F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: the First True Adaptation of Dracula

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu was the first attempt at translating Bram Stoker's Dracula to the screen, and it remains the most interesting in terms of its representation of the vampire.

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu was the first attempt at translating Bram Stoker's Dracula to the screen, and it remains perhaps the most interesting in terms of its representation of the monster. In this respect it departs significantly from the novel, emphasising the vampire's repellent, animalistic qualities instead of the lasciviousness of Stoker's aristocratic demon. Gone too is the preoccupation with female desire; in its place, what has variously been interpreted as an investigation into death or the potential inability of the bourgeois family to contain subversive desires. While Nosferatu is continually associated with death and the supernatural, numerous parallels are drawn between him and the Jonathan Harker character (Hutter). He is presented as Hutter's dark side, a realization of his repressed fears and desires. The film uses certain conventions of German Expressionism without being tied to them. While The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari used studio shooting and fabricated sets to produce its extreme stylization, Nosferatu replicates the effects simply through innovative camera angles, lighting, and location filming. This permitted an increased freedom through which Murnau was able to invest the natural world with a demonic quality - essential given that this is another central theme of the film.

The figure of Nosferatu is consistently shrouded in images of death and the supernatural, but surprisingly there is little to associate him with the undead: only the word 'Nosferatu', meaning 'undead' in Serbia, which according to Lotte Eisner was suggested to Murnau by the film's designer, Albin Grau.1 None of Nosferatu's victims rise from the grave, and in fact he is only indirectly responsible for the majority of their deaths (they are, more specifically, victims of a plague he has brought to the town). The threat that he poses is that of death, not of becoming undead.2 In essence, therefore, Nosferatu represents death, and his victims experience the fear of mortality. This underlying principle finds a visual expression in Max Schreck's make-up, which, with its white, bald head and hollow gaping eye sockets, looks like a human skull. His physical form is not so far removed from a certain protagonist of Ingmar Bergman's (later) The Seventh Seal, and indeed both Death and Nosferatu perform the same function.

There are further allusions to death which deserve to be enumerated. Most obviously, a plague follows in Nosferatu's wake, implying that he is simply the spectre of death spreading his shadow over his victims.3 This interpretation is supported by Gilberto Perez Giullermo's point that the townspeople treat these deaths as a natural phenomenon. There is none of the stricken panic of other vampire films; in its place is a solemn acceptance of an inevitable fate - expressed by the slow funeral processions held in sombre streets.4 They do not acknowledge any connection with undead beings, and are oblivious to Nosferatu's existence. In fact, we are invited to forget about his responsibility as he is absent from these scenes. This is succinctly expressed in Giullermo's remark: 'Death is Nosferatu's true subject, not the vampire.'5

However, while the supernatural aspects of Nosferatu have been downplayed (in order to establish his status as the personification of Death) Murnau does not abandon them completely, since they offer great aesthetic possibilities. His supernatural quality is stressed throughout the film through the references to the vampire book, from which passages are quoted via title cards. Visually, the most salient example is the use of negative photography when Hutter's coach drives through the forest at night. In addition, this scene, and the one depicting Nosferatu transferring his coffins to the cart are speeded up. The device was clearly designed to have a supernatural effect, but backfired somewhat, especially in the latter example of its use. Here the figure seems rather Chaplinesque as he toils with his boxes of earth. Eisner has commented on Murnau's being prone to lapses of taste, and these two scenes have been much debated in this context.

There are many examples of Nosferatu rising out of coffins and the like, particularly the famous shot (imitated by Coppola) in which his perfectly rigid, death-like form swings out of the coffin to confront us. He is imbued with the power to propel ships and carriages; acting under his compulsion doors continually swing open to admit him. In these ways he is presented as a supernatural being and a figure of power, emphasising the menace he holds for every other character.

Another striking aspect of his representation is his animalistic quality, which marks a significant departure from the novel. This is observed in Nosferatu's first appearance in his castle. Robin Wood has rightly stated that this scene suggests an animal emerging from its lair.6 It also recalls an earlier shot of a jaguar at night tormenting a group of horses, which had implied a connection between Nosferatu and the animal, and is reaffirmed when he appears.

Schreck's make-up is also significant at this point. Besides a skull, it makes his physiognomy resemble that of a rat, with its long nose and pointed ears, and, clearly, manifesting Nosferatu's threat as a plague of rats very definitely implies a connection between him and the animal world. Later, when Hutter has been bitten by Nosferatu, and, ignorant of the fact, discovers bite marks on his neck, he attributes them to mosquitoes. The association with nature is most evident in Dr. Bulwer's demonstration of natural vampirism, comprising a shot of a Venus flytrap devouring its prey, and the 'ghostliness' of an amoeba. Again this serves to de-emphasise the supernatural aspects of Nosferatu's being, almost to the point of suggesting he is merely an animal himself.

Also contributing to this effect is Schreck's performance: he frequently adopts animalistic poses, with his claw-like hands raised in conflict, as in the shot when his shadow creeps over Hutter's sleeping form. He paces through his scenes slowly, like an animal stalking its prey. When he gazes at Ellen from his window he clutches the bars and resembles a spider crouched in its web. Arriving in Wisborg he scuttles through the streets like a rat, and in his love/death scene with Ellen he resembles nothing so much as an animal savaging its prey. Robin Wood has identified Knock's behaviour as symptomatic of Nosferatu's animalistic nature. Under the vampire's influence he becomes obsessed with insects, and eventually reverts to a bestial state: escaping his captors he surmounts a rooftop, swings about like an ape, then proceeds to hop like a toad until he is recaptured.7

The purpose of these devices is not simply to make Nosferatu appear repulsively inhuman; they function in dividing nature into two contingents: a wholesome daylight nature of birds, flowers, etc. and a nocturnal one of foul, monstrous creatures, jackals, rats, insects, and Nosferatu himself.8 The day- and night-time worlds are distinguished by the use of different coloured film: orange for daylight, warmth and goodness; blue for night, coldness and evil. Accordingly Nosferatu is most frequently seen at night. Like the jackals, rats, and mosquitoes Hutter supposed had bitten him, he is a nocturnal creature - part of the demonic side of nature along with Bulwer's natural vampires. Conversely, Hutter is associated with the good contingent - picking flowers and enjoying birdsong during his daylight hours - but, as will be shown later, only on a superficial level.

Nosferatu is presented as the dark and monstrous side of nature. In Roger Blin's words 'Nosferatu, c'est le rhythme animal changé en rhythme démoniaque.'9 These aspects of the film have led Rona Unrau to comment on its 'natural expressionism' - it 'finds the demonic at the heart of the natural '.10

At this point a certain obvious fact becomes relevant: humanity is also part of nature, and is therefore subject to this same duality. The schism into wholesome and demonic contingents is expressed through Hutter's relationship with Nosferatu. Horror films frequently present the monster as the dark side of the hero, an unfortunate manifestation of his repressed fears and desires. Nosferatu adopts this strategy by employing many devices to testify to a close association between Hutter and Nosferatu.

The first shot of Hutter shows him seated before a mirror, adjusting his tie. His hand strays and he begins delicately caressing his neck where Nosferatu is later to bite him. This signifies the pleasure/pain, fear/desire relationship that connects them.11

Placing Hutter in front of a mirror has additional significance in that Nosferatu is later shown to be a reflection of aspects of himself. The effect is reused later when they first confront each other. Each figure is framed by an arch in Nosferatu's castle: through the one behind Hutter the sky is visible; Nosferatu's encloses a dark recess - implying that Hutter is the daytime exterior, Nosferatu the dark and evil interior of the same being. Also having this effect is the very deliberate placement of Nosferatu's new house directly opposite Hutter's, so that they can observe each other from their respective bedrooms.

When still in the castle, there is a scene in which Hutter opens a door to reveal Nosferatu lurking motionless inside. The similarity between their poses implies that, on a subliminal level, Hutter has encountered a mirror-image of himself, and dislikes what he sees. Also, the action of opening and closing the door suggests that it is Hutter's actions (and only his) that can either reveal or repress the source of fear. Accordingly, Nosferatu does not move - Hutter is the scene's true subject. The event is presented in unnaturalistic terms through the use of chiaroscuro lighting and an iris-shot, which emphasise its significance and give it an internal, hallucinatory effect - as if it occurs within the recesses of Hutter's psychology. He discovers this monster within himself but dare not acknowledge it. This reading is supported by an early title-card in the film: 'Ghostly dreams will rise from your heart to feed on your blood.' In other words the source of fear (Nosferatu) proceeds from Hutter himself, and their interrelation is more complex than 'one represents good, the other evil'.

Both characters are associated with arches.12 Nosferau's castle abounds with pointed arches in both interior and exterior shots. This is only to be expected, as it is frequently used in horror films to summon up the required air of gothic gloom. On the other hand, Murnau takes care to photograph Hutter in close proximity to a pointed arch in many of his scenes. Most significantly, his room at the inn features a wide and imposing arch, which vaults over his bed. In this instance the bed functions as a tacit symbol of sexuality and desire, and the association with Nosferatu clearly implies that he is a manifestation of Hutter's desire. If this sounds like too much to infer from a potentially coincidental happening then it can be supported with further examples. When Hutter tours the castle grounds one morning he sits in a small, rotund structure to write his letters to Ellen. At this point he remembers the 'mosquito' bites on his neck, and caresses them rather fondly, echoing the earlier event in front of his mirror. This provides further evidence for his association with Nosferatu, but furthermore, the structure he sits in features numerous pointed arches, suggesting that the repressed desires they symbolise are inevitably part of Hutter's psyche. It is as if Nosferatu's castle, which is overflowing with arches, and Nosferatu himself represent an unrestrained realisation of his fears, desires, neuroses and obsessions. The arch was perhaps chosen because of its nineteenth-century association with degradation, when it was used by Dante Rossetti, among others .

This is given narrative significance by the fact that both Hutter and Nosferatu desire the same woman, and the rest of the film is dedicated to Nosferatu's pursuit of her. Ellen's role in the film serves to emphasise the connection between them. They each travel separately to Wisborg, where Ellen awaits her husband. Hutter travels by land, Nosferatu commandeers a ship and, in a series of celebrated shots, advances towards his destination by sea. The fact that Ellen waits for Hutter by the sea implies that she unconsciously desires Nosferatu and instinctively awaits his arrival. Their parallel journey is orchestrated in a cross-cut structure and they arrive simultaneously.13

They are both presented as menacing toward Ellen: Nosferatu explicitly since his desires lead him to attack and kill her; Hutter on a more implied level, but in such a way that the parallel is still maintained. In an early scene he peers at her, leaning forward and laughing manically.14 The same scene has him presenting her with some flowers he has picked, to which she responds 'Why have you killed them … the beautiful flowers?' This corresponds directly to her scene with Nosferatu, which embodies 'the tragic perverseness of being a vampire, of inevitably causing one's object of desire to die.'15 Hence, both Hutter's and Nosferatu's desires have been located on the same scale. In expressing his desire, i.e. by offering flowers as a token of his love, Hutter has killed them and, perhaps, a part of Ellen. Nosferatu's desire for Ellen, with its fatal consequences, is shown to be a direct extrapolation of Hutter's.

While being united in posing a threat to Ellen, they are less threatening to each other. Nosferatu never actually harms Hutter, and Hutter, likewise, never even attempts to harm Nosferatu. The reason of course is that they are part of each other. Nosferatu is presented as an incomplete being in numerous instances: at their first meeting he is filmed from behind, the camera focuses on Hutter even though the whole film so far has done so and we are naturally curious to see Nosferatu. The vampire's face is frequently omitted by the framing of the shot (as in the one imitated by Copolla), or his whole body may be missing, as when his shadow looms over Hutter or ascends the stairs to Ellen's bedroom. These moments constrast to the ones where his awesome physical presence is seen propelling ships etc. Here he was presented as a figure of power, his desire enabled him to traverse great distances. But when faced with opportunities to consummate it he becomes increasingly pathetic and pitiful. This is why his fingernails have grown into long talons by the time he approaches Ellen, heightening the animalistic qualities of his identity.16 This embodies his incompleteness, his status as a mere part of Hutter's psyche -the shadow on the stairs could almost belong to Hutter. This culminates in his union with Ellen, described by Jack Kerouac as 'a horribly perverted love scene unequalled for its pathetic sudden revelation of the vampire's essential helplessness.'17

In conclusion, Nosferatu is concerned primarily with death, nature, and repressed desire. It proposes an underworld, which its polite, bourgeois characters refuse to acknowledge unless forced to do so, but which manifests itself in ways corresponding to these three dominant themes of the film. The figure of Nosferatu personifies this underworld. His existence serves to expose the demonic at the heart of nature, the inevitability of death, and the subversive presence of repressed desire, even in such a sanctified area as the bourgeois family - all of which threaten the film's other characters. Murnau achieves this by invoking many and various devices to associate him with death and with nature. In addition, the mirroring effect between the monster and the hero make these threats seem alarmingly close, so that the film fulfils its overriding intention: to make the audience fear itself even after the threat of the monster has been defused.


1. Lotte H. Eisner in Murnau (Secker and Warburg Limited, 1973)

2. Rona Unrau, in Literature/Film Quarterly

3. Ibid.

4. Summary of ideas in Gilberto Perez Guillermo's 'Shadow and Substance: Murnau's Nosferatu'

5. Ibid.

6. Robin Wood, 'Murnau's Midnight and Sunrise'

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Roger Blin, quoted by Rona Unrau in Literature/Film Quarterly

10. Rona Unrau

11. Ibid.

12. Robin Wood, 'Murnau's Midnight and Sunrise'

13. Gilberto Perez Guillermo's 'Shadow and Substance: Murnau's Nosferatu'

14. Rona Unrau

15. Quoted from Rona Unrau in Literature/Film Quarterly

16. Rona Unrau

17. Jack Kerouac, quoted by Rona Unrau in Literature/Film Quarterly


Eisner, Lotte H., The Haunted Screen (First published in France in 1942; revised and reissued by Le Terrain Vague, Paris. Translation by Roger Greaves, first published in Britain in 1969 by Thames and Hudson Limited, London)

Eisner, Lotte H., Murnau (First published in France in 1964 by Le Terrain Vague, Paris. English translation first published in 1973 by Martin Secker and Warburg Limited, London)

Guillermo, Gilberto Perez, 'Shadow and Substance: Murnau's Nosferatu' in Sight and Sound vol.36, no.3 Summer 1967 pp150-153

Unrau, Rona, in Literature/Film Quarterly vol.24, no.3 1996, pp234-240

Wood, Robin, 'Murnau's Midnight and Sunrise' in Film Comment vol.12, no.3, May/June 1976, pp4-19

For more information on German Expressionist cinema, see:



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