For many of us, our first exposure to F.W. Murnau’s seminal Nosferatu was via the video for “Under Pressure,” by Queen and David Bowie — surely the feyest team-up in pop-music history. All the creepy highlights were on display — the shadow of Count Orlok’s talons falling over his sleeping prey while Bowie sang “Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn.” Yep, it sure is, especially if you’re gay in 1922.
Murnau’s homosexuality, we’re told, would’ve been more or less accepted in his Berlin artistic circles. Germany, indeed, was one of the gay-friendlier spots in the world until the Nazis took power. Murnau, who unlike James Whale was never quite “out,” may have seen the writing on the wall: the gays’ idyll of freedom couldn’t last — the shadows were creeping in. (Hitler became leader of the Nazi Party the year before Murnau’s film was released.) Nosferatu can be taken as a double-edged commentary on the rise of murderous intolerance and the moblike view of the Other — gays, Jews, gypsies — as diseased vermin to be exterminated. The plague of hatred created its own “plague” to hate.
Here, Count Orlok (Max Schreck) always brings ugly, poisonous predators with him: rats, mosquitoes, even a hyena. Nature is rotten with loathsome things that snap and suck; the movie’s Van Helsing counterpart, Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt), cheerfully shows his class what a Venus fly trap can do. These creatures of the night seem to be Orlok’s only companions; unlike most other screen Draculas, Orlok has no circle of “brides” in his thrall. He’s essentially a bachelor, and he becomes fixated on poor Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who’s sent to Orlok’s castle to close a real-estate deal. Orlok wants to buy a house in Wisborg right across the street from Hutter’s house. I’m sure he does.
So Orlok, with his variety of fabulous hats (to hide his baldness, or, one assumes, the rodentoid points of his skull and ears), falls for Hutter the oblivious heterosexual twink. (The homo-analysis is almost over, I promise.) Towards the end, Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) sacrifices herself to lure Orlok to her and keep him detained with her “pure” blood until the sun rises; much in contrast to every other Dracula, he doesn’t seduce her, she seduces him. And he doesn’t seem all that thrilled about it; it’s not a romantic moment — he just needs her blood. His penalty for lying with a woman is death. Meanwhile, the Renfield surrogate Knock (Alexander Granach), who certainly comes off as a money-grubbing Jewish stereotype (he laughs heartily when thinking of how rich the Orlok deal will make him), is pursued by a mob who thinks he’s the source of the town’s “plague.”
Aside from all this, Nosferatu is a classic of mood and shadow; Fritz Arno Wagner brings terror out of silhouettes, particularly when all we see of Orlok is his grasping shade. Despite the goofiness of the early sections, with Hutter laughing uproariously every time he so much as sees the word “vampire,” the movie gets darker and more infested as it creeps along. When Hutter arrives at Castle Orlok, all laughter is over; we get that famous intertitle, perhaps the most gorgeously haunting line in all of horror cinema: And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.
Notoriously, Nosferatu is a sort of bootleg of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; denied the rights to make an official Dracula film by Stoker’s widow, Murnau forged ahead anyway, changing the character names, which didn’t actually help his case. (Ironically, the novel is now in the public domain — as is Nosferatu itself, in the U.S.) Now, Murnau wasn’t particularly enamored of horror; Nosferatu was his only foray into the genre. Why, then, did he flout the law in order to adapt Stoker’s book? (The impetus to make the movie didn’t even originate with Murnau — Albin Grau, the film’s producer and production designer, was the one who wanted to make a vampire film.) A guess: Murnau, like James Whale after him, saw that the best way to make an indelible film statement about the Other was to cross the bridge and meet the phantoms. Murnau, of course, couldn’t have known that he was predicting a much more literal plague, wherein gays were persecuted for “spreading death,” some six decades before AIDS. Whatever the reality, Nosferatu stands not as “the first vampire film” (it wasn’t) or even “the first Dracula film” (it kind of was), but as most likely the first horror film to express something beyond simple chills and thrills. Though it sure as hell expresses those, too.