2022 marks 100 years since the release of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (hereafter referred to as Nosferatu),1 meaning its impact on cinema history in general and the vampire film genre in particular has endured for a century. Even those who have not seen the film may know certain images, among the most memorable of which are Nosferatu the vampire – Dracula in the novel, Count Orlok in Murnau’s unofficial film adaptation (played here by Max Schreck) – rising from his coffin in the bowels of the ship, and the menacing, expressionist shadow of Orlok ascending the stairs towards his victim.

 Nosferatu appeared almost a decade before the equally iconic Universal film Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931). Also among the many vampire films that followed Murnau’s classic, there was a remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979) (with one extraordinary German director adapting the work of another), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992), adhering closely to Stoker’s original text and showing the titular character frequenting early moving picture shows (a sequence presented in a juddering hand cranked style, as if this official Count was reaching back to Murnau’s unofficial cinematic forebear) and Shadow of a Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000), a speculative fiction on the making of Murnau’s film.

 The production history of Nosferatu has been analysed and researched comprehensively in print,2 while details of the various versions of the film can be found online.3 The influence of Murnau’s film on cinema history cannot be overstated. As Kim Newman notes: “Several elements the filmmakers added have stuck to the property ever since, starting with the vampire’s streak of doomed romance (he is destroyed because of his fixation on the self-sacrificing heroine) and extending to his special effects-assisted death at the first light of dawn.”4

 The first text on screen is ‘A Chronicle of the Great Plague in Wisborg Anno Domini 1838’, and while vampires are not mentioned at this point, this is a grim harbinger of the story that will unfold. The first dialogue in the film’s intertitles is another portent of what is to come: when Thomas Hutter (the film’s equivalent to the novel’s Jonathan Harker, played by Gustav von Wangenheim, hereafter referred to as Hutter) gives a bunch of freshly picked flowers to his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder, essaying this film’s Mina Harker), she remarks: “Why did you kill them… the lovely flowers…?!” The flowers are intended as a symbol of love, but Ellen’s sad question to Hutter shades the would-be happy moment with decay and death. 

 Thomas Elsaesser parallels Stoker’s novel and Murnau’s film with the similar story of Appointment in Samarra, where an attempt to escape a deadly fate still ends in death. “‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Professor van Helsing (Professor Bulwer in the film, played by John Gottowt) calls after Jonathan Harker (Hutter)… ‘You cannot escape your destiny by running away.’”5 The fates of Hutter and Ellen are sealed from the start. Hutter soon has to leave Ellen and Wisborg, and travel far away to Transylvania, ostensibly to close a property deal with Count Orlok, who wants to buy a house in Wisborg… which turns out to be opposite the home of Hutter and Ellen. 

 A cut on Hutter’s left thumb and a picture of Ellen in Hutter’s locket stir and captivate Orlok, and eventually spur him into his deadly actions. Later, Hutter retreats fearfully to his bed as the Count slowly and menacingly approaches. Jackson notes the filmmaking skill here: “From this point on, the scene becomes a brilliant display of cross-cutting between Hutter’s bedroom and, hundreds of miles away, Ellen’s bedroom.”6 Using purely cinematic means, Murnau establishes an otherworldly connection between Orlok and Ellen. As Orlok advances on Hutter, Jackson breaks down the sequence: “But then Nosferatu stops: Murnau films him in profile, as he slowly turns his head from screen left to right. The effect is chilling – it is as if he has suddenly become aware that Ellen is ‘watching’ him.”7 Indeed, Ellen sits bolt upright in bed, her arms outstretched, looking screen left, as if ‘seeing’ Orlok. While Ellen comes from Hutter’s world of light and life, she is repeatedly associated with death: as well as her seemingly ‘psychic’ connection with the Count, there is her frequent dark garb and somnambulant demeanour, and sitting by the shore, surrounded by crucifixes in the ground, awaiting Hutter’s return…or anticipating Orlok’s arrival. While Hutter is the naïve romantic and Orlok the ravenous creature, Ellen is poised between the two, representing both light and dark. 

 Robin Wood identifies other associations in Nosferatu, such as the film postulating: “…a duality in nature. Below the surface of sunlight, flowers, and innocence, a terrible under-nature, precariously repressed, awaits its chance to surge up and take over.”8 The ‘under-nature’ may lurk beneath the surface, but it is ever-present in the natural world. It is in the scene of Professor Bulwer showing a Venus fly trap killing a fly and exclaiming: “Yes, it is like a vampire, is it not?”, and in the character of Hutter’s estate agent employer, Knock (Alexander Granach as the Renfield counterpart), who descends into madness and eagerly eats flies. Eventually, this ‘under-nature’ erupts when Orlok travels on a ship to Wisborg, with rats appearing among the earth in an opened coffin on the vessel. The arrival of the seemingly deserted ship brings a pestilence to Hutter’s homeland that quickly spreads, leading to madness (both in Knock’s increasing derangement and in the enraged mob that later pursues him) and death. 

  Jackson notes, in relation to the Spanish Flu that was still fresh in people’s minds around the time when the film was first released: “Contemporary audiences for Nosferatu, with its unsettling scenes of plague rats and mass burials, knew the terrors of contagion intimately.”9 While this aspect of the film clearly resonates in the pandemic world of the early 2020s as well, Wood suggests that the resonances are deeper and wider: “The exact nature of the plague is left ambiguous; it is spread by the rats, yet the vampire’s marks are on the victims’ necks, as if Nosferatu had visited each personally. The ambiguity is essential to the film’s symbolism, allowing us to view the plague as the eruption both of universal natural forces and of repressed energies in the individual… The plague is a means of universalizing (sic) the whole idea of the film. Nosferatu is not only in Jonathan, in the marriage, he is in civilization (sic) itself.”10 

 Nosferatu is revered as a classic of silent cinema and remains a horror film as potent now as when it was made. Putting aside any elements that may have a contemporary relevance, there is something timeless about the film. As Wood states: “NOSFERATU remains itself a myth, with figures who are more archetypes than psychologically rounded characters; Murnau doesn’t himself seek to explain the myth, but to embody it in images.’11 The passing of time has added potency to the images, giving this interpretation of the Dracula story the feel of a distant fairy tale, a myth emerging from the mists of time, erupting across the world of cinema, its shadow reaching everywhere. 

Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, 1922, Germany, 89 mins)

Prod Co: Prana Film Scr: Henrik Galeen (Based on a novel Dracula by Bram Stoker) Prod: Enrico Dieckmann, Albin Grau Dir: F. W. Murnau Phot: Fritz Arno Wagner Prod Des: Albin Grau 

Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, John Gottowt


  1. The copy of Nosferatu viewed for these annotations was the remastered and restored version from 2015, presented by Photoplay Productions, remastered in association with BFI, running 89 minutes, with music composed by James Bernard.
  2. Lotte H Eisner’s extensive study of F. W. Murnau includes production histories and analysis of many of the director’s films, including the complete script for Nosferatu, with annotations by Murnau. For more details, see: Lotte H. Eisner, Murnau (London: Secker & Warburg, London, 1973).
  3. “One of the best and most detailed accounts of the restoration history is the website Nosferatu: A Filmarcheology, a product of ‘Celtoslavika’.” Kevin Jackson, Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 120, with the page named “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu – a Symphony of Horror),” ChiaroScuro: An Evolving Tribute to Films, Directors, and Cinematographers (Last updated: 08 October 2002).
  4. Kim Newman, “Your Daily Dracula – Nosferatu (1922),” The Kim Newman Web Site (16 November 2020)
  5. Thomas Elsaesser, “Six degrees of Nosferatu,” Sight & Sound, Volume 11, Number 2 (February 2001): p. 12. (Note: in the 2015 Photoplay/BFI version, the intertitle reads: “Not so hasty, young friend! No one can escape his destiny.”)
  6. Kevin Jackson, Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 63.
  7. Ibid, pp. 63, 66.
  8. Robin Wood, “Murnau’s Midnight and Sunrise,” Film Comment, Volume 12, Number 3 (May-June 1976): p. 6.
  9. Kevin Jackson, Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 15.
  10. Robin Wood, “Murnau’s Midnight and Sunrise,” Film Comment, Volume 12, Number 3 (May-June 1976): p. 8.
  11. Ibid, p. 6.

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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