Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, is the first big screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. At first viewing, Murnau's work can seem overlong and tedious given how little today's audience is used to silent black and white films. Despite its apparent simplicity, the film grows in range in its use of suggestion and different degrees that hide behind a simple story that only serves as a vehicle for the director's intentions.
It is clear that the vampire in Nosferatu symbolizes Hitler. Nosferatu leaves his country to spread his power abroad. His bite makes puppets of his victims, servant's body and soul to their powerful master, blinded fanatics that represent the German people. The rats the Count brings with him in his boat to propagate in the foreign county, carrying with them the plague, symbolize the Nazi belief that spread throughout Europe. By this very fact, Nosferatu is without a doubt a visionary film, Murnau's camera serving as a sort of crystal ball projecting to the world the director's warning in regards to a somber future.
This film surprised me with the strength of its visual style and the different manner in which it approached the vampire legend. The most obvious difference between the vampire in Nosferatu and the one of nearly every other version of Dracula is the creature's appearance. Depicted by Max Schreck, Orlock is presented as a walking cadaver--a gaunt monster with a baldhead, pointed ears, rat-like front teeth, elongated fingernails, and a stiff walk. It is hard to imagine someone as hideous as Orlock seducing a woman--and that is precisely one reason why Nosferatu is so disturbing. Like every other vampire movie, Nosferatu has a deeply erotic undercurrent. Indeed, while sexuality is never overtly referred to or expressed in Nosferatu, it is a constant influence that only the most naive viewer would miss. The Count's relationship with Jonathon Harker (Gustav v. Wangenheim) shows hints of homoerotic interaction. Their dance of seduction remains unconsummated because Orlock's attention shifts to Nina (as Greta Schroeder). As has always been the case in vampire stories, the drinking of blood is a poorly concealed metaphor for sex, and this is evident in the way Orlock feeds on Nina.
Missing from this version of the vampire story are religious icons. Through the years, we have come to accept a connection between Christian symbolism (the cross, holy water, etc.) and the undead, but none of that is evident in Nosferatu. Murnau has removed God from the equation, taking away the movie of a spiritual foundation. The conflict presented here is not one of good against evil; instead, it is a struggle between the opposing halves of human nature. As vampire movies go, few are more memorable than Nosferatu. Murnau deserves his place as a true innovator of silent cinema.