Season of the Count: Nosferatu (1922)

It’s nearly Halloween, and if you thought that we here at No But Listen were going to let that slide without at least a little spooky-time goodness, then you’ve got another thing coming. After our thirty-one days of horror last year, we wanted to do something more focused, a series that allowed us to really deep-dive into a story, a genre, a character.

And that’s why we’re so excited to bring you the first of our Season of the Count series! Over the next week, both here and on The Cutprice Guignol, we’re going to be looking at adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula across a variety of mediums – movies, TV, books, and more – to try and determine just what is the ultimate adaptation of one of horror’s greatest monsters. And because I found out there was a porno version and wanted an excuse to review it as a Serious Film Critic. So there’s that. I’m not going to be spending a huge amount of time in these reviews talking about the actual plot of the original Dracula book, so if you haven’t read it, you might want to familiarize yourself with it a little before jumping in.

Obviously, there are so many adaptations of Dracula that it’s hard to know where to start, and we’ve had to spend a good amount of time culling down our list to the ones that we actually have something to say about. But when it comes to where to begin, there was only one movie that really stood out to us – and that’s the 1922 classic Nosferatu.

Now, to be quite fair, director FW Murnau and the Prana studio that distributed Nosferatu did try and put a lot of space between their creation and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a take on the book – not only does it reflect major characters and themes in the original Dracula story, save for a few changed names and locations, but the Stoker family sued Prana for copyright infringement and won, which, for the sake of this series, is more than enough for Nosferatu to earn a spot on this list.

Nosferatu is a really interesting film when taken in the context of its initial creation and release. In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, German authorities placed restrictions on the distribution of foreign films within the country, and this continued for several years; as a result of this, German-made movies had little to no competition at all during this time, and this allowed for a very specific kind of style to emerge from the hyper-focus on a single national industry and consciousness in cinema. This style would come to be known as German Expressionism, and arguably landed a name for itself amongst the most influential styles to emerge from the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, if not the world.

And Nosferatu is perhaps the most recognizable example of that today. Those sharp, contrasting colours, the unsettling and surrealist tone, the distinct off-ness of the whole endeavour. But alongside that, there’s also this Romantic approach that works in stark contrast to that; the sweeping sunsets of Transylvania, verdant valleys, towering mountains, the ending of the Mina stand-in sacrificing herself to defeat Count not Dracula no not him the other one Orlok and save the town he’s terrorizing. It’s a mixture of that very contemporary expressionism and a classic sense of Romantic styling, of lush life and shadowy death, that makes it such an enduring and intriguing movie. It seems to straddle both the burgeoning expressionist movement, and the more traditional Romantic style of filmmaking, all while trying to tell this unsettling story of a blood-sucking aristocrat obsessed with the wife of his estate agent. Maybe it’s too obvious to point out the reflection of German society at the time – the austerity post-war, the oncoming artistic heyday of the Weimar republic, followed by the rise of the Nazi party – but the history student in me can’t not mention it, you know?

But who – and what – exactly is Orlok/Dracula in this film? Vampires, across almost all mediums, represent a variety of notions: death, compulsion, addiction, obsession – and Dracula especially can be bent to almost any will to fit any theme you can think of. I’ve read a lot of really interesting interpretations of this version of Dracula, and I think that the time and place that this movie came into being makes it difficult to extricate Orlok from both the First World War and the recent 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that had decimated populations across the world. In terms of plague, Orlok quite literally brings sickness with him everywhere he goes, regularly announced by the arrival of rats (still viewed as plague-bearers at the time), but I really find the idea of him as a representation of the slaughter of the First World War a very compelling reading. Albin Grau, who produced the film, attributed the idea for the story coming from an encounter in Serbia during WWI with local villagers who described a similar legend to him, and he later claimed that Orlok’s murders were, in part, at least, drawn from the enormous number of casualties during that conflict. Whichever way you choose to interpret the movie, there’s no doubt that Orlok represents one thing in this film: unnatural and untimely death, inverted by his very own unnatural and untimely life.

But to contextualize it with recent history is only fair when we contextualize it with what was to come in Germany, too. For a lot of scholars and critics, Orlok is a representation of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-semitic attitude that had been ever-present in Europe through the preceding centuries; Amanda Hobson described Nosferatu as a part of forming the tropes that would provide “a bridge between nineteenth-century anti‐ semitism in European contexts and antisemitic images of Nazi Germany“. Orlok’s role as an immigrant bringing with him death, destruction, and a hunger for “native” women, not to mention his physical appearance, fit with depictions of immigrants and Jewish people in the soon-to-be pervasive Nazi propaganda. I’m not trying to accuse everyone involved in this movie of anything nefarious, but it’s worth noting the way this movie fits in as part of German’s twentieth-century history.

If you haven’t seen Nosferatu already, it’s a film that still stands up surprisingly well – it looks gorgeous, and if you’re into that Metropolis, Cabinet of Doctor Caligari strangeness and somehow have missed this one, you have to give it a try. As a start to our Season of the Count, it’s a fascinating place to begin, and I think it sets the stage really nicely for the disparate versions and interpretations we’re going to be getting of Bram Stoker’s novel and the classic characters therein. What’s your favourite Dracula adaptation? Does Nosferatu rank highly in your list? Let me know in the comments below!

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via MUBI)

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