This is the granddaddy of all vampire movies, the first (albeit unofficial) film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, unofficial because the German makers hadn’t managed to acquire the screen rights. But never mind – the odd substitution here and there (Count Orlok for Count Dracula, for instance) and, presto, you have Dracula in everything but name.
Unfortunately, Stoker’s estate saw it that way, too, sued for breach of copyright and won. Theoretically, all copies of FW Murnau’s film should have been destroyed, but happily they were not. So here it is today, silent and monochrome, 90 years old, with the original names restored in the subtitles, and still a classic of the genre.
The familiar plot remains pretty well unchanged. In 1838 Jonathon Harker travels (from Bremen rather than London) to Transylvania to sell a house to Dracula. At an inn near his destination, everyone – people, horses, even a hyena – shies away in horror when he mentions his client’s name.
And then he reaches the dark, menacing castle and comes face to face with Dracula – and what a Dracula this is. Here is no seductive, cloak-swishing vampire with elongated eye-teeth à la Christopher Lee. As portrayed by the aptly named Max Schreck (Schreck means terror in German), this is a tormented, accursed soul: tall and thin with bat ears, hands like claws, hollow, dark-rimmed eyes and two large rodent-like teeth in the centre of his mouth.
At this point Murnau and his writer, Henrik Galeen, differ from the book and later films. Schreck’s Dracula doesn’t turn his victims into other vampires; he merely sucks their blood and/or kills them, and spreads plague via the rats he carries about with him in coffins.
Nor is he interested in sex. On seeing a picture of Harker’s beautiful wife, here called Nina, all he says is: “What a lovely throat!” This in itself, you feel, might have given Harker a clue, throat men as opposed to, say, leg men being comparatively rare. But no.
So, then, to Bremen, the spread of the plague and Dracula’s intended victim, Nina. She, terrified girl, has learned that the only way to defeat a vampire is for a woman pure in heart – never easy to find, though luckily Nina is one such – to keep him distracted until cock-crow when he will vanish in a puff of smoke. Can she do it?
These days, in truth, Nosferatu is no longer frightening. But it is very cleverly made and in its use of montages, light and shadow, it set the benchmark for all its successors. And though Schreck is only on screen for ten minutes or so, his performance and phenomenal appearance dominate the film. As the original screen Dracula he has never quite been matched.