In 1921, director F.W. Murnau founded the company Praha-Film with a view to producing a series of occult films. Murnau was a better director than he was a businessman however, and the only film released by Praha before it went bust was Nosferatu. Originally Murnau had planned a straightforward adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but was prevented by Stoker's estate from obtaining the rights.
Unperturbed, and rather naively it must be said, he attempted to circumvent the ruling by changing the names of the principal characters and re-jigging certain plot points and settings — Dracula became Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker became Hutter and Van Helsing became Professor Bulwer; Orlok stalks the gothic streets of Bremen rather than Victorian London. Confusingly, in later prints of the film where the original titles cards have been translated, the character's names appear as their Stoker counterparts. Still, Murnau's ploy fooled no one, least of all Stoker's widow who, impoverished by her husband's death and entirely dependent on revenue from his work, sued Praha for copyright infringement.
Unluckily for her, by the time the British Society Of Authors had filed suit on her behalf, Murnau's reckless spending, much of it on publicity for Nosferatu, had sent his fledgling studio into receivership: and thus the coffers were bare. But Florence Stoker was a tenacious old bird. She pursued the case relentlessly and in July 1925 a German court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed. Thankfully, several negatives survived and despite Stoker's best efforts to impede its wider distribution (she did prevent the London premiere in 1925), her cause was finally lost when the film reached America in 1929.
Although the film met with a respectable response from both public and critics on its release, Nosferatu was not widely acclaimed until well after World War II. Even then its rediscovery came after the belated critical praise heaped on Murnau's more accessible works, particularly Sunrise (1927). By then, of course, surviving prints of the film were in a parlous state and it's now almost impossible to gauge how it would have looked to a contemporary audience. Not an unusual state of affairs by any means but, strangely, Nosferatu has suffered less from the ravages of time than most films of its age. Its opaque, ghostly appearance enhances its dream-like quality and the themes of corruption and decay are mirrored in the decomposing stock itself.
Serendipitous disintegration aside, Nosferatu remains a fascinating relic and one that can still raise a shiver even 80 years after it was made. Murnau was a disciple of flamboyant theatrical legend Max Reinhardt, and learnt much about set design and composition from the master. He was also influenced to a degree by the Expressionist movement (scriptwriter Henrik Galeen had worked on seminal Expressionist films The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Der Golem (1919), but it is a common mistake to label Nosferatu a work of pure Expressionism; Murnau's aesthetic was far more complex than that.
To begin with, he took the unprecedented step of shooting most of the film on location and, in essence, it's the juxtaposition of realism and Expressionism (most evident in the interiors of Orlok's castle) that give the film its hypnotic visual power. Murnau's experiences as a fighter pilot during World War I also had a profound effect on his technique as a film director. Throughout his career he strove to give the camera movement, allowing it to glide unhampered through scenes, like a plane travelling in three dimensions through the landscape, rather than to record the action from a fixed position. Primitive, unwieldy equipment confounded his grandest ambitions, but even so there is an implication in Nosferatu that untold horrors lurk beyond the focus of the camera.
Elsewhere, Murnau employs techniques like stop motion, fast motion, sophisticated cross-cutting and, in one truly arresting scene, Hutter's spectral carriage ride to Orlok's lair, negative imaging to orchestrate his macabre symphony. His insertion of documentary footage and written material — journals, log books, and newspaper cuttings — was revolutionary for a silent film and echoes of it can be seen in Bunuel's L'Age d'Or (1930). Although the plot is broadly based on Dracula, in one respect at least La Stoker's case seems to have been built on somewhat shaky ground. Count Orlok bears as much relation to the seductive, charismatic aristocrat of her husband's novel as the Wolf Man does to Deputy Dawg. In the title role Max Schreck, an obscure character actor whose surname means "fright" in German, cuts a genuinely repulsive figure.
With skeletal features, deathly pallor and talon-like fingernails he is the antithesis of the vampire as sensual sexual predator. He moves in staccato, jerky movements, quick and furtive like a rodent. The name Nosferatu comes from the old Slavic word for "plague bringer" and tumbling hordes of rats follow in his wake. Schreck contributes an extraordinary performance. He never fully escaped from Orlok's shadow and audiences found him so chillingly realistic, rumours circulated that he was, in fact, a real vampire. Sadly he wasn't. He was as human as Murnau who, after relocating to Hollywood, perished in a car crash at the age of 43. "Men must die. Nosferatu does not die!" proclaimed the original publicity for the film. We can only hope it's the truth.