The 100-year influence of “Nosferatu”

Cinematic history is full of what we call influential films. Films that influenced society, politics and media have become so well known that even people who haven’t seen the film still recognize its assets.

Examples aren’t hard to come by; The Wizard of Oz (1939) has become iconic through its whimsical use of color and the fantastical Star Wars series has become a merchandising juggernaut and holds a permanent place in the public consciousness. Superhero movies like those in the original Spider-Man trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers franchise took a once perceived geeky subculture mainstream.

Love them or hate them, you can see what made these movies so important. Perhaps they did something wholly original, or maybe they accomplished a feat better than other films that came before and after it.

Everybody and their mother knows about these influential products, but sometimes the most influential film is the one we don’t talk about. Perhaps its influence became so ubiquitous that we stopped noticing it or it was simply forgotten, for any number of reasons. If you squint your eyes at films that have been made over the last hundred years you’d be surprised how often one specific film’s presence is lurking.

How appropriate it is that the influence of the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu can only be found in the shadows of other films. It usually isn’t overt but even when the rare filmmaker does pay a direct homage to this ancient masterpiece, it often flies under the radar.

While it has influenced the horror genre most prominently, its early use of shadows, film stock manipulation, special effects and costumes set the stage for films of all varieties to follow in its path.

Nosferatu is credited with being one of the earliest adaptations of Dracula by Bram Stoker even though there is no character named Dracula in the film.

Instead, the character is replaced by the equally devious Count Orlok. Aside from this detail and condensing the story, the plot remains largely the same. While Nosferatu wasn’t the first Dracula-inspired film, it is the oldest one that has entirely survived until the modern age.

There have been over a hundred films based on Dracula, all of which can trace their roots back to Nosferatu as the original adaptation that set the bar for what such a film should strive to be.

Nosferatu would also play an essential role in establishing certain genre tropes both for horror and for how Dracula would later be presented.

Nosferatu has one of the earliest and most effective uses of the harbinger of impending doom troupe. If you’ve watched enough horror films, you’ve seen the scene dozens of times. Early in the horror movie, the protagonist or the group of main characters are warned mysteriously of the horrors that await them if they keep driving up that path or visit the spooky mansion.

In Nosferatu, when the protagonist Thomas Hutter stops at a small inn and announces that he plans to visit Count Orlok where the room instantly becomes tense. The faces of the local patrons provide a more foreboding atmosphere than words ever could. While one could argue that this and some of the other ideas should be only credited to Nosferatu’s source material, I’d retort that one advantage films have over literature is that they have a greater power to create an aesthetic. One must give credit to Nosferatu for creating the perfect aesthetic. Orlok’s castle both on the outside and inside seem to be from a different age. Just like the count himself, everything seems out of place and disconnected from contemporary society. This is the look that later Dracula movies would attempt to emulate.

Before going further, I must point out the all-time great performance of Max Schrek as Count Orlok.

Whenever he’s on-screen, the scene becomes instantly more unsettling. His costume certainly helps create his aura.

Further, the effect created through Schrek always being shrouded in black attire also contributes to the aura through his pale and gaunt head appearing more pronounced. His head seems misshapen, his ears batlike, his eyes sunken, and his teeth utterly grotesque.

Most horrifying of all are his fingers. Long and gangly, his nails protrude as if they were claws ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Count Orlok is one of the first truly terrifying movie villains and grandfather of the iconic Universal monsters and slasher villains that would follow him.

Part of the brilliance of Schrek’s performance is how unnatural Orlok seems in every scene. As with most silent films, subtlety is too difficult to pull off, so Schrek has the audience believe that the character he’s playing is completely inhuman. Even with the occasional cheesy acting surrounding him, Orlok always feels real.

It is Schrek that provides the most recognizable aspect of this movie; the shadows. In one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, an unfortunate victim looks back out her window to see that the Count has disappeared from her sight. We watch in horror as Orlok’s shadow rises the steps to her bedroom like a fiend.

The woman can do nothing as the dark and evil claws of Orlok stretch into the doorway until they reach the victim’s body, signifying her doom. It’s a classic scene and it has been referenced in countless other films since Nosferatu’s release.

In Drag Me to Hell (2009) as Christine is being stalked by a demon, the shadow of its claws reaches under her bedroom door in an attempt to snatch her. One place you’d never expect to find such a reference is during a Wes Anderson film, but during the museum murder scene in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the assassin’s shadow creeps up a stairway to meet his victim in the same manner as the dastardly Count Orlok did before him.

References to the Count are not only restricted to shadows. Brief Orlok easter eggs can be found everywhere from the vampire research scene in Twilight (2008) to a poster of the duplicitous Orlok on Andy’s wall in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and even in  Matrix Revolutions (2003) as Neo’s train station jacket was inspired by one worn by the Count.

Personally, my favorite homage would have to be the character of Petyr in What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Petyr both physically and characteristically parallels Count Orlok, but being thrown in a comedic juxtaposition with the other goofy vampires of the film is endlessly entertaining.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how Nosferatu inspired several cinematographic and special effect techniques. In 1922, technology was limited, so the makers of Nosferatu had to get creative with how to present a supernatural being. Nosferatu is one of the earliest examples of a movie tinting its film stock to represent something specific. Notably, in Nosferatu, the film stock is tinted blue to make the audience understand that the scene was occurring at night.

This practice has never stopped as even today, scenes shot during the daytime will be given a bluish tint in post-production to give the appearance of nighttime.

In one shot the Nosferatu team used the film negative to create a more haunting effect. I’ve seen the same technique referenced as recently as in 2018’s The House Jack Built. To give the effect that Orlok has superhuman speed, there are scenes where the film reel is sped up, a technique that has since become a staple of classic cinema. The same can be said for the procedure where one places film over one another to create a translucent overlay. This is done in the film to make Orlok appear ghostly in one scene. 
Few films have left as much of an impression on cinema as Nosferatu has.

While many have forgotten its impact, it’s clear that many filmmakers still remember it fondly. One such filmmaker is Robert Eggers, who may be currently one of the best filmmakers in North America.

He stated in an interview that Nosferatu ranked among his favorite horror flicks. Not only that, but it appears that he’s planning on remaking Nosferatu with Anya Taylor-Joy. With Eggers at the helm, this can only mean great things for the long-overdue remake.

The original Nosferatu may be turning the corner on its 100th anniversary, but perhaps it’s still only just getting started.

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