted, with an army of similarly pale, hairless, bloodsucking villains appearing in TV series and movies. Simon Bacon, a scholar based in Poznan, Poland, is the editor of a new book, “Nosferatu in the 21st Century.” Published in August, it will trace the evolving legacy of “Nosferatu” since the year 2000.

“It begins by looking at film adaptations, with examples from the artistic, to sci-fi, to comedy,” Bacon said, listing the Master in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the Angel in Netflix’s “Midnight Mass” and Petyr, the elder vampire in the comedy series “What We Do In the Shadows,” among Orlok’s descendants.

Bacon said that his book goes on to discuss “the ways that the film can be read in terms of anxieties around contagion and mental illness and finishes by looking at how different mediums have evolved the story — music, gaming, filming techniques and even performance."

One evolution of “Nosferatu” has long been rumored but has yet to take place: Robert Eggers, director of the movies “The Witch,” “The Lighthouse” and “The Northman,” has been linked to a remake. His plans were first announced in 2015, but they have fallen through and been reannounced several times.

In an interview, Eggers said that he still wanted to remake the film but could not say when it would go into production. “It would be a shame if it never happened, because I’ve put so much time into it,” he said, “and I’ve come close more than once.”

Eggers first discovered “Nosferatu” while in elementary school in rural New Hampshire, he said. He remembered asking his parents to drive him to a mall to order the movie on VHS, then waiting for a month for the arrival of a grainy video. While it lacked the clarity of a remastered edition, the poor-quality recording made Schreck’s performance as Orlok all the more sinister, Eggers said.

“The video versions gave rise to this idea that Max Schreck was actually a vampire,” he said, “but in the restored versions, you can see the bald cap and grease paint.”

If his “Nosferatu” is eventually made, Eggers said that he would like to explore the defining elements of its story. “There are certain things that differentiate it from ‘Dracula,’ that you can identify as ‘Nosferatu’ and not just ‘The Vampire’ by Robert Eggers,” he said.

A retelling, then, that builds on a century of folklore and film history. “My approach is always to understand the period that the film and the story takes place in and to do that with as much verisimilitude as I can,” Eggers said.

“So then, what does it mean to be an undead count, living in the Carpathian Mountains? That’s my way in.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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