Nosferatu (1922)

This is an article from my forthcoming zine, Queer and Unnatural vol.1, adapted for online reading. It's also a test run of the Salon section of this website, so if you see any formatting issues please let me know in the comments!

Is that an ant eater?

The iconically decrepit vampire that we all know and love made his debut in the 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens under unusually ignominious circumstances. For reasons apparently lost to time, the production failed to get permission from the Stoker estate to adapt Dracula to film, and so, despite changing some names and narrative details for the movie (most notably, changing Count Dracula’s name to Count Orlok), old Bram’s widow sued the shit out of them and won. The court also ordered that the film be destroyed, and nearly every copy was, but luckily (VERY luckily considering that, according to Wikipedia, up to 90 percent of silent films have been lost), a few copies survived and have been lovingly restored by nerds for our viewing pleasure.

To describe the plot of the film would be to summarise a highly condensed version of Dracula, which you’re probably familiar with if you're reading this (and anyway, I’ll be reviewing the novel in the second issue of Queer and Unnatural – so stay tuned!), but its design and cinematography are worth discussing. For all the goofy melodrama of silent film acting and the limitations of monochrome film with a low frame rate, Nosferatu is effectively spooky. This can be credited in large part to the atmospheric quality of the scenes shot on location in Slovakia and various parts of Germany - no mean feat given the film's small budget and the impracticality of early film equipment.

The design of the titular character, played by the perfectly named Max Schreck, is of course the most iconic aspect of the movie, and it's just So Good. It’s simple, perfectly evocative and instantly recognisable; the aristocratic smoking-jacket contrasted with a face and hands that suggest a far-gone corpse or unpigmented nocturnal creature. Even the thin, angular quality of his body is used to great effect in the scenes where his shadow looms artfully over his victims, intimating a horror beyond the physical. His look is so original and distinctive that, kind of like the muppets, he seems more like his own person than a fictional character that someone designed, you know? Visual references to Nosferatu abound in pop culture but they always tickle me – especially drag looks. I’d argue that Sexy Orlok is hands down the best yassified monster out there (not that anyone could reasonably contradict me).

Regarding monstrosity as a concept, Nosferatu doesn't expand much on Stoker's novel. However, if Dracula’s journey to England reflected a generalised British xenophobia, moving the story’s setting to Germany (likely done to make the story feel more immediate to its domestic audience) made the xenophobia rather more pointedly topical. Orlok’s predation on happy upper-middle class white Germans, his arguably rodent-like features, and the horde of plague-bearing rats that accompany him to "Wisborg" give an impression of deliberate antisemitism. Unfortunately, the film’s humble budget and close brush with total obscurity means that little is known of the reasoning behind the crew’s creative decisions. For his part, Murnau reportedly had Jewish friends and never expressed antisemitic views. He was also a confirmed bachelor, which bodes well for my theory that queers have been doing horror since the beginning, but nothing certain can be said about that either.

Watch the whole thing for free right here! What else is the internet for?