One of director F.W. Murnau’s most famous films, and one of the few silents most people outside the fan community know exists, almost became yet another lost film. Bram Stoker’s heirs sued over this unauthorized Dracula adaptation, and a court ruled all prints be destroyed.
Murnau changed all the characters’ names, moved the setting from 1890s England to 1838 Germany, axed many secondary characters, and significantly changed the ending. Nosferatu also kills his victims instead of creating new Vampyres.
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors) released 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). This was part of Das Fest des Nosferatu, a party where guests were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.
It was extensively advertised in Bühne und Film magazine, with stills, essays, production reports, a summary, and a piece on Vampyres by Albin Grau. Hr. Grau was an occultist, artist, and architect who served as production designer and producer.
Grau was responsible for the mystical and occult overtones, and Orlok’s creepy appearance. He got the idea for a Vampyre film during WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him his father was a Vampyre and one of the undead.
The general première was 15 March, by Berlin’s Primus–Palast. The U.S. première was 3 June 1929.
In 1838 Wisborg (a fictional city), Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, real estate agent Knock, to visit Count Orlok. Rumours about Knock circulate, but one thing known for sure is that he pays his employees well.
Orlok wants to buy a house in Wisborg, and Knock tempts Hutter with extra money. He says Hutter may have to go to a bit of trouble, with some sweat and blood.
Knock suggests Hutter offer Orlok the empty house across from his, and bids him a good trip to the land of the phantoms.
Hutter’s wife Ellen (whose opening scenes call to mind a D.W. Griffith ingénue) is very worried about him, but he assures her he’ll be fine.
Hutter stops by an inn in the Carpathians, and everyone responds with horror when he announces he’s on his way to Count Orlok. The owner warns him not to go any further tonight, saying the werewolf is roaming the forests.
That night, Hutter begins reading a book about Vampyres.
Hutter sets out on his last leg in the morning, and urges his riders to hurry so they get there before dark. They stop before the destination, claiming a bad feeling.
As soon as Hutter crosses the bridge, he’s seized by eerie visions. The creepiness increases when an eerie-looking coachman gives him a lightning-speed ride the rest of the way.
Orlok (Max Schreck, whose surname means “terror”) is displeased to have been kept waiting so long, till nearly midnight, when the servants are asleep.
Orlok’s house gives Hutter the creeps, and he’s further creeped out by Orlok’s weird reaction to his bloody finger. Hutter tries to leave, but Orlok begs him to stay until day, when he sleeps, completely dead to the world.
In the morning, Hutter writes a letter to Ellen to reassure her he’s alright. By evening, Hutter shows Orlok Ellen’s picture, and Orlok remarks on her lovely neck. Orlok also says he’s buying the deserted house across from Hutter’s.
Hutter reads more of his Vampyre book, which makes him even more eager to get out of there. His terror goes through the roof when Orlok stalks towards him.
Meanwhile, Ellen is sleepwalking on the balcony. Her friend Harding catches her before she can fall off, and calls for a doctor. Ellen has a terrifying vision of her husband in danger.
The doctor says it’s just a case of mild blood congestion.
At dawn, Hutter finds Orlok asleep in a coffin. Shortly afterwards, he sees Orlok moving coffins into the courtyard, piling them on a carriage, getting into the one on top, and driving away.
Hutter collapses and is brought to hospital.
Orlok boards the schooner Empusa with coffins full of dirt. Meanwhile, Knock goes crazy under his spell.
While Hutter hurries home, Empusa also draws ever closer to Wisborg, bringing with it the Plague.