There seem to be conflicting stories about how open F.W. Murnau was about his sexuality. During promotion for the 2000 film, Shadow of the Vampire, Susan King wrote In the January 4, 2001, issue of the Los Angeles Times, “Murnau was a closet homosexual, but his ‘secret’ came out with his death in a car accident at age 42."
Contradictorily, his profile on the website Back2Stonewall claims that Murnau was openly gay. “Murnau’s homosexuality, would have been more or less accepted in his Berlin artistic circles of the day. Germany, indeed, was one of the gay-friendlier spots in the world until the Nazis took power.” This is suspicious to me and most recently, BJ Colangelo of /film wrote “Murnau was allegedly gay himself, and despite the public knowledge of homosexuality in Germany at this time, it was still considered a criminal (and pathological) act.”
Colangelo continues, “There was no way for Murnau to explicitly dissect these themes (queer desire, female desire, and the presence of eastern European/Jewish "intrusion") so instead they are hidden in the subtext of Nosferatu.” There’s always debate about whether directors like Murnau or James Whale added a “gay sensibility” to their films. In a bonus feature on the Kino Lorber Nosferatu Blu-ray, The Language of Shadows, Murnau’s niece recalls a sensitive, artistically inclined young man who was interested in art and theater. The word “homosexual” is not mentioned, but her words seem to code him as such.
Most Dracula films introduce us to the titular Count within their first few minutes. One of the unique variations to the formula that I appreciate in Nosferatu is that we don’t meet Count Orlok (Max Schreck) until over 23 minutes into the story. This allows us to get to know the other characters and fully understand why Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) makes his perilous journey to “the land of thieves and phantoms” and how what he finds there will affect his relationship with Ellen (Greta Schroder), the woman waiting for him at home.
We get the impression that Ellen is unwell. Indeed, when Hutter presents her with freshly cut flowers, she asks why he killed them. She’s referred to as “anxious” and Hutter must leave her in the care of friends while he’s away. She seems to have a supernatural connection with Count Orlok, even from the distance that separates them. When Orlok enters Hutter’s guest room at his castle in the Carpathian Mountains, Ellen wakes at home and either sleepwalks or experiences a trance-like state, nearly stepping off the balcony railing.
In fact, Orlok’s reach extends throughout the village long before he physically arrives there. Knock (Alexander Granach), the real estate agent who sends Hutter to sell him a house, becomes the Renfield character when he turns “stark raving mad” and is locked in a cell. Here, we see him snatch flies out of the air and practically drool at the site of spiders. He’s under the care of Professor Bulwer (Johjn Gottowt), who is ostensibly the Van Helsing character, but who also ultimately has nothing to do with Orlok’s fate.
Instead, Bulwer delivers metaphors to his students when he lectures on carnivorous plants. As a Venus Flytrap closes on its prey, he says, “Like a vampire, no?” Later, under a microscope he examines a polyp with tentacles and calls it, “transparent, almost ethereal… little more than a phantom.” These are perhaps heavy-handed references to Orlok; however, the overall metaphor of a plague hitting the village when Orlok arrives is, if not more subtle, at least more effective in describing the impact he’ll make.
By leaving Hutter alive in Carpathia, Writer Henrik Galeen and director F.W. Murnau incorporate a race against time element into the story. He escapes and heads for home as Orlok simultaneously boards a ship with his caskets filled with dirt and sails for Wisborg. Some of the shots of the ship are spectacular for the time in which Nosferatu was made; however, my only dislike about the entire film is that there may be one too many of them. The repeated back-and-forth of Hutter on land and Orlok at sea slows the pace of the action.
The film is known for its manipulation of light and shadow, especially to depict Orlok’s supernatural acts; however, two other scenes haunt me. One is when Orlok rises from his casket on board the ship. He does it in one smooth movement, straight as a board. The other is when a parade of men carrying caskets on their shoulders march slowly down the street and we realize the number of people Orlok has killed since he and his plague arrived. (The inter-title for Act I reads, “An account of death in Wisborg.”)
The icing on the cake is that there may not necessarily be a happy ending for everyone. Sure, we’ve all seen the shot of Orlok evaporating in the sunlight, but since the story began with the other characters, that’s how it ends. Knock whispers, “The master is dead,” but let’s just say he’s not the only one. It’s been so long since I’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I don’t remember if Murnau’s tweaks are more faithful to the original novel. I like them, though. As one of the earliest Dracula/vampire films, it’s also one of my favorites.
Written by Henrik Galeen
Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach, John Gottowt
RT 94 min.
Released March 15, 1922 (Germany), June 1, 1929 (United States)
Home Video Blu-ray (Kino Lorber)
Rating 9 phantoms (out of 10)