Nosferatu was the first film version of Dracula; more than 70 years later, it remains easily the most intelligent adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel (its nearest, not very close, rival being John Badham's 1978 version with Frank Langella).
Given the way in which Stoker's vampire aristocrat has haunted popular culture since the appearance of the novel in 1890, the figure's social/ideological significance can scarcely be exaggerated. Conceived at the height of Victorian sexual repression, the Count Dracula of the novel embodies, to varying degrees of explicitness, all the sexual dreads that our culture has still not exorcised or come to terms with: non-procreative sexuality, promiscuity, bisexuality, the socalled "perversions," incest, even (indirectly, through the preferences of the vampirized Lucy) the sexuality of children. Much of our sexual social history can be traced through the transformations the Count has undergone from Stoker's novel to Badham's movie. With his origins in sexual repression, he transplants very logically and easily into the climate and ethos of German Expressionism.
Between Stoker's novel and Murnau's film came Freud, to whose theories of repression and the unconscious the Expressionist movement, like the Surrealist movement later, was heavily indebted. The essential difference between the two movements lies in their contrasting inflections of Freudian theory: the Surrealists were committed to liberation and the overthrow of repressive bourgeois norms whatever the costs, whereas the Expressionists consistently conceived the repressed forces as evil, their release cataclysmic. The extraordinary power, and continuing fascination, of Murnau's film are rooted in this vision.
The distinction of Nosferatu can be partly suggested by examining the changes Murnau and his scriptwriter Galeen made from novel to film. What novel and film have in common (and no other film version to the same degree except the Badham) is the perception that it is the woman who is the centre of the conflict, that the work is really about her. The uses made of this insight are, however, quite different. In Stoker's novel the battle is fought for the woman; in Murnau's film she becomes the vampire's active antagonist and destroyer. In Stoker the battle is fought between van Helsing and Dracula (conceived, in the terms of Victorian sexual morality, as "good" and "evil" – in Freudian terms they represent superego and id); Murnau reduces van Helsing to an ineffectual old fuddy-duddy who lectures on Venus flytraps but contributes nothing whatever to the vampire's overthrow. In the novel, the woman (Mina) must be saved from contagion and corruption: the Victorian dread of a released female sexuality is basic to the conception; in the film, the woman (now called Nina) realizes that only she can save civilization from the vampire's contagion, by offering herself to him. Murnau's Nina is a character of quite extraordinary ambivalence: emaciated, as if drained of blood, she suggests both vampire and Christian martyr; the strange abandon with which she gives herself to Dracula (first throwing open a window, then prostrating herself on the bed) suggests the close relationship between religious ecstasy and sensual fulfilment. The ambiguity is set up much earlier in the film, in the protracted and elaborate crosscutting between Nina (ostensibly awaiting Jonathan's return) and the journeys of Jonathan and Dracula (a sequence that makes nonsense of Bazin's claim that "in neither Nosferatu nor Sunrise does editing play a decisive part"). Jonathan, who travelled by land, is returning by land; the vampire (having taken over a ship) is coming by sea. Nina sits by the shore, gazing out to sea, awaiting her "husband." Her exclamation, as she awakens from sleepwalking ("He is coming! I must go to meet him!") follows a shot, not of Jonathan, but of Dracula's ship.
Jonathan and Dracula also undergo significant alteration from their originals. Stoker's Jonathan is a conventional "noble hero" (although he doesn't actually achieve much of note). Murnau transforms him into the vampire's double, through an intricate series of "mirror" images involving arch-structures: at their first meeting, for example, Jonathan enters the castle under one arch, and this is immediately "answered" by Dracula emerging out of darkness under another. Murnau, following Freud, dramatizes the vampire quite explicitly in terms of repression: he is the repressed under-side of Jonathan, of civilization. As he falls under Dracula's influence, Jonathan is reduced to total impotence: even when he discovers the vampire asleep in his coffin, during the day, he can do nothing but cower back; when Dracula visits his bedchamber at night, to suck his blood, he can do nothing but prostrate himself. At the film's climax, when Nina reveals to him the vampire's presence at the window of the house directly opposite, across the water (another mirror-image), he once again collapses, helpless.
In the novel, Dracula himself is at first quite old, becoming progressively rejuvenated in England by fresh blood; but he is never as grotesque as Max Schreck in Murnau's version and never as romantically attractive as Frank Langella in Badham's – the two films inflect him, significantly, in precisely opposite directions. Murnau's most striking development of the original material is his elaboration of the vampire. In the novel, Dracula disappears quite early from the surface of the narrative (which is told entirely through letters, diaries, etc.) appearing only in brief glimpses; in the film he becomes the dominant figure, a redevelopment especially clear in the long central section of the voyage (for which the novel has no equivalent). Murnau greatly extends Dracula's association with animals, and with a dark, nocturnal underside of nature: he has pointed ears, is visually connected with a jackal, emerges from his castle as out of the blackness of an animal's lair. Above all, the film associates him with rats and plague: wherever he goes, rats swarm, and the precise nature of the spreading pestilence is kept carefully ambiguous.
The re-thinking of Dracula in Badham's film offers a fascinating comparison, an attempt at a "progressive" re-interpretation with a far more positive view of the repressed forces the vampire represents: the heroine becomes a "liberated" woman who freely chooses Dracula as her lover, and it is the father-figure, van Helsing, who is finally impaled on a stake. In fact, what Badham's film proves is the intractability of the material for such a purpose: Dracula becomes a kind of sexual superman, the film develops disturbing Fascist overtones, and many of the complex connotations of the vampire are eliminated. While Murnau's film – heavily determined by its Expressionist background – can depict repressed sexuality and its release only in the most negative terms, it manages to endow it with far greater force and potency, dramatizing the basic Freudian quandary – the necessity for repression, yet the appalling cost of repression – with a much more suggestive complexity.
Release Date: 1922
Starring: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, G. H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, John Gottowt, Gustav Botz, Max Nemetz, Wolfgang Heinz, Albert Venohr, Hersfeld, Hardy von François, and Heinrich Witte
Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Henrik Galeen
Source Citation: Wood, Robin. "Nosferatu." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 849-851.