Nosferatu is universally recognised as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Considering this films release date was nearly 100 years ago, this is truly amazing. That this film nearly didn’t survive at all makes it even more incredible today that we have the pleasure of this work of art which brought to our screens a true icon of horror – Count Orlok.
Since then hundreds of horror movies have been made as well as a century of amazing cinematic advances. What makes Nosferatu stand out is the combined talents of production designer Albin Grau and the enigmatic lead actor Max Schreck. Schreck is undoubtedly what we think about when we think of the film. This malevolent looking character is without doubt the creepiest creature ever to appear on screen to this day…and we love him for it.
‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror’
“‘Nosferatu’…Does not this word sound like the call of the death bird at midnight?
You dare not say it since the pictures of life will fade into dark shadows; ghostly dreams will rise from your heart and feed on your blood”
The film was based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, published in 1897. The films full title, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, was inspired by a term that appears twice in the novel. It seems that Stoker mistakenly thought Nosferatu meant Vampire in Romanian. I have read that Nosferatu was either an archaic Hungarian-Romanian word or simply a made-up word meaning “plague carrier” or “the repugnant one”. An Excerpt from Bram Stoker’s Dracula describes the monster thus: “The Nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger, and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil.” So, unlike the suave Dracula of popular culture, we know Stoker intended his monster to be a harbinger of pure evil. If this is indeed the case, then Max Schreck truly nailed it. He is as repugnant as any monster could ever be.
Albin Grau’s artistic inspiration
German film producer Albin Grau (1884-1971) originally considered shooting a vampire movie in 1916. Following this he founded the company Prana-Film with fellow producer Enrico Dieckmann in Germany. Grau was the ‘Artistic’ Producer of the two, and his vision was responsible for Nosferatu becoming the classic that it is today. Director F.W Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen were also hired for the movie. Grau was impressed with the sinister black-and-white illustrations created by the artist Hugo Steiner-Prag (1880-1945) for the book The Golem, a horror story by Gustav Meyrink (1915). Grau claimed that these illustrations had a huge influence on the concept art and storyboards for the movie, and especially the appearance of Count Orlok.
These images are gorgeous, but disturbing. According to some accounts, this particular illustration (below left) from The Golem was Grau’s inspiration for the physical appearance of Count Orlok.
Albin Grau’s designs and storyboards
Grau was a talented artist who designed the sets, costumes, storyboards and promotional materials for Nosferatu. His promotional materials and storyboard sketches were beautiful in and of themselves, and well articulated his vision of a creepy rat-like monster.
Max Schreck’s makeup for Count Orlok
For his monster, Albin Grau envisioned a hideous, rat-like vampire, who resembled the rodents described in Stokers novel, and when they hired Max Schreck they got the physical embodiment of this creature. Even Schreck’s name was perfect – ‘Schreck’ in German means ‘terror’. Grau’s, The Golem inspired vision, combined with Schreck’s immersion in the role of the repugnant vampire needed just one more thing to create the perfect nightmare. Makeup. Schreck’s makeup consisted of a bald cap cut down near his eyes, using glued-on eyebrows and tufts of hair over the ears to hide the edges of the bald cap. In those days, before prosthetic makeup effects, putty was used to build-up the bridge of the nose and ear extensions. Carved fangs were held in place by Schreck’s upper lip. Finger extensions were worn on the hands and everything was covered in greasepaint. To say that the makeup was perfect is an understatement. It is still scaring the living daylights out of us today. But, of course, there was more to Max Schreck than just makeup.
Who hides behind the character of Nosferatu? Maybe Nosferatu himself?
As amazing as the makeup was, it wasn’t just this that gave Schreck his iconic status in the role. Some of it was due to how mysterious the man was. Apparently, he was a bit of an odd loner. Nobody knew much about him, which added to his mystique. By all accounts he stayed in character all of the time during the filming. This led to the general belief that the actor was a vampire in real life. In 1953 film critic Ado Kyrou popularised this idea when he wrote “Who hides behind the character of Nosferatu? Maybe Nosferatu himself?” This hypothesis even formed the basis of the mock biopic Shadow of the Vampire, released in 2000 which posited the theory that Murnau intentionally hired a vampire to play the role.
There is no denying that Schreck fit the part perfectly with his disturbing look, the hunched way he walked and the way he curled his long fingers – all of which added to his embodiment of a creepy, unearthly being, Of course he was just a fine actor who went on to play many more roles after Nosferatu. But Nosferatu was his career defining role for which he was best known and to this day there continues to be an aura of mystery around him and the film.
Nosferatu rises from the ashes
Part of the mystery of the film Nosferatu stems from the fact that the film was very nearly destroyed forever. Can you imagine if this gem had never existed? When Grau and Dieckmanns studio Prana-Film decided to go ahead and make an unauthorised version of the novel, they ended up with a problem. The estate of Bram Stoker, led by Stoker’s Widow Florence, would not sell them the rights to make the film. They went ahead with it anyway but Florence Stoker sued for copyright infringement because, although they changed the title and the names of the principal characters, they mistakenly included the phrase “freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula” on one of their publicity posters. It was sent to Florence Stoker who promptly sued, stating that Prana-Film had knowingly stolen from the novel Dracula. Prana-Film was ordered to destroy all copies of the film and the company had to declare bankruptcy. At least one copy was saved, however, and made it to the U.S. where the novel Dracula was in the public domain. Several screenings took place, with Florence Stoker attempting unsuccessfully to have the copies destroyed. So, like Dracula himself, the film literally came back from the dead and Nosferatu went on to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. Now, lets look at some contemporary films influenced by Nosferatu.
Nosferatu the Vampyre – released, January 1979
Director: Werner herzog
Actor playing the Vampire – Count Dracula: Klaus Kinski
In 1979 Werner Herzog directed a remake of Nosferatu titled Nosferatu The Vampyre starring Klaus Kinski as the Count. Kinski’s make up stays very true to the original with bald cap and prosthetic ear appliances. This combined with his acting talents and expressive features made for an authentic portrayal of Max Schreck’s hideous creature.
Salem’s Lot – released, October 1979
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Actor playing the Vampire – Kurt Barlow: Reggie Nalder
In 1975, Stephen King published his novel Salem’s Lot. In the book Barlow is a suave gentleman, however Director Tobe Hooper and his production team decided on a more Nosferatu-like creature in an attempt to make the vampire the essence of disease spreading malevolent evil. The vampire is played by actor Reggie Nalder who, like Max Schreck already had a disconcerting, unworldly look due to the lower part of his face being scarred as a child by burns. Coloured contact lenses and a blue full foam latex prosthetic mask glued directly onto the actors skin using makeup adhesive completed the transformation. The special makeup effects were done by Jack H. Young (1910-1992), a makeup artist who worked on films such as the Wizard of Oz, The Untouchables, and Apocalypse Now.
Shadow of the Vampire – released in 2000
Directed by: E. Elias Merhige
Actor playing the Vampire – Count Orlok: Willem Dafoe
Shadow of the Vampire plays with the notion that the actor Max Schreck may have been a real vampire playing a vampire (“who hides behind the character of Nosferatu? Maybe Nosferatu himself?”). It is a fictionalised tongue-in-cheek look at the making of Nosferatu with the excellent Willem Dafoe in the title role. Like Schreck and Kinski before him, Dafoe’s expressive face was perfect for the part. With Dafoe perfectly inhabiting the role, you can completely buy into the idea that Schreck was really one of the undead. Heading a team of makeup artists and prosthetics mold makers was prosthetics makeup artist: Pauline Fowler, also known for Alien vs. Predator, Resident Evil and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
What We Do in the Shadows – released in 2014
Directed by: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Actor playing the Vampire – Petyr: Ben Fransham
This is a comedy about a group of vampire roommates living in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand and it is an absolutely brilliant parody of the genre. The film showcases different types of vampires over the years, from the 16th century predatory aristocrats to medieval bloodsuckers and World War II era creatures of the night, to the 8000 year old Petyr who is the Nosferatu vampire of the film. Petyr is a basement dweller, and in a nod to Nosferatu, he is killed by the rays of the sun when a vampire hunter lets sunlight into the basement while trying to kill him. The special effects makeup department was headed by Don Brooker, also known for Mad Max: Fury Road, King Kong (2005) and Avatar.
Written by: Dorothy Fletcher Bentley
Edited by: Kerry Leary
1897 – The novel Dracula, written by Bram Stoker is published
1912 – Bram Stoker passes away leaving his estate managed by his widow Florence
1915 – The novel The Golem written by Gustav Meyrink and illustrated by the artist Hugo Steiner-Prag provides Albin Grau with artistic inspiration for the film and Count Orlok
1922 – Nosferatu is released without copyright approval from Stokers estate. Max Schreck stars as the vampire Count Orlok
1925 – Florence Stoker orders all copies of Nosferatu destroyed but at least one copy exists, and is taken to the U.S., where the book is in the public domain
1929 – The film is released in the United States
1932 – Florence Stoker passes away
1962 – The novel Dracula comes into the public domain worldwide, 50 years after Stokers death
1975 – The novel Salem’s Lot, written by Stephen King is published, bringing the vampire out of the castle and into suburbia
1979 (January) – Nosferatu-The Vampyre, a remake of Nosferatu, Directed by Werner Herzog is released, starring Klaus Kinski as Dracula
1979 (November) – Salem’s Lot the mini-series, directed by Tobe Hooper is aired on television starring Reggie Nalder as the vampire, Kurt Barlow
2000 – Shadow of the Vampire, directed by E. Elias Merhige is released starring Willem Dafoe as Count Orlok
2014 – What We Do in the Shadows, directed by Germain Clement and Taiki Waititi is released with Ben Fransham as the 8000 year old Vampire Petyr