More than 80 years after its completion, FW Murnau's Nosferatu remains among the most potent and unsettling horror films ever made. Now released again in a fully restored version, with its original score available for the first time since 1922, it has lost none of its impact, unlike many of its imitators. That famous image of Max Schreck's hollow-cheeked, bald vampire rising slowly and awkwardly from his coffin still has the ability to send shivers through the most hardened and cynical viewers.
It's also an antidote to the cosy anthropomorphism of Pixar's paean to rats, Ratatouille. There are plenty of rats in Nosferatu too, but they don't cook in Parisian kitchens. They are vermin: bearers of the plague. When the film was released, disease was in everybody's minds. Memories were still horribly fresh of the outbreak of Spanish flu at the end of the First World War.
"The flu epidemic killed more people throughout the world in the latter months of 1918 than had died in all the years of the war," says the historian and Murnau expert R Dixon Smith.
Cinemagoers watching Nosferatu in 1922 would have been only too aware of the virus that had killed so many millions. They would also have known that the Black Plague of the 15th century was spread by rats. To them, Nosferatu must have seemed a film about pestilence as much as a horror story.
As played by Schreck, the vampire Count Orlok isn't a sleek, caped, matinee idol-like seducer in the vein of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee but a verminous and utterly malevolent figure. Bat-eared, with his enormous hands hanging like talons from his side, he is the kind of figure that inhabits a child's nightmare. "It was as if a chilly draught from doomsday had passed through Nosferatu," wrote the Hungarian critic Bela Balazs not long after the film's first release.
Nosferatu can fairly be called the progenitor of countless other cinematic bogeymen. Among the reasons the film remains so resonant to contemporary audiences is its fascination with the links between sex and disease, its anatomy of physical and moral corruption, and the way it plays on the fear of the "other". The word "Nosferatu" is Romanian for "undead" and the count comes from eastern Europe, spreading disease in his wake. In 1922, as today, there was immense fear in western Europe of the threat from eastern Europe.
Surprisingly – for what is now an acknowledged classic of silent cinema – Nosferatu was a pirate production. Shot on a low budget, using real locations rather than setting up in an expensive studio, this was among the first screen adaptations of Bram Stoker's Dracula – and is still widely seen as the best. The problem was, the producers, Prana-Film, hadn't acquired the rights to Stoker's novel.
This wasn't an oversight. They knew they couldn't afford to pay Stoker's estate and so they tried to pass off their story as an original, making all sorts of cosmetic changes. Instead of Dracula, we have Count Orlok. For Jonathan Harker, we have Hutter and for Van Helsing, Professor Bulwer.
Stoker's estate was quick to call their bluff. Nosferatu had barely been released than it was the subject of a law suit from Stoker's widow. The film was pulled from the screens in weeks. "They [the producers] changed all the names but they still stole the intellectual property and they got caught very quickly," notes Dixon Smith.
The court ruled that Prana-Film had to recall and destroy all prints of the film. This drove a stake through any hopes the producers might have had of making a commercial killing. Even so, Nosferatu (like its central character) refused to die. Bootleg prints circulated still, and were shown at film societies in London and New York.
Nosferatu's influence continues to be felt widely. Werner Herzog remade it in 1979 and his star Klaus Kinski's febrile intensity was similar to Schreck's. In 2000, Willem Dafoe starred as Schreck in the self-reflexive Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional film about the making of Nosferatu.
The back story to Nosferatu is fascinating. The bit-part player Max Schreck, cast at last in a leading role, had the perfect name for his part: in German, "Schreck" means "terror". The film's producer Albin Grau was fascinated by the occult and was known to be friendly with the British occultist Aleister Crowley. Grau provided the extraordinarily detailed sketches and designs that gave the film its look. He is said to have had the inspiration for Nosferatu after watching a spider sucking the life blood out of a fly.
Even today, the disputes around Nosferatu continue. The original producers Prana-Film are long since out of business. Various rival versions have been released in recent years, each proclaimed as more authentic than the other. Dixon Smith suggests that the latest, fully restored version is definitive. It boasts Hans Erdman's original music score, long presumed lost and has the original German intertitles and the correct tinting. As presented now, it is as close as it is ever likely to be to the version released in Germany in 1922 – and it remains a film to freeze the blood.
The fully restored 'Nosferatu' is released on DVD on 19 November by EurekaReuse content