“Time is an illusion”, Douglas Adams once wrote. He may well have been onto something. After all, the old adage goes that a week is a long time in politics. And the BBC will manage to rack up its centennial this October since its founding, yet it appears we tend not to think too greatly about that passage of time, especially when it comes to something which is still part of modern life.
Much like radio and television, cinema feels like a relatively recent form of entertainment, yet the actual mechanics of filmmaking go back to the Victorian era. When sitting down to watch the latest superhero blockbuster flick in the local multiplex, nobody will likely be thinking about the Lumière brothers, and the through line from their early experiments in recording moving pictures right up to today’s big budget, CGI-laden extravaganzas.
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It seems ridiculous – perhaps even absurd – that we should now find ourselves marking major anniversaries for motion pictures; however, the first James Bond movie came out six decades ago, and Star Wars turns 45 this year. Both of those movie franchises are still with us today, yet neither could be truly considered as ‘recent’. It should therefore come as no surprise that we are now reaching the point of examples of early cinema now celebrating 100 years or more since being made, yet it still feels quite a shock to the system.
One of the prime examples of this is F.W. Murnau’s seminal, groundbreaking piece of silent cinema, Nosferatu. As well as being one of the earliest examples of the horror genre, it also helped define vampires in cinema, adding such a great deal to their mythology and depiction on screens both small and big. Given that there are so many examples of lost cinema, it remains a miracle that any film of that age should happen to survive at all, and particularly so in this instance, as all copies of Nosferatu should have been long since destroyed.
The story of Nosferatu’s inception, fruition and survival is as compelling and spellbinding as its plot. The studio behind its production – Prana Film – was co-founded by an occultist with links to the infamous Aleister Crowley, and the notion was to produce films with occult and supernatural themes. It was intended to make an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula; however, Stoker’s widow Florence was not at any stage consulted by Prana Film about their aim of making a movie of her late husband’s work.
In an effort to avoid breaching copyright, it was decided to make a number of changes to the story – from its location, to character names – and press ahead regardless. Florence Stoker, however, was soon informed about the existence of Nosferatu, and launched legal action against the studio, as the film’s opening credits even freely admitted it was based on Bram Stoker’s novel, despite all the alterations that were made in an attempt to avoid any potential litigation.
Prana Film filed for bankruptcy, and despite efforts made by its receivers to appeal the ruling of copyright infringement, a ruling made by a German court afforded Florence Stoker the legal right to have all copies of the film destroyed. However, by that point in time, the film had been distributed to other territories outside Germany, meaning Florence Stoker would need to take similar legal action in each country, in an effort to try and suppress it completely, and take Nosferatu out of circulation entirely.
Florence Stoker ultimately gave permission for a legitimate film of Dracula to Universal, perhaps out of a sense of spite against the makers of Nosferatu; Universal took possession of a print of Nosferatu, ostensibly to destroy it, but their aim was to actually study it in preparation for their version. Odd copies of the movie have survived around the world, and the best parts were selected for restoration work between 2005 and 2006. This remastered edition of the movie is now being released by Eureka Entertainment to mark Nosferatu’s 100th year, seeing a number of screenings at UK cinemas.
The power of Murnau’s interpretation of the Dracula story cannot be overstated, as the look of Max Schreck’s vampire Count Orlok has endured, making its way over the decades into popular culture, being either reproduced or emulated in everything from Salem’s Lot to The League Of Gentlemen, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer; Paul Whitehouse was even made up like Count Orlok to play a member of the undead who happened to give betting tips on sporting events in The Fast Show. Nosferatu himself even had a rather unorthodox cameo in – of all things – Spongebob Squarepants.
As for Max Schreck, his name was used as a homage in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. He also featured as the central character in 2000’s Shadow Of The Vampire, a fictionalised account of the making of Nosferatu, in which Willem Dafoe played Schreck, with the conceit being that he was an actual vampire, rather than an actor. The legacy of Murnau’s work is something which needs to be celebrated, as Nosferatu truly is a legitimate landmark in the history of cinema, let alone in the realm of horror movies.
Murnau managed to build on the foundation of the German Expressionist movement, pioneered in such productions as The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and Der Golem. Here, Murnau manages to combine the Expressionist look and style with that of German Romanticism, framing some location shots to replicate the artworks of Carl Spitzweg and Casper David Friedrich. Indeed, the setting of Nosferatu in 1838 fits into the timeframe of the German Romantic period, as well as the publication of the folklore of the Brothers Grimm, with all of its dark Gothic fantasy elements.
At the time of Nosferatu’s production, the world was in the process of recovery after the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, and the fear of disease features strongly in the feature. Watching Nosferatu from a 2022 perspective, it still has something of a troubling resonance to our time, being still in the throes of a global pandemic which has killed millions. Seeing images of the townsfolk of Wisborg confined to their homes, for fear of a deadly plague, feels so chillingly relevant, and it brings real-world horror to our very doorsteps.
Even given the relatively primitive filmmaking techniques and cinematography, Nosferatu stands up remarkably well today, and some of the nightmarish imagery is still yet to be matched, even with all the technology at our disposal. Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is truly unsettling and inhuman, with both his look and performance casting a long shadow across his cinematic descendants. The restoration work is glorious to behold, and it manages to make Nosferatu feel almost as fresh and vibrant as on its day of release a century ago.
Nosferatu will be returning to cinemas in the UK and Ireland throughout 2022. Screenings will be announced via www.nosferatu100.co.uk