The only way to destroy him is for a good woman to surrender to him so he forgets the cock’s first crow. He brings with him pestilence and death. This revenant isn’t Bram Stoker’s seductive Dracula but it is the unauthorized adaptation of his novel. Director F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror also know in Germany as Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens is an icon of the horror genre. The film’s stylized look was heavily influenced by the German Expressionism movement and the imagery was very much inspired by films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. More importantly, this film established the cliches of the modern horror genre and would go on to inspire the style emulated in gothic horror films that came to follow.
Our story begins in Germany with the real estate agent Thomas Hutter played by Gustav von Wangenheim. Hutter is sent by his employer, Knock (Alexander Granach) to visit Count Orlok (Max Schreck) at his Transylvania home and sell him the abandoned property across from his own estate. Hutter leaves his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) in the company of good friends and heads off for the land of thieves and ghosts. During his journey, he makes a stop at an inn and when he mentions his client the locals seem terrified by the mere mention of his name. Hutter initially mocks the superstitions of the locals but once in Count Orlok’s castle Hutter quickly comes to realize the gravity of the situation. Interestingly the Count seems to have a dark psychic connection to Hutter’s wife Ellen. Once Hutter realizes what Count Orlok is and the danger that he has put his town in he races home. Unfortunately for Hutter Count Orlok’s death by sunlight does not come without a price.
While the film may have been the unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s work it was this film that began the cliche of sunlight destroying vampires. The creator made minor changes to the Victorian novel by changing the setting and making changing the characters names to more Germanic ones in an attempt to get around copyright laws. The obvious examples being the change from Count Dracula to Count Orlok and the creature being called the Nosferatu a.k.a a German Vampire. However, these nuance differences didn’t prevent Stoker’s heirs from suing the studio and the subsequent bankruptcy that resulted from legal fees. Every copy was meant to be destroyed but a number of prints still managed to survive and this film forever ingrained itself in horror cinema history. The film’s look would go one to lay the groundwork for gothic horror films over the next several decades.
The film is well known for its iconography. Count Orlok’s rat-like teeth, sunken in facial features, and long slender skeleton of a body is truly a haunting sight even by today’s standard. While Count Orlok will always be a frightening figure the film itself certainly does not hold that same honor, however, this film is one of many that began the trend of attempting to truly frighten their audiences. Orlok bares a striking contrast to the Dracula archetype. While Dracula is handsome and sometimes even seductive Orlok is grotesque and often more animal than he is human. Orlok’s movements are rigid and unnatural and he is inherently awkward and creepy. While Orlok may be a savage that doesn’t mean that he is without charm. Keep in mind that Dracula was a Victorian novel. Victorian society was highly concerned with the activities of people’s daily lives and strict social controls were exercised. Literature from this era is void of any overt sexually explicit content. Sexuality is thought to be expressed in Victorian literature through the inherent sensuality associated with food, with the sucking of fingers, the slurping of sauces, the sense of satisfaction after a good meal. Hunger is desire. Ask yourself “what is more savagely hungry than an animal?”
Orlok stalks his prey and lingers over his victims. His male gaze presents Ellen as an object of desire. He creeps into her bed and his piercing teeth penetrates the tender, delicate, supple skin of her neck. The two exchange fluids in the form of slurping thick, warm blood. The very act of Ellen surrendering to him and submitting to his will. The satisfaction of the feed causes such ecstatic pleasure for Count Orlok that he shows little concern for the rising sun and his ultimate destruction. The vampire’s feed is sex and this is made very clear in the 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre where Dracula (not Count Orlok) rides his hand up Lucy’s (not Ellen’s) nightgown during his feed. It is within the sexual undertones that one can identify the film’s hidden statement.
Discussions on the prevalence of syphilis had been raging on since the 1890’s and would continue for the following 3 decades. For a while STDs were seen as a byproduct of social depravity. During the 1920’s Germany’s legislatures battled to pass laws requiring compulsory notification of cases, and prosecution against those spreading STDs and the debate must have captured the imagination of the creators of the 1922 Nosferatu. For example, when Count Orlok arrives in the German town via ship he leaves the bodies of his victims on the vessel. Once the abandoned ship is investigated it is determined to be a plague threat. The town quickly goes into a hysteric panic and quarantines itself. This link between disease and the inherently sexual nature of Orlok’s feeding clearly parallels the debates on syphilis.
In the end, F.W. Murnau’s film offers an ultra-conservative view of the solution. Orlok’s feed on the unwitting Thomas Hutter was the equivalent of sexual assault, however, him feeding on Ellen Hutter is synonymous with intercourse. Ellen willingly surrenders her purity and while many see it as a noble sacrifice it is actually an act of infidelity. Orlok’s and Ellen’s death was the direct result of the feed which highlights the dangers of sex. What’s more is that the townsfolk are ignorant of the true cause of the mysterious plague. It seems as though Murnau favors sexual abstinence over sex education. Less than 100 years later with only 20 states in the U.S. requiring info on contraception and condoms in sex education and only little more than half of the U.S. requiring sex education of any kind, we can see that clearly the same debate rages on.