World premiere of the silent movie classic "Nosferatu"
Dr. Dominik Orth / German Studies
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

Why a milestone in film history should actually be destroyed

Dr. Dominik Orth on the Berlin premiere of the silent film Nosferatu –
 A Symphony of Horror by F.W. Murnau

Mr. Orth, can the film Nosferatu - a Symphony of Horror, which premiered in Berlin on March 04, 1922, be considered the first German horror film?

Orth: That would certainly fall a bit short. On the one hand, the term "horror film" is subject to historical change - what used to be considered a horror film might only lead to a tired smile from genre fans today. On the other hand, there were also important films before "Nosferatu" that could be considered horror films. In particular, the expressionist classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" by Robert Wiene from 1920 should be mentioned here. Nevertheless, "Nosferatu" certainly has a special place in the early history of the horror film. It is an early milestone of this genre and not least a very important film for the genre of the vampire film.

What is the film about?

Orth: The broker Hutter travels to Count Orlok in Transylvania to make a deal with him. The guest soon realizes that Orlok is a vampire. The latter, in turn, falls in love with Hutter's wife Ellen after seeing a photograph of her. On the vampire's journey to Ellen, corpses pave his path, and the victims succumb to the plague. Finally, Ellen is haunted by Orlok ... More should not be revealed here, I do not want to spoil.

Did the producers use the material from Bram Stoker's Dracula?

Orth: Absolutely, basically this is the first film adaptation of this novel. However, the production company wanted to save the cost of the rights, so screenwriter Henrik Galeen renamed the characters and changed the title. But not only that: the references between Stoker's novel and the plot of the film are overall rather loose, some characters were deleted, not a few details of the plot were changed. But again, that's not surprising for a literary adaptation; the references between original and adaptation are not always close. Interestingly, the film does not conceal the reference to the famous vampire novel at all. An intertitle in the title sequence explicitly states: "Based on the novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. Loosely written by Henrik Galeen."

How was the film received by the press and audiences?

Orth: There were some good reviews, but the film was not a financial success. The production company had invested so much money in advertising - the cost of which was higher than the production of the film - that it had to file for bankruptcy just a few months after the premiere.

The film was to be destroyed in 1925. Why?

Orth: This is directly related to the obvious references to "Dracula". Bram Stoker's widow sued the production company Prana for not having acquired the rights. In the verdict, the obvious plagiarism was severely punished: the film and all copies were to be destroyed. Interestingly, the plaintiff waived a share of the profits, since the film had not made any profits. It is fortunate for film history that some export copies escaped destruction.

The film journalist Lars Penning says that the American horror film of the 1930s would have been inconceivable without the fantastic German silent cinema. Is that true?

Orth: In any case, the influence of Weimar cinema on international film should not be underestimated or cannot be overestimated. One can certainly speak of a certain pioneering role for corresponding genre films. But even independently of this, the expressionist film in particular shaped entire film styles, such as the so-called film noir. Quite a few protagonists of Weimar film went on to make careers in Hollywood, or at least tried to. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the director of "Nosferatu," for example, followed the lure of the American film industry as early as the 1920s. And with the beginning of the Nazi era, numerous filmmakers fled to Hollywood to continue, among other things, the aesthetic play with light and shadow that was characteristic of both expressionist film and film noir. Fritz Lang, for example, one of the most important directors of Weimar cinema along with Murnau and director of Metropolis, directed numerous noir films.  

Nosferatu is also an example of the meticulous restoration of film material. What happens there?

Orth: This is a technically highly complex process that opens up completely new possibilities with today's means of digitization. The most important basis is, of course, the underlying material. Numerous films from this period have been lost or incompletely preserved, and sometimes the material found in archives is damaged. As a rule, the restoration of silent film classics is based on as many rental copies as possible, which are usually scattered in various archives around the globe; ideally, a camera negative is available. Depending on the condition of the material, it is first physically restored. Then the film is scanned and digitally restored. In the process, an attempt is made to get as close as possible to the original.  This extends to forms of coloring. Many silent films were not black and white, but were colored in different ways. There were different technical processes and various color codes for this. In this way, interesting effects could be achieved: In "Nosferatu", for example, the color suddenly changes from sepia to greenish-turquoise within a scene, at the moment when the flame of a candle goes out due to the wind. The different coloring of the film image thus makes it clear that it has become dark. If information about such coloration is available, this will be taken into account during the restoration.
In addition to the image material, there is also the question of the sound, because the silent film was not really silent - there was just no soundtrack. Nevertheless, a separate music was composed for numerous films, which was then ideally played by an orchestra during the film screening. In the DVD edition of the Murnau Foundation, for example, the original music for "Nosferatu" was reconstructed. This is incredibly exciting, as fascinating image-sound correspondences can be found that one would not expect for the 'silent film'. For example, the crowing of a rooster is imitated instrumentally.

Does this film still have an audience today?

Orth: Well, hopefully! But seriously, the film is currently available in a very good edition on DVD or Blu-ray, which indicates that there is still an audience for it today. In addition, it was included in 2003 as one of 35 films in the film canon of the Federal Agency for Civic Education.
And its status as a classic not only of horror and vampire films, but also of expressionist films and Weimar cinema as a whole is unbroken. The 1979 remake with Klaus Kinski directed by Werner Herzog certainly contributes to this, even though this film is also several decades old. But Kinski is always worth a look - and so is Murnau.
And finally, "Nosferatu" is aesthetically extremely appealing. The staging of light and shadow is absolutely worth seeing. When the shadow of Orlok's hand claws Ellen's heart, I always get goose bumps.

Uwe Blass ( conversation from 24.02.2022)

Dominik Orth completed a master's degree with the subjects Cultural Studies, German Studies and History at the Universities of Bonn and Bremen. He received his PhD from the University of Bremen in 2012. Since 2017, he has been working as a lecturer for special tasks in the field of Modern German Literature in the Department of German Studies at Bergische Universität.

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