Early Vampire Films and a Comprehensive Analysis of Nosferatu

Early Vampire Films and a Comprehensive Analysis of Nosferatu

Count Orlok from the movie Nosferatu (1922)

The vampire theme has a long history in the cinema. The stories of these beings, who live by sucking the blood of humans, began to gain significant attention in literature and popular culture towards the end of the 19th century. The birth of vampire films is dated to the early 20th century. The early vampire films often associated vampires with a grotesque, wild, and unhealthy appearance. In this sense, the most prominent example is Nosferatu, undoubtedly.

The Formation of the Vampire Concept in Art and Literature

The concept of vampires, finding its place with unique interpretations in the mythological doctrines of different cultures and geographies throughout the historical process, is a subject addressed in both cultural anthropology and art research.

Vampires are generally supernatural beings who rise from the dead, live by consuming blood, sleep during the day, and hunt at night. They have aversions to sunlight, garlic, silver, and sacred symbols. Although they often take on a human form, they can transform into animals such as bats, wolves, or mice, and influence the thoughts of humans, showcasing their hypnotic and mystical powers.

Although the exact origin of the vampire concept cannot be pinpointed, traces of vampire-like entities are found in ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Turks. For instance, figures like Sekhmet in Egyptian mythology, Lamashtu in Mesopotamian mythology, Empusa in Greek mythology, Strix in Roman mythology, Vetala in Indian folklore, Jiangshi in Chinese legends, Kasha in Japanese folklore, and Ubır in Turkic mythology are examples of beings that can be associated with the vampire concept.

The widespread dissemination of the vampire concept across Europe gained momentum from the Middle Ages onward. The continent was plagued by devastating outbreaks of the bubonic plague, endless conflicts and wars, famine, poverty, ignorance, and various mystical elements. All of these factors contributed to shaping the vampire concept in the minds of people. For instance, when the graves of individuals who had died for various reasons were opened, some corpses were observed with elongated hair, nails, and beards, flushed faces, bloody mouths, open eyes, and flexible bodies. This led to the belief among the populace that certain corpses rose at night, sucked the blood of the living, and spread disease.

The vampire concept entered literature in the 18th century and gained popularity in the 19th century with the Gothic literary movement. Key examples include John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” from 1819, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” from 1872, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” from 1897.

Dracula: Bram Stoker’s Iconic Horror Novel

While hundreds of novels about vampires have been written to date, Dracula continues to be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of the term “vampire”.

Created by Irish author Bram Stoker, Dracula is a noble, wealthy, and even charismatic count living in Transylvania, yet simultaneously a wild, ruthless, cruel, and terrifying figure. The story begins with Jonathan Harker, a young real estate agent, traveling from London to Dracula’s castle. Throughout his time at the count’s castle, Harker encounters many strange events. However, he manages to escape the dark environment, and the story continues with Dracula’s journey to London.

In England, the focus of the story shifts to Harker’s fiancée Mina and her friend Lucy. Dracula, driven by a kind of obsession for Mina Murray, aims to possess her and turn her into a vampire. A group led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing, who realizes Dracula’s vampiric nature, struggles to resist Dracula’s evils and protect their loved ones.

Vampire Theme in Cinema and the Early Vampire Films

Since its invention, cinema has captured people’s interest, and countless films of various genres have been produced to this day. Among this diversity, one of the most popular genres has been horror films.

The primary goal in horror films is to evoke feelings of fear, terror, anxiety, and suspense in the audience. Therefore, the vampire theme is an extremely effective choice for horror film writers. The bloodthirstiness and mysterious past of vampires create a sense of curiosity and a tense atmosphere among viewers. The supernatural powers of vampires trigger the imaginations of the audience, opening doors to a dark and fantastical world.

Vampire-themed films took their initial steps in cinema in the 1910s. However, due to the limited budgets and impact of productions during this period, the first significant vampire film is widely considered to be “Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens” (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror), released in 1922.

MovieYearMinutesFilm director
The Vampire191338 min.Robert G. Vignola
A Fool There Was191567 min.Frank Powell
Les Vampires1915-1916421 min.Louis Feuillade
Nächte des Grauens191756 min.Arthur Robison
Drakula Halála192165 min.Károly Lajthay
Earliest Traces of the Vampire Concept in Cinema
(Pre-Nosferatu Period)

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Nosferatu is a cinematic classic that emerged, drawing inspiration from Bram Stoker’s iconic work, “Dracula”. However, due to the inability to obtain the copyright for Bram Stoker’s novel, names were altered, locations were changed, and certain modifications were made to the storyline. Despite these alterations, Florence Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker, attempted to legally prevent the film and requested the destruction of all copies. However, this request has never materialized, and copies of the film have managed to survive to the present day.

The film, directed by German filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, had its screenplay written by Henrik Galeen. Max Schreck portrayed the character Count Orlok in the movie. Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau took on the film’s production, with Fritz Arno Wagner as the cinematographer and Albin Grau as the art director. Among the other cast members were Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, Wolfgang Heinz, Albert Venohr, and John Gottowt.

Nosferatu is considered by many film critics as the first popular vampire film in the history of cinema. The approximately 94-minute production takes a different approach to the vampire concept from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, portraying it more as a monster, an animal, a demon, or a disease.

In Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” Count Dracula comes from a noble family in Transylvania. Generally associated with wealth and nobility, he is, in a sense, an “aristocratic” vampire. This vampire is filled with a unique politeness, every movement appearing delicately crafted. He is not only occupied with sucking blood but also with influencing everything around him with his elegance and nobility. Clad in clothes that shimmer in the darkness of the night and moving with slow steps, he dominates the night like a shadow.

On the other hand, Count Orlok is a being entirely isolated from humanity, civilization, culture, and society. He is extremely ugly, terrifying, and savage, having severed all ties with familiar human values, norms, and conventions. His existence feels like that of a stranger from another world because he rejects every value and norm that people are accustomed to. In this sense, he can be likened to the character Mr. Hyde from the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

Count Orlok seems to have emerged as if from the deepest corners of darkness. His face and body appear strange and frightening to the human eye. In contrast to Dracula, who possesses an attractive elegance, Count Orlok lacks any appealing charm and presents a horrifying appearance with every glance. Deviating from the dominant vampire mythos established since Dracula, he reflects vampirism in a more primitive, wild, and repulsive manner.

The atmosphere of the era also played a decisive role in Nosferatu taking a perspective on the vampire concept that diverges from romanticism. The film was shot in Germany in the 1920s, following World War I and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. It unfolded during a period marked by crises, conflicts, problems, changes, quests, and innovations in various fields such as political, economic, sociological, cultural, psychological, artistic, literary, scientific, technological, aesthetic, and ethical. In this context, using the aesthetic language of German Expressionism, which was experiencing its golden age, the film effectively reflected the lives, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and fears of the people of that era.

German Expressionism is an art movement that does not depict reality according to objective, rational, and logical criteria but rather reflects, interprets, and critiques it in a subjective, irrational, emotional, psychological, and even fantastical, supernatural, symbolic, and metaphorical manner. In films inspired by German Expressionism, the most striking features are distinct contrasts, distorted geometries, and plays of light and shadow. In this sense, it can be said that Nosferatu successfully created a powerful cinematic atmosphere by employing these aesthetic elements.

Nosferatu is also a highly successful film in terms of acting. In line with the aesthetics of silent film, it effectively utilizes visual storytelling, achieving a balanced narrative through the characters’ facial expressions and scene arrangements. Particularly noteworthy is Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok, drawing attention with his emotional expressions and facial gestures. Schreck played the vampire role so convincingly and realistically that rumors circulated among people, suggesting he was a real vampire who didn’t use makeup or costumes but genuinely bit, killed, and drank the blood of others.

Nosferatu can be considered a masterpiece that has left its mark on the history of cinema. The film has handled the vampire concept so effectively that it has not only been an inspiration for other horror films but has also captivated anyone interested in cinema. The director’s technical mastery, the actors’ impressive performances, and the aesthetic understanding of German Expressionism have turned Nosferatu into an immortal work of art. What else could it mean that it still manages to make a lasting impact after more than 100 years have passed?

Where was Nosferatu filmed?

The film was largely shot in the capital of Germany, Berlin. Some scenes were filmed in the Žilina region of Slovakia, adorned with its mystical beauties.

What does Nosferatu mean?

There are opinions suggesting that the term “Nosferatu” is derived from a word in Romanian meaning “vampire” or a word in ancient Greek meaning “disease carrier”. However, there is no consensus yet.

Is Nosferatu public domain?

Yes, the copyright for the 1922 film “Nosferatu” has expired. Therefore, it is now in the public domain in many countries. This means that anyone can use the film. However, it’s advisable to check copyright policies in different countries as they may change over time.

Was Nosferatu banned in Sweden?

Yes, in an interesting fact, Nosferatu was banned in Sweden until 1972 due to its extreme horror elements.

  • Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. IMDb.
  • Nosferatu. Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Nosferatu. AllMovie
  • Wikipedia contributors. (2024, January 24). Nosferatu. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:36, January 25, 2024
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