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A Look Back at ‘Nosferatu’ and Other Spooky Films of the Silent Era

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued this month’s Halloween theme with a look back at 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror as well as some other spooky films of the silent era. Here is the commentary from the show.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

The Influence of Nosferatu

Nosferatu is renowned by contemporary audiences and critics but like many horror films now considered classics it wasn’t especially well received in its day. After its German premiere in 1922 Nosferatu was well reviewed but it was not financially successful. The film had some trouble getting international release. It got mixed reviews in the United States and distributors in the United Kingdom allegedly rejected the movie.

The distribution of Nosferatu was complicated by legal matters. The film was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and Stoker’s widow Florence (he had died in 1912) was working on marketing the adaptation rights for stage and screen. The presence of an unauthorized film version would devalue Dracula as an intellectual property and the Stoker estate would not share in any of the revenues of Murnau’s film. Stoker’s estate sued the Nosferatu filmmakers for copyright infringement. The Stoker estate won the copyright case and was awarded a monetary recompence. When Nosferatu’s producers refused to pay up the Stoker estate got a court order commanding that all copies of Nosferatu be destroyed. The negative and other source material were lost. Fortunately, the film had already gone into international circulation and versions of it were preserved.

One of the consequences of Nosferatu’s copyright prosecution was a lack of control of the film. Nosferatu was recut by various producers and distributors. A German company created a 1930 version that included an entirely new subplot involving a young priest as well as footage of peasants feasting at a long table. The French cut of Nosferatu, which was the closest to Murnau’s original version, was sent to the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1947. This version was the basis for subsequent rereleases.  

1922’s Nosferatu is one of the most influential horror films and its impact can be found in familiar images and ideas seen in later movies. Among the key influences is the look of the vampire. Count Orlock’s bat-like appearances, with the bald head, winged ears, and protruding front teeth, has been a familiar look for a certain kind of vampire. We can see a resemblance in Kurt Barlow of Salem’s Lot, especially the 1979 television miniseries adaptation, as well as the vampire elder Eli Damaskinos in Blade II, and Petyr, the ancient vampire of the 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows. Nosferatu also innovated the idea that sunlight was deadly to vampires. This concept does not appear in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Allegedly, director F.W. Murnau conceived of the vampire’s aversion to sunlight as a way to conclude his movie, deviating from the original script. We can also see some influence of Nosferatu in the slasher films that were produced decades later. These masked killers, such as Michael Myers of Halloween and Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th, tended to stand still and stare and their gait was slow and deliberate much like Count Orlock in Nosferatu. We can also see reflections of Nosferatu in Freddy Krueger and 1994’s New Nightmare has some deliberate homages to the 1922 movie.

Nosferatu has also inspired musicians. There are certainly plenty of songs inspired by the movie. The Blue Oyster Cult recorded the song “Nosferatu,” the metal band Helstar released a whole album inspired by the movie, and a gothic rock band took the title of Nosferatu as its namesake. But the most prolific musical legacy of 1922’s Nosferatu has been the library of alternate scores. Musicians have taken it upon themselves to write their own musical accompaniment to Nosferatu which have been released on various formats and occasionally as an audio option on home video releases. Perhaps the most famous of these alternate scores was composed by James Bernard. He was an established composer best known for working with the Hammer Films studio which had specialized in producing horror movies in the 1950s through the 70s, most notably the Dracula films starring Christopher Lee. Bernard had a bombastic musical style which he brought to his 1997 score for Nosferatu.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Nosferatu in Venice

In addition to inspiring filmmakers in the horror genre, Nosferatu was also the basis of a remake directed by Werner Herzog and released in 1979. Herzog had great respect for F.W. Murnau’s film and the remake is a tribute to the 1922 original and an interesting work in its own right. By the time Herzog’s made his film Bram Stoker’s Dracula and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu were both in the public domain and Herzog was able to take elements from both sources. The core story remains the same but the names of the characters have been restored to those of Bram Stoker’s novel and Herzog seizes upon some of the ideas and images from Murnau’s film. He also includes references to the expanded 1930 version, which had been the cut of Nosferatu available in Germany during the postwar years.

While drawing upon these different influences, 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is very much a Werner Herzog film. Herzog’s movies ponder humanity’s place in the universe and the smallness and finiteness of our existence. The Dracula of Herzog’s Nosferatu is an immortal who is destined to dwell in the darkness and is plagued by existential emptiness. Longtime Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski is cast as the Count. His Dracula is a lonely predator who lusts after Lucy. Although Herzog’s Nosferatu isn’t really a love story it is one of the first examples in film of the vampire as a tragic and romantic figure. It’s a concept that would come to the forefront of the vampire genre in later decades.

1979’s Nosferatu was followed by a sort-of sequel with 1988’s Nosferatu in Venice (sometimes alternately titled Vampires in Venice). Werner Herzog had nothing to do with it and although it was intended as a sequel it is debatable whether this should be considered in continuity at all with the 1979 film. As the title implies, Nosferatu in Venice is set in Italy and sees the return of Klaus Kinski as the vampire. This makes no sense given the end of 1979’s Nosferatu and the vampire looks completely different. It’s unclear when the story is supposed to take place. Some sequences look like they are set in an earlier century and others are very obviously set in the late 1980s. However, Nosferatu in Venice does continue some of the themes of the 1979 film with Dracula pining for death and finding solace in a romantic relationship. It is known that the production was beset by numerous problems, among them the erratic behavior of Klaus Kinski, and filming was never really completed. The final film was cobbled together from the footage available and it’s clumsy storytelling. Nosferatu in Venice is an interesting piece of 1980s euro-horror but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  

More recently it was announced that filmmaker Robert Eggers is mounting a remake of Nosferatu with Bill Skarsgård and Lily-Rose Depp.

Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire is a speculative fiction set during the making of 1922’s Nosferatu. The movie imagines filmmaker F.W. Murnau, played by John Malkovich, directing Max Schreck, played by Willem Dafoe. Unknown to the rest of the crew, Schreck is in fact a real vampire who is preying on the cast. Shadow of the Vampire is fundamentally a horror story but one that lampoons the filmmaking industry and has fun with the history of a legendary picture. It’s rewarding viewing for those who have seen Nosferatu and are familiar with the background of its production but the movie plays well enough on its own that viewers who are new to the material will find it understandable and engaging. The film has a couple of great performances by Malkovich and Dafoe. It’s horrific but also humorous and has larger the implications creeping in around the edges that make Shadow of the Vampire very rewatchable.

If you are interested in learning more about 1922’s Nosferatu, consult the book on the film by Kevin Jackson as well as the website which has some interesting and informative articles.

Häxan (1922)

In addition to Nosferatu, the documentary Häxan is also celebrating its centennial. This Scandinavian film dramatizes the history of witchcraft and spends a lot of its running time covering the insanity of the witch trials of the Middle Ages. Häxan is impressive in its scope and intelligence as well as its craftsmanship. The film recreates images from religious art with elaborate sequences of witches cavorting with devils but the film also critiques the hysteria and political corruption that doomed so many women. The filmmakers also compare Middle Age obsessions with witchcraft to then-contemporary regard for women and the mentally ill. Häxan is a subversive film, drawing in audiences with its images of devilry but then sneaking in enlightened and progressive ideas alongside the salacious material. There are two versions of Häxan. The original 1922 version is 105 minutes. A second version was created in 1968 by Metro Pictures Corporation under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. This version is only seventy-six minutes and includes narration by William Burroughs. The Criterion Collection release of Häxan includes both versions.

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Paul Wegener co-wrote, directed, and starred in three films about folklore character the Golem. First was 1914’s The Golem in which a twentieth century antique dealer finds a clay statue of the being believed to have saved 16th century Jews from persecution. The Golem is brought to life and goes on a rampage. This was followed by 1917’s The Golem and the Dancing Girl which is believed to be a spoof in which an actor dresses up as The Golem in order to impress a woman. Both 1914’s The Golem and 1917’s The Golem and the Dancing Girl are lost films. However, 1920’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World has survived. The third film is a prequel set in medieval Prague and is a dramatization of the folklore around the Golem. Wegener’s Golem trilogy has the distinction of being one of the first horror and fantasy sequels in cinema history.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Nosferatu is probably the most famous and widely known of the silent era horror films but perhaps more influential is 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Like Nosferatu, this film was part of the German Expressionist film movement and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the best examples of it. The story unfolds from the point of view of Francis and in a frame narrative Francis recalls how the magician Caligari ordered a somnambulist to commit a series of murders. Rather than shooting on location, much of the action takes place against obviously painted backgrounds that give the film a surreal atmosphere. The subjective point of view and the plastic reality of the film creates a world that reflects the uncertainty of Weimar Republic Germany but it is also a film warry of authority figures. The influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be seen in films as diverse as Citizen Kane and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

The Man Who Laughs isn’t quite a horror film but its distressing imagery and threatening atmosphere give it a horrific tone. The title character is a stage performer whose face was surgically altered to be stuck in a permanent maniacal grin. The story is mostly a melodrama of a man reconciling with his physical condition and the way he’s treated by other people. The Man Who Laughs was originally released in 1928 as a silent film but a few years later it was reissued with a music soundtrack. This film is well regarded by critics and silent film enthusiasts but The Man Who Laughs has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years because the title character was a major influence on the creation of the Batman villain The Joker, a link made very clear in the make up for Heath Ledger’s role in The Dark Knight

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most frequently adapted works of literature. One of the earliest film versions was the 1925 picture starring Lon Chaney in the title role. Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his groundbreaking use of makeup and Chaney’s work on The Phantom of the Opera is among his most famous. The unmasking scene was considered horrific in its day and this clip frequently reappears in other media. The Phantom of the Opera has been rereleased over the years with various different versions. After the advent of sound, Universal reissued The Phantom of the Opera in 1929 with a soundtrack and some newly shot scenes. As with many silent films, the original film score has been lost and there many reissues with various musical accompaniments. The success of The Phantom of the Opera set Universal down a path that led to the creation of the studio’s monster series.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

1921’s The Phantom Carriage defies easy categorization. It isn’t really a horror film but it is a supernatural tale with elements of melodrama and a morality story. The narrative is somewhat similar to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; set on New Year’s Eve, David is a drunkard who gets into a fight and is beaten so badly that his soul leaves his body. The grim reaper takes David on a tour of his drunken life and David repents for his cruel and careless ways. Although the moralizing is laid on pretty thick, The Phantom Carriage is very effective in its emotional appeal and in its technical craft. The movie features impressive special effects with the ghostly characters drifting in and out of the corporal environments.

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

1924’s The Hands of Orlac is an early example of a common motif in the horror genre. A famous pianist loses his hands in a train accident and the hands of a recently executed murderer are grafted onto his body. When Orlac discovers the identity of his doner, he gradually starts to believe that the hands have desires of their own and are driving him toward murder. The Hands of Orlac is a work of psychological and supernatural horror but it also has a vivid sense of loss as this man realizes he may never play the piano again and may not be in control of his own body.

The Student of Prague (1913 and 1926)

The Student of Prague was produced twice during the silent era. The 1913 version was directed by Stellan Rye and was produced and starred Paul Wegener. A second version was released in 1926 and was directed by Henrik Galeen and starred Conrad Veidt. The story assembled elements from a variety of sources including the Edgar Allan Poe short story “William Wilson” and the folktale of Faust.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Also adapted from a literary source, 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatized Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella and starred John Barrymore in the title roles. The film got mixed reviews and Barrymore’s horrific Mr. Hyde makeup was considered shocking at the time but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also was enormously successful at the box office.