NEW YORK, NY.-
His silhouette precedes him: spindly limbs and a long black coat, fingernails like claws an otherworldly shadow that has loomed over cinema for 100 years.
F.W. Murnaus silent film Nosferatu and its villain, Count Orlok, celebrate their centennial this year. The movie will return to theaters across Europe, and, around the world, festivals, conferences, art exhibitions and screenings accompanied by live music are scheduled to pay tribute to the undying influence of Nosferatu, which lives on as a fairy tale, a meme and a cinematic revenant.
Across the decades, Nosferatu has inspired filmmakers, artists, musicians and designers, with Orloks figure surfacing in places as varied as the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 and as a visual gag in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. Werner Herzog released his eerie, romantic remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, in 1979, while E. Elias Merhiges Shadow of the Vampire, released in 2000, re-imagines the production of the film if its leading actor, Max Schreck, were actually a vampire. Orlok even served as an unlikely muse for Dutch fashion designers Viktor and Rolf, who sent a Nosferatu chic collection down the catwalk in Paris this year.
Yet while today it is celebrated for its ingenuity, filmgoers were almost denied the chance to watch Nosferatu at all because of a dispute about how new its ideas really were.
Nosferatu begins with an unsuspecting young couple. Thomas Hutter leaves his wife, Helen, and his home in Wisburg, Germany, to sign a property deal with Orlok, a mysterious count living in a castle in the mountains of Transylvania. Orlok is eccentric, then sinister. He refuses food. He sleeps by day, in a coffin, atop a pile of other coffins. When Hutter accidentally cuts his finger, Orlok tries to suck blood from his hand. The last straw is when Orlok catches sight of a picture of Hutters wife; praising Helens lovely throat, he sets off by boat for Wisburg to stalk her and feast on the blood of the townspeople.
If this plot sounds familiar, thats because it is almost identical to that of Bram Stokers novel Dracula, with some minor changes. When Stokers widow, Florence, heard about the movie, she tried to sue, only to find out that the production company for Nosferatu, Prana-Film, had no money left. (Prana-Film spent enormously on promoting the movie more than on the shoot itself.) After three years in court, a Berlin judge ruled that every copy of the film should be destroyed.
The order was followed in Germany, but prints of Nosferatu had already made it to the United States, where Dracula was in the public domain. Murnau died in a car accident in 1931, age 42, and did not live to see his film become a cult classic, with the movies reputation accelerating in the 1960s, when the copyright on Dracula expired worldwide and Nosferatu could be screened everywhere.
With films from the silent era, its often tough to find even a few shots or newspaper clippings, said Jon Robertson, a producer at Eureka Entertainment, the distributor bringing Nosferatu to movie theaters in Britain and Ireland this year. At the time, people saw films as expendable. It was like how broadcast TV is now; theyd just make the films, and if no one wanted to watch them after a few months, then theyd throw them away.
The version of the film being screened this year was restored by Luciano Berriatúa, a movie director and historian who pieced it together from surviving copies and repaired the print frame by frame, using photo cleanup tools and automation to remove shaking and scratches.
Old film was printed on nitrate, Robertson said. It has a strange, shimmering glow that cant be replicated, thanks to how chemicals react when light hits it. This adds to how beautiful Nosferatu is.
While the film set Murnau on the path to a career as a Hollywood auteur, his producer, Albin Grau, also played an essential role in creating the strong visual identity of Nosferatu. A trained architect and practicing occultist, Grau was responsible for the storyboard sketches and for Orloks costume design, including false teeth, ears and signature talons, along with the distinctive black overcoat. Departing from portrayals of Dracula as an urbane sophisticate, Schreck, the actor, brought to life a new archetype: the vampire as outsider, embodying fears of contagion and death.
While other German expressionist films of the era, like Robert Wienes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, made use of highly stylized indoor sets, much of Nosferatu was filmed outdoors, with shots inspired by Caspar David Friedrichs coastal paintings. The movie drew inspiration from a number of artists; handwritten notes in the script refer to works of German Romanticism, while Graus set designs echo art by Francisco de Goya, Alfred Kubin and Franz Sedlacek, and Hugo Steiner-Progs illustrations for the silent film Der Golem.
An exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Phantoms of the Night: 100 Years of Nosferatu, planned for December, will bring together works that inspired the movie and that the movie inspired in turn, including posters designed by Grau.
Frank Schmidt, one of the exhibitions curators, said that, soon after its release, Nosferatu began to inspire artists in France, in particular. The surrealists discovered the film for themselves, Schmidt said. André Breton named as a key scene the intertitle that comments on Hutters passage into the realm of the spirits. Referenced in Bretons 1928 book Surrealism and Painting and in Communicating Vessels, from 1932, the line in question And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him appears during the final part of Hutters journey to Orloks castle. It is a threshold crossing made by a human rather than a vampire, signaling a narrative shift from reality into a world of nightmares.
Music is another part of the afterlife of Nosferatu. It has long been screened at concert venues and nightclubs, as well as in movie theaters, with the original score by German composer Hans Erdmann remixed, reinterpreted or replaced. Film composer James Barnard created a new orchestral score in 1995, and Berlin-based DJ Shed debuted a techno Nosferatu soundtrack at the nightclub Berghain in 2013.
In May, Jozef van Wissem, a Dutch composer and avant-garde lute player known for his collaborations with film director Jim Jarmusch, will perform a live score at a Nosferatu screening at a large church in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Beginning with a solo played on the lute, his performance will incorporate electric guitar and distorted recordings of extinct birds, graduating from subtlety to gothic horror. My soundtrack goes from silence to noise over the course of 90 minutes, he said, culminating in dense, slow death metal.
Orlok himself has also been remixed and reinterpreted, with an army of similarly pale, hairless, bloodsucking villains appearing in TV series and movies. Simon Bacon, a scholar based in Poznan, Poland, is the editor of a new book, Nosferatu in the 21st Century. Published in August, it will trace the evolving legacy of Nosferatu since the year 2000.
It begins by looking at film adaptations, with examples from the artistic, to sci-fi, to comedy, Bacon said, listing the Master in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Angel in Netflixs Midnight Mass and Petyr, the elder vampire in the comedy series What We Do In the Shadows, among Orloks descendants.
Bacon said that his book goes on to discuss the ways that the film can be read in terms of anxieties around contagion and mental illness and finishes by looking at how different mediums have evolved the story music, gaming, filming techniques and even performance."
One evolution of Nosferatu has long been rumored but has yet to take place: Robert Eggers, director of the movies The Witch, The Lighthouse and The Northman, has been linked to a remake. His plans were first announced in 2015, but they have fallen through and been reannounced several times.
In an interview, Eggers said that he still wanted to remake the film but could not say when it would go into production. It would be a shame if it never happened, because Ive put so much time into it, he said, and Ive come close more than once.
Eggers first discovered Nosferatu while in elementary school in rural New Hampshire, he said. He remembered asking his parents to drive him to a mall to order the movie on VHS, then waiting for a month for the arrival of a grainy video. While it lacked the clarity of a remastered edition, the poor-quality recording made Schrecks performance as Orlok all the more sinister, Eggers said.
The video versions gave rise to this idea that Max Schreck was actually a vampire, he said, but in the restored versions, you can see the bald cap and grease paint.
If his Nosferatu is eventually made, Eggers said that he would like to explore the defining elements of its story. There are certain things that differentiate it from Dracula, that you can identify as Nosferatu and not just The Vampire by Robert Eggers, he said.
A retelling, then, that builds on a century of folklore and film history. My approach is always to understand the period that the film and the story takes place in and to do that with as much verisimilitude as I can, Eggers said.
So then, what does it mean to be an undead count, living in the Carpathian Mountains? Thats my way in.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times