Nosferatu: A Symphony of Copyright Infringement

In hindsight, I find it hilarious that Nosferatu exists.  Apparently, when the director couldn’t get the rights to make a Dracula movie, he cut out some characters, changed the names of the others, and condensed the plot so that hopefully nobody would notice.

Alas, if only F.W. Murnau had the writers from NBC’s Dracula show on his team.  Then he might’ve gotten away with it!

Unfortunately, Mr. Murnau decided to actually follow the basic plot of the book, so he got caught.  When the Stoker family found out, they won a court case against the film and most of the copies were destroyed.

Before writing anything else, I want to be clear about something: I’m not an expert on silent films or Expressionist films or the techniques used to make any kind of movie.  I’ve seen a couple of silent films in college, but unfortunately they couldn’t hold my attention for very long.  I’ve tried watching Nosferatu three times, and while I’ve seen it all the way through, I can’t get into it as much as I’d like to get into it.  I’m going to be looking at this movie solely on the basis of how well it adapts the Dracula novel, and that’s it.  Roger Ebert wrote a review about it if you’re interested in how well it works as a film: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-nosferatu-1922

The Nosferatu version of events goes like this: Jonathan Thomas Hutter and his wife, Mina Ellen, live happily in the little German village of Misborg.  (I’ll just refer to them as TomJon and Mina-Ellen from here on out.)  One day, TomJon’s boss, Renfield Knock, tells him to go to Count Dracula Orlok’s castle and help him move to an old, abandoned house in their village.  In fact, it’s right across the street from TomJon’s house.  He agrees and enthusiastically tells his wife that’s he off to “the land of thieves and ghosts” to see the Count.  (I have no idea why he’s so excited about that.)

When TomJon gets to the village near Orlok’s castle, they beg him not to go and he laughs off their superstitions.  But when he arrives at his destination, he realizes that there’s something strange and possibly dangerous about Orlok.  It turns out that he’s a vampire who almost kills TomJon, but then he leaves for Misborg and TomJon escapes by climbing out his bedroom window.  While TomJon recovers from his terrifying experience in a convent, Mina-Ellen sits by the beach and worries about him, and Orlok eats almost everyone on a ship headed for Misborg.

Eventually, both TomJon and the Count make it to Misborg.  TomJon tells Mina-Ellen not to read about what happened to him.  But she does and also finds out that the only way to defeat a vampire is for a maiden to sacrifice herself and let him drink her blood while the sun’s coming up.  He’ll be so distracted that he won’t notice the sun until it’s too late and he’ll burn up.  That’s pretty much what happens, and THAT is how “vampires burn in the sun” got added to vampire mythology.  The original Dracula could walk around in the sun just fine.

There are a couple of scientist characters in the story, but they don’t get to do anything plot significant, so they don’t really function as proper substitutes for Dr. Van Helsing or Dr. Seward.  According to the opening credits, their names are “Professor Sievers” and “Professor Bulwer,” but I couldn’t tell you who’s supposed to be who.  Arthur, Lucy, her mother, the three vampire brides, and Quincey got cut too.  But this movie has many similarities to the original book, including: TomJon’s trip to the Count’s castle, TomJon escaping from the castle through his window and recovering in a convent, the Count killing everyone on the ship except the captain and the first mate,  and Mina-Ellen playing an important role in defeating the Count.

Although Mina-Ellen spends most of the movie worrying about her husband and coming close to fainting, she’s ultimately the one who saves everybody in the village by letting the  Count feed on her until the sun comes up.  At least, I think she does this willingly because the movie shows her reading about it beforehand.  But she does resist opening the window for him afterwards, so I don’t know if it was entirely her decision to put herself in danger.  Nonetheless, it’s an act that Stoker’s Mina would have done too and she’s more similar to her book counterpart than some of the others that I’ve seen.  At least she doesn’t fall in love with her attacker.  (Oh, but don’t worry, I will be ranting about THAT very soon.)

But with that said, I do wish that she didn’t have to stay a victim in all of this.  Book!Mina got attacked and forced into a psychic mind-link with Dracula.  Then she used it to her advantage and turned the tables on her attacker.  That’s pretty empowering.  How come I can’t find a single adaptation that shows this?!?

A couple of other changes stood out to me.  First, somebody behind the scenes decided to combine the characters of Peter Hawkins and Renfield into the character of Knock.  In Stoker’s version, Mr. Hawkins is Jonathan’s boss but also acts like a father figure to the Harkers.  He didn’t know anything about Dracula’s true nature and never would’ve sent Jonathan there if he had.  Renfield lives in Dr. Seward’s sanitarium as a patient who believes he can increase his own life and grow stronger by eating animals alive.  He has a strange psychic connection with the Count that Stoker never really explains.

In Nosferatu, Knock plays both roles.  It’s implied that he knows the truth about the Count because he’s studying a strange document before he sends TomJon off on his assignment.  Then he laughs maniacally about it.  The next time Knock shows up in the movie, he’s a patient in the sanitarium, raving about the arrival of “the master.”  Although I liked Mr. Hawkins and there’s still no explanation for R.M. Knock’s psychic connection with the Count, I thought it was an interesting change to have his character knowingly send Jonathan into danger instead of by coincidence.  It’s a change that I’ve never seen used again in Dracula movies, even though most of the other adaptations cut and combine characters all the time.

Additionally, Lucy got cut from the story and replaced by lots of victims in the village.  They believe that people are dying from the plague; only TomJon and Mina-Ellen know the truth.  This change fits with one of the themes from the books: the heroes struggle to accept that vampires exist in their world.  Plus, it’s an improvement over the book because despite Dracula living in London for at least a month, Stoker never shows him attacking anybody but Lucy or Mina.  He made a big deal about how terrifying it would be for Dracula to move to London and feast on the millions of unsuspecting people…but then the Count just picks on two women and that’s it.  At least in Nosferatu, he does what he actually set out to do and establishes himself as more of a threat.

Finally, we have the Count.  He’s definitely creepy in this movie.  There’s nothing sexy about him at all, thank goodness.  I really hate “Sexy Count.”  Compared to other Draculas, Orlok’s not really interested in Mina-Ellen except as potential prey.  That said, I think F.W. Murnau went a little too far in the opposite direction with Orlok.  When Jonathan first meets the Count in the book, Dracula greets him as warmly as a vampire can and does his best to come off as a friendly host.  Jonathan even says at the beginning of Chapter 2: “The light and warmth and the Count’s courteous welcome seemed to have dissipated all my doubts and fears.”

I could be wrong, but I don’t think it would be so easy to dispel those doubts and fears if he met this guy:

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Over the course of four chapters, Jonathan realizes that Dracula’s a monster but pretends that he doesn’t know.  Dracula pretends that he doesn’t know that Jonathan doesn’t know and acts polite.  It plays out a lot creepier than it sounds, because there’s nothing Jonathan can do except act ignorant, and Dracula abuses the situation for all it’s worth.  “You’d like to go home?  Of course, I’d never force you to stay in my castle.  By the way, I just summoned a pack of hungry wolves to the gates that will definitely want to eat you when you step outside, but hey, you did say you wanted to leave, so…”

I’d love to see an actor portray Dracula that way.  Most of the time, he’s either a sexy antihero or a total monster in appearance and behavior.  It would be nice to see a balance, where he starts out as charming but then gradually reveals the hungry, evil vampire underneath the polite face.  Basically, I’d like to see something like Tilda Swinton’s performance as the White Witch of Narnia: she’d act cold and calm most of the time but then she could suddenly fly into a rage with absolutely no warning, and that was scary.  Bela Lugosi and Louis Jourdan came the closest to getting it right, but they’ll have to wait for future posts.

If you have access to Nosferatu at home or through your local library, I definitely recommend checking it out.  It wasn’t for me, but you might enjoy it.

Next up…the classic 1931 movie starring Bela Lugosi!

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2 thoughts on “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Copyright Infringement

  1. Woot woot! The first review! Very nicely done, my friend! I never really thought about the character of Knock being a combination of Mr. Hawkins and Renfield! That’s really interesting when you think about it!

    Someday we’ll have an adaptation that is 100% the book! If not, we’ll make our own! You don’t like “Sexy Count??” How DARE you!! Lol I’m kidding!

    Also, a few notes: I believe Dr. Culver was supposed to be Van Helsing here, but like you said he didn’t really have a role so no biggie! Also if I remember correctly in the credits, the name of the male character Mina-Ellen (HA I love that!) was named “Harding” and I assume it’s Arthur…and his wife is listed as “Ruth, Harding’s Wife” so Lucy-Ruth definitely does exist! Not major characters, understandable, but I just thought I’d let you know!

    Overall, my review…is it good? Is it bad? Is it good? Is it bad? It’s hilarious! Lol I’m not sick but I love it! Ermagerd! 😀

    Like

  2. Oh also, if anyone is going to be creeped out my Max Schreck’s (yes that’s his name! FUN FACT: “Schreck” is German for “terror”!), don’t forget THIS happened!

    Oceans of Love,

    Alie

    Like

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