There is a renewed interest among film scholars in the German Expressionist horror cinema of Weimar Germany (1918-1933). Spurred by the recent passing of the 100th-Anniversary of the First World War – an event which was key in fomenting many of the dark themes which preoccupied these early filmmakers – a slew of new home video releases, documentaries, and books on these landmark movies that once flickered across Germany’s Haunted Screen are currently being released.
Among these is film scholar Rolf Giesen’s The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors and Its Enduring Legacy (McFarland, 2013). As the title would indicate, the focus of Giesen’s book is the German silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), directed by F. W. Murnau. While both Murnau and his seminal vampire movie have long been a subject of scholarly attention in Germany, English-language works have largely relegated Nosferatu to the status of that German Dracula bootleg made prior to Universal Studios’ 1931 production. And while it is certainly true that Nosferatu infringed on Stoker’s copyrighted novel, the film is also so much more than that, as Giesen sets out to demonstrate in his largely exhaustive treatment of the first true vampire movie ever made.
That being said, The Nosferatu Story is not a long book with the actual section dealing with film history only taking up the first 136 pages. The remaining 95 pages is composed of an appendix providing biographical details for Nosferatu’s entire cast and crew, two filmographies (the longer one on German Expressionist films in general), endnotes, a bibliography, and index. The book contains a large number of black-and-white images, mostly film stills, but also debuts four rarely seen watercolor paintings done by Nosferatu’s producer and production designer Albin Grau based on scenes from the film.
Grau is undoubtedly the most fascinating character in this book. Critic Roger Ebert remarked that the lasting power of Nosferatu came from the film’s “awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires.” And in fact it would appear that Grau did. A veteran of the Great War, Grau came back claiming to have heard gruesome stories of the undead from his fellow soldiers. After the war Grau also became deeply involved in the occult and saw filmmaking as an extension of his esoteric work. He founded an ill-fated studio, Prana Film, named after a popular Theosophical magazine and dedicated to making movies about the supernatural of which Nosferatu was one. It was Grau, an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, who inserted Enochian, hermetic, and alchemical symbols into the film.
The vampire, dubbed Count Orlok, was played by veteran thespian and make-up artist Max Schreck who Grau picked out for the role himself. Today, partly as a result of Schreck’s genuinely uncanny movements and appearance in the film and largely due to the Academy Award Nominated film Shadow of the Vampire (2000), some people actually think that the actor was a vampire, or at least believed he was. Giesen is quick to point out that this is pure fiction and that even Schreck’s striking makeup for Nosferatu was not as innovative as some might claim. It was actually virtually identical to one which he had devised to play the title character in a German production of Molière’s The Miser.
The subtitle of Giesen’s book promises to explore both Nosferatu’s “Predecessors” and “Legacy,” and it is here we encounter this otherwise notable book’s two major pitfalls. Giesen spends a great deal of time early on discussing the films and filmmakers that would pave the way for Murnau’s vampire movie. Principal among these are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene, and director/actor Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920). Giesen spends so much time discussing these two movies that readers are nearly 35-pages into the book before the discussion turns to the film which it is ostensibly about.
This is not to say that the information provided on these films and their makers is not interesting, but rather that only some of it seems entirely relevant to the discussion at hand. In the case of Wegener, his connections to Nosferatu’s production are tangential at best. Actress Greta Schröder, who plays the leading and only female role in the film, would later become Wegener’s third wife. Most substantive is the fact that Wegener’s The Golem and Nosferatu share the same screenwriter in Henrik Galeen. Neither of these facts however justifies Giesen’s chapter length digression into Wegener’s life and career, much less an exploration of the origins and development of the character of the golem in Jewish folklore. Again, all of this information is interesting it just feels like perhaps Giesen should have written a book about Weimar era supernatural horror films in general rather than Nosferatu in particular.
Conversely the sections dealing with Nosferatu’s “Legacy” suffers the opposite problem as those addressing its “Precursors”: lack of information. Giesen openly admits that he is not a fan of director Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, and so discussion of this film is kept to a minimum – a mere five pages versus the fourteen(!) set aside for Wegener’s The Golem – while it’s unauthorized Italian sequel, Nosferatu in Venice (1988), barely merits a page. Giesen lauds Shadow of the Vampire at various points but says little about its production. Going without any discussion is 1979’s Salem’s Lot directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and based on the Stephen King novel of the same name in which the primary vampire antagonist, Kurt Barlow, is clearly based on Count Orlok. The same could also be said for Taika Waititi’s 2014 comedy What We Do in the Shadows which also features a vampire cast in the Nosferatu mold.
Overall, Giesen’s The Nosferatu Story is a much welcomed addition to the English language literature on this landmark horror movie. Fans of German Expressionism, vampire films, and the history of occult cinema will defiantly want to check it out.