clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Nosferatu aka Orlok hovers over his victim Image: Public Domain

Filed under:

100 years ago, Nosferatu made vampire movie history out of a global catastrophe

The horror classic chills even more when considering context

Sunlight wasn’t always fatal to vampires. That idea first entered the public consciousness in Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, or Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, the illegally made, now widely beloved 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The trope has followed the genre ever since. It isn’t part of Stoker’s novel, but to most modern viewers, a Dracula movie would feel incomplete without it.

Directed by F.W. Murnau and written by Henrik Galeen, the German Expressionist landmark turns 100 years old on March 15. Due to a legal battle with Stoker’s estate — after producers failed to purchase the rights to the novel, even though they credited it in the opening titles — Nosferatu spent its early life on the brink of erasure. But its narrative and visual language have echoed through the decades. These hallmarks grew out of a historical theme that has found renewed relevance in recent years: At its heart, Nosferatu is about fears of illness and plague. The silent-era classic opens with title cards describing a fictitious scourge, but its story was crafted in the shadow of the 1918 Spanish Flu, a pandemic that affected roughly a third of the world’s population. Like so much of modern horror, Nosferatu is a film where darkness consumes, light liberates, and color — yes, color — foreshadows both hope and doom.

It may come as a surprise to those familiar with Nosferatu by reputation alone — and even to some who may have only seen the black and white version of the film — that while it was captured in monochrome at the time, Murnau’s silent classic isn’t a black and white movie as we understand it today. In fact, color is one of its most significant narrative elements. Some surviving versions, like the one available on Tubi, continue to be presented sans color, but a tinted French film print also outlived a legal order to have all known copies destroyed, at the behest of Stoker’s widow. (This print eventually resurfaced in the 1980s.)

The restorations are striking. Daylight is awash in vibrant yellow, with a more muted yellow for candlelight, almost brown. However, the most dramatically vital tint the film establishes is that of dawn, as a distinct hue of pink. This color only appears briefly, but it returns in the final act when a rooster crows, harkening the return of the rising sun, which instantly immolates the villainous Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Since then, almost every vampire ever written has shared this weakness against sunlight. Even the 1943 Columbia film The Return of the Vampire, an official sequel to Universal’s Dracula, ended with a bloodthirsty Count played by Bela Lugosi himself being undone by the sun. Before long, Murnau and Galeen’s invention had been folded into the very lore they’d robbed.

Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in Nosferatu bathed in pink hue Image: Public Domain

Traditionally, light has been viewed as salvation in Christian belief, so like crucifixes, it’s remained among the religious symbols that kill or weaken vampires, further positioning them as deviant and unholy. But this use of sunlight in Nosferatu had a more immediate contemporary significance. The 1918 Spanish Flu saw an increase in “open-air treatments” for the afflicted, a holdover method from Germany in the late 19th century. Among the major reasons for this treatment was the perceived healing effect of sunlight on influenza (a subject of continued study). Whatever Murnau and Galeen’s original intent, this eradication of the vampire ­— now a common image in horror — is historically inseparable from the eradication of disease.

The fear of illness was an existing undercurrent in Stoker’s 1897 novel, in which characters bitten by Count Dracula succumb to malady before rising as vampires. In Nosferatu, though, this transformative element is excised. Orlok’s victims just become ill and die. Local authorities view that sickness as inexplicable and mysterious when it spreads through the town of Wisborg.

The film makes a key historical association during Orlok’s voyage from Transylvania: The crew of the vessel he’s traveling on die off one by one, each with mysterious bite marks on their neck. While the audience isn’t made privy to their suffering, the specter of death looms over them beforehand — or rather, under them, in the rat-infested hull of their ship, where Orlok has stored several coffins filled with the cursed earth he needs to survive. It’s especially notable that rodents, the animals which once spread The Black Death on trade ships, can be seen burrowing through the very dirt that gives Orlok his power. Even Orlok himself has a rat-like appearance. (Many over the years have suggested the design could be an antisemitic caricature, and perhaps an inadvertent one. Galeen himself was Jewish, but the film certainly presaged more overt propaganda comparing Jewish people to plague rats in later years.)

The Count sleeps in one of these coffins as well. We see him rising slowly out of one, as if lifted to attention by a pulley — a charming technique that, while recognizable and perhaps even amusing to modern audiences, presents us with a monster whose most enormous movements still let him feel as still as a corpse. However, Orlok also makes a much more subtle and chilling appearance to one of the sailors, as a superimposed phantom, half-seen and seated weightlessly atop a casket. His head tilts menacingly toward the onlooking seaman, but his arms are crossed casually over his knee, as if to calmly invite the viewer toward certain demise. His very presence on the ship portends the disquieting inevitability of death.

A door on a boat covered with rats in Nosferatu
Orlok looking a little stiff in Nosferatu Images: Public Domain

Orlok’s bite is heavily implied to be at the root of the plague, but Murnau doesn’t actually depict him biting anyone during most of the story. For instance, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), the film’s version of Jonathan Harker, implies he was bitten during a sudden cut from night to day, but he remains inexplicably immune to Orlok’s disease. In a letter to his wife Helen (Greta Schröder), the film’s Mina Harker, he attributes the bite marks to a mosquito, another creature widely known for carrying disease (a discovery made a mere 25 years before the film was made). The vampire’s bite — perhaps the most common thread across all of vampire media — is withheld, making it all the more horrifying when Orlok finally sinks his fangs into Helen’s neck on screen. This is accompanied, shortly thereafter, by a stunning bit of silent-era acting: a ravenous look in Max Schreck’s eyes, which turns fearful as dawn approaches.

Little is actually known about Schreck. Even his biographer, Stefan Eickhoff, admits the man was “shrouded in mystery.” So his eerie performance as Orlok became the subject of rumor and innuendo, which eventually took shape in the tongue-in-cheek 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, in which the actor’s identity is implied to be a cover, masking his actual supernatural origins. In spite of Orlok’s vacant, statuesque stares and the stiff movements of his animal-like talons, though, the parts of Schreck’s performance that most linger in the mind are brief moments when he feels human and familiar.

His subdued mania in the presence of Hutter’s bloodied finger recalls someone jolted to attention or aroused from a stupor. The way he carries one of his enormous coffins through the streets, bending his lanky torso recognizably sideways to compensate for its weight, is almost funny at first, until the sheer morbidity of the image sets in. The image lands differently in retrospect. Later in the film, we see an entire procession of coffins, a macabre parade after several townspeople have died from the unnamed plague. It’s as if Orlok lugging a symbol of death through the town was foreshadowing, or a warning, all along.

Orlok doesn’t just bring death, he brings an unnatural, unexpected number of deaths, leading to quarantine and lockdown measures in Wisborg. He is also discussed as a contagion of sorts by Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt), who compares him to “a polyp with tentacles” (or “a polyp with claws,” depending on the translation), which Murnau accompanies with microscopic images of a polyp’s tendrils devouring another cell. “Transparent, nearly weightless,” Bulwer describes the polyp, though he’s referring to Orlok as well. “No more than a phantom.”

The implication is that the nosferatu, or vampire, is an aberration of nature at its most undetectable, moving stealthily through the shadows. Bulwer may as well have been describing the influenza that killed nearly 500,000 people in Germany just a few years earlier, and spread to more than 500 million worldwide. Murnau’s microscopic imagery, used to contextualize nature’s ferocity up close, has since become a visual staple of modern thriller and horror films about disease, like Outbreak and Contagion, used to zero in on the approaching danger and its devastating effects on human cells. Even during montages in non-pandemic films like Requiem for a Dream, the sudden burst of cellular imagery is unnerving, putting the human body and its fragility into perspective.

Orlok looking like Scrooge in Nosferatu
A polyp floats around in Nosferatu Images: Public Domain

Murnau also finds a visual translation for the terrifying speed at which contagion travels. When Orlok first appears in Transylvania, he draws a horse-carriage, in an undercranked shot that makes him appear to move unnaturally fast. Time hasn’t been kind to this introduction — perhaps, in part, because of the association between fast-forwarded movement and silent slapstick comedy — but it’s a fun bit of innovation that speaks to the Count’s otherworldly powers.

It’s also backed up by plenty of other unsettling imagery, from Orlok’s stiff movements when he first turns to look at Hutter to the way the enormous keys he holds close to his chest resemble withered skeletal fingers, before we ever get a good look at his hands. Just as unsettling, in spite of the carriage’s janky, sped-up motion, is the brief color-negative shot of Orlok riding through the forest. Its tint matches the blue shade of the rest of the scene, but its other visual details have become uncanny, with light and darkness briefly switching places.

Coding a shot in blues is an instinctive way to establish nighttime scenes. Dusk tends to have a blue shade in reality, and though the day-for-night filming process has evolved, it has rarely strayed from this visual coding, as seen in modern films like Mad Max: Fury Road. However, given the film’s other associations, this filmmaking language can’t help but call to mind one of the other nicknames of the 1918 influenza pandemic: The Blue Death, owed to the effects of cyanosis, where fluid buildup in the lungs turned many infected patients blue. Whatever the impetus behind the shading, it turns most of Orlok’s scenes into subtle reminders of how the then-recent Spanish Flu had ravaged the human body.

A woman cowers as Orlok creeps over here in Nosferatu Image: Public Domain

These nods become even more overt in the film’s climactic scene, when Orlok approaches Helen and the long shadow of his slender fingers creeps over her chest, clutching her heart. The darkness washes over her, possessing her like a demonic fever from within as she writhes — a ecstatic delirium that, though it calls to mind the common association between vampires and taboo sexual impulse, is also akin to the final, frenzied symptoms before death during the second wave of the 1918 pandemic.

The daylight vanquishes Orlok moments later, illuminating the flats and miniatures of nearby homes as it makes its way to Helen’s bedroom. But Helen has already been infected by Orlok, and she only survives long enough to embrace Hutter one last time. While Harker and Mina both survive Stoker’s novel, Galeen and Murnau’s ending is a fittingly macabre deviation for a film born into a world just two years removed from a global plague which claimed millions of lives, as millions more watched helplessly.

Unlike today’s advancements in fighting disease, the 1918 Spanish Flu ravaged populations until it could go no further. And while Harker vanquished Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel, human interference has little effect on Orlok. The characters in Nosferatu are left completely powerless in his wake — like untold loved ones left to suffer at the hands of disease — until nature simply runs its course. Until “The Great Pestilence,” as Orlok is referred to in the concluding title card, is “over-come by the victorious rays of the living sun.” The horror runs deep in this timeless milestone in the vampire canon.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon