The dreadful concept of the vampire is common to many cultures, but the version that is most familiar is Dracula – the Anglo-Irish authorBram Stoker’s groundbreaking conflation of central European folk beliefs, exaggerated stories about the mediaeval Wallachian princeling Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, and 19th century obsessions with sex, syphilis, Gothicism and occultism. The idea of a nocturnal, blood-drinking creature that is neither alive nor dead still crawls in the shadows of Europe’s imagination.
Yet vampire-themed films tend to be underwhelming. It may be because we are so saturated with the concept that we cannot usually take it seriously. Bela Lugosi was risible as the Count – although he was at least more innocently employed in Hollywood than he had been in his former incarnation as minister of culture in Hungary’s bloodthirsty Bela Kun regime). Hammer was just hammy, and even Francis Ford Coppola could not make us afraid of Gary Oldman’s Count. Some vampiric variations on the theme were more successful (like Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr) but most film fans would probably agree that the genre leader in this admittedly small field is Prana Films’ 1922 Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”).
Nosferatu is preeminent not just because it has the spontaneity of having been the first vampire film, but because of the carefully-constructed cinematography and the lyrical script, which we relish all the more because we are not distracted by approximations of Romanian accents. Darkly Expressionist direction by F. W. Murnau ensures that every frame pulsates with feeling, like the human prey whose life-force Max Schreck’s cadaverous “Count Orlok” seeks so urgently. The distinct eccentricity of the film's chief progenitors must also have contributed subtly to the film’s outré quality. Murnau was an occultist, a fanatic and an overt homosexual. Schreck was so reclusive that many thought he was not a real person; one of the few who knew him reported that he was always in “a remote and strange world” and enjoyed long, solitary walks in forests – a suitably Mitteleuropaisch fixation. (Coincidentally, the German verb schreck means to frighten.) In Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a film about the making of Nosferatu, John Malkovich camps it up creditably as the unbalanced Murnau, so desperate to ensure authenticity that he employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to take Shreck’s role.
Schreck’s character was dubbed “Count Orlok” because the film rights to Dracula could not be secured and so the names and many of the plot details had to be altered (eg, Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter). But the debt is clear – so much so that Stoker’s widow sued Prana and won, ensuring that the company filed for bankruptcy and never made another film. The court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed, but luckily copies had already been distributed widely (the most recent edition is the 2007 Kino International version).
Nevertheless, those seeing Nosferatu for the first time will find the vampire very different from, and probably much more frightening than, the over-familiar Lugosi/Lee/Oldman avatar (spoofed neatly by Leslie Nielsen in the 1995 Dead and Loving It!). The film is set in a different period (the 1830s rather than the 1890s) and the latter segments in Germany rather than England (although both agree on the vampire’s Carpathian homeland). The Germanic setting makes it look all the much more otherworldly to British viewers – especially when we consider that many of the beautiful streets that were used as film sets, with their leaning, half-timbered mediaeval houses, nail-studded doors and small-paned windows, are now themselves phantoms, obliterated by Allied bombing.
But it is Orlok who commands all eyes. Far from being the suave, handsome, aristocratic, lupine figure bequeathed to the popular imagination by Christopher Lee, Orlok is every incubus inch an emissary of evil – bald, blank-staring-eyed, with teeth that are too big for his mouth and clutching nails that curve around like scimitars. He is a rat-faced carrier of fear and infection, a creeping germ that lives only to gorge, a tick tortured by bloodlust, a thing of darkness, despair, dirt, disease and death. Unlike Dracula, he does not turn his victims into fellow bloodsuckers as if desirous of companionship, but just kills them, as efficiently as an insect. When the crew of the ship unknowingly transporting him to Germany open the crates, they are boiling over with vermin, and when the ship finally crashes unmanned in the quay wall at Bremen (its crew all vanished or murdered at their posts) Orlok glides ashore, a shadow in the shadows as unobtrusive as the bubonic plague, while thousands of frantic rats rush through the chocolate-box streets. His horrid presence permeates the city, towering up at the end of dismal alleyways, slinking around the edges of stricken squares, staring greedily in through windows, a hunched silhouette heart-stoppingly coming up the stairs.
Bremen’s saviour is Thomas Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schrader) who discovers that only a woman “pure in heart” can distract the creature long enough to make him neglect the onset of sunrise – and so she offers up her soft sacrificial throat to his gnawing until a rooster crows outside like all the dawns that have ever lifted men out of feverish dreams. Orlok contorts and dissipates in smoke, and the camera goes back for one last smouldering shot of his castle, the monster’s home and headstone.
Many of the other German masterpieces of the Weimar period – such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis, M and Der Golem – still resonate with modern audiences, but Nosferatu retains a unique creepiness – partly because some of its imagery was hijacked to make the infamous Der Ewige Jude (“The Eternal Jew”) of 1940, a film which notoriously also contains scenes of scurrying rats, likening them to Jews. Such a borrowing would certainly not have been welcomed by the visionary makers of Nosferatu, but by then Murnau and Schreck were both dead – Murnau in a car crash in 1931, which persistent rumour has it was caused by his performing fellatio on his Filipino chauffeur, and Schreck in 1936 from a heart attack just after coming off stage.
The imagery and even the nomenclature have recurred often, sometimes in unusual forms – Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake starring Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu the Vampire), “Kurt Barlow” in the same year’s Salem's Lot was based on Orlok, Max Schreck was the name of a Bond villain, and the title of the hugely successful Shrek cartoons is derived from the same German source word. The literally awful motif of the infectious, ichor-imbibing, shape-shifting beast from the lowest circles of the European consciousness still has a flickering life-force of its own.