F. W. Murnau was a visionary film director of the silent era. Whilst he made over twenty films, his 1922 silent film Nosferatu remains his most famous. Unable to acquire the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Prana Studios commissioned Murnau to make an almost scene for scene remake, setting the film in 1838 Germany rather than 1890’s Britain, and renaming the character of the Count as Orlok (Nosferatu) rather than Dracula.
The film remains the earliest surviving vampire film despite many copies being lost after the studio’s bankruptcy due to costly legal battles by the Bram Stoker estate.
Whilst the film is not particularly scary, the film still has the power to haunt the viewer with its creepy visual style. Real world locations in Germany and Slovakia were used to create the decaying world Murnau was trying to convey. Murnau used shadows and unnerving images to scare the audience.
Another technique Murnau employed was using a photographic negative to display the haunting image of white trees against a black sky. He also used the corners of the cinema screen to great effect with characters cowering and Nosferatu appearing. This technique was effective in portraying the looming menace, rather than having the scariness front and centre.
Here is a film that was made before the vampire film sub genre became stale or spoofed. Its legacy has continued. Werner Herzog remade the film in 1979, Tim Burton named one of his Batman villains Max Schreck, and the mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows features a vampire with the same features as Murnau’s classic creation. The 2000 film Shadow Of a Vampire even fictionalised the making of Nosferatu and claimed that Max Schreck was himself a vampire.
The director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, announced in 2015 that he would remake the film. Despite an early death at the age of 43, Murnau’s legacy ensures that sleepless nights will long continue.
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