Nosferatu is a German silent film made in the early 1920’s. It was directed by F.W. Murnau. It was produced by Albin Grau and the screenplay by Henrik Galeen. The story behind Nosferatu was ripped off by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. This film was released in Germany on March 4th, 1922, and June 3rd 1929 in the United States.
Nosferatu is a fantasy/horror film about a vampire. A German real estate agent, Hutter, portrayed by Gustav von Wangenheim, travels to Count Orlok’s castle, portrayed by Max Schreck. His castle is located in Transylvania. Count Orlok is looking to purchase an isolated home in Wisbourg, so Hutter is sent there in order to sell it to him. On his way there, Hutter encounters many people who tell him not to go because Orlock is “creepy” and strange events happen there. Hutter makes it to the Count’s home and notices some strange things, such as Orlock only sleeping during the daytime, and he sleeps in a coffin in the crypt. During his time there he also feels a sense of uneasiness, like someone or something is always hanging over him. Based on a novel Hutter previously read, he starts to believe that Orlock is a vampire or Nosferatu. Hutter then becomes trapped in the castle and Orlock travels back to Hutter’s house in order to find his wife Ellen and kill her. In the end, Ellen’s life is spared and Orlock ends up burning and vanishing into a puff of smoke because he stepped out into the sunlight.
In Germany this film was an instant hit. During this time in Germany, the country was deeply suffering due to the fact that they had just lost World War I in 1918. Post WWI Germany was in a state of shock. There was a dark presence in Germany. There were emotions of fear and distrust, which Murnau expresses in his film. Cinema during this time was very popular, probably because this was a form of entertainment that allowed the people of Germany to escape the horrors of their daily lives and “lose themselves in the film”. Murnau was apart of the German Air Force in World War I. He also saw his lover die in the trenches during the war. He lived in the destruction following the German defeat in World War I. There is probably some cynicism depicted in his films, along with Nosferatu. For example, in the film, the wife, Ellen reacts with fear and anxiety when Hutter tells her he is leaving to go see Count Orlok. Despite this and others warning him to turn back and to not make the trip, he goes on ahead, cocky, as so many young men did in August 1914 when they left for the war. Germany was distraught and in ruins. At this time the vampire in film was born.
When Nosferatu came to the U.S., America was also experiencing their own economic turmoil. The film came to America in 1929, which is the same year that the Stock Market crashed and the Great Depression. America went from experiencing life in the “roaring 20s”, filled partying and excitement, to the Great Depression and extreme poverty. In the book Monster Theory, the author, Jeffrey Cohen discusses the depiction of monsters in films and in the media. He writes, “like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself: it’s always a displacement, always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received, to be born again” (4). Nosferatu was created during the time of upheaval in Germany, and came to America during a time of upheavel. It then became engrossed in our society and has been “born again” in so many different forms. Also in Monster Theory, Cohen talks about how this idea of the vampire relates to the dangers of monopoly capitalism. As seen in the stock market crash and the great depression, American’s were angry with heir banks for losing their money, and lost a lot of trust in capitalism. There is a parallel between the vampire and its need or “thirst for blood” and capitalism. People in the stock market are greedy, scheming, will do anything they need to do, and also have this “thirst” for wealth, success and power.
This filmed can be seen through many different lenses, however the one I chose to focus on being identity. In Nosferatu, Count Orlok is portrayed as an evil and inhumane vampire. And prior to the 1970’s in American culture, the vampire was portrayed like this as well; someone who the audience cannot relate to. His bat like ears, and his long talon like fingers help make him seem disgusting. This is exactly what makes a “monster”. Internal workings of the vampire were unknown, making them more like an “other”. Throughout American history we have seen groups who have been outcast and seen as an “other”, and how they are depicted as being different from regular people. As seen in Welch’s article Savagery on Show, the Native Americans in this case are considered the “others”. As the Americans were moving west, trying to fulfill their Manifest Destiny, they encountered these indigenous people and were frightened because they didn’t know who they were. They saw them as dangerous and different and knew nothing about their way of life because it was so contrasting compared to the “white man”. This topic is also covered by Said in the article Orientalism. In that article, however he talks about Muslims, and how they are the ones being misconstrued as “terrorists” and are the “others” in American society.
Nosferatu set the stage for vampire films in American culture. And throughout the years and as our society evolves, the portrayal of the vampire evolves with it.