Nosferatu (1922), the German silent film of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), itself based on earlier versions of the vampire myth — The Vampyre (1819); Varney the Vampire (1845); and Carmilla (1871) — brought the vampire story to a cinema-going audience, and gave us iconic images of the strange ‘un-dead’ being.
This version of the vampire story presents Count Orlok as a paranormal, Gothic creature, the ‘other’: a somewhat pitiful character, apparently aware of his separateness, locked into the nocturnal world of the ‘un-dead’. As a ‘monster’ he is surprisingly needy, emotionally coveting Ellen; his obsession with her (combined with his lust for blood) leading to his own death. Nonetheless, he is still a blood-sucking monster whose demon-like presence brings a mysterious plague-like sickness to the land around him.
The bald Count Orlok has strange, Spock-like ears and large boney fingers with sharply pointed nails. His weird, but sufficiently human form, and inability to survive daylight, renders him a kind of depressed, reclusive, insomniac. His infatuation with Ellen (he willingly drops everything to seek her out), combined with his magical powers to mesmerise people is still not enough to break her devotion to her husband.
Count Orlok falls into the category of the straight, horror monster, unlike some of the latter representations of vampires which bring in humour, or present the story from the vampire’s point of view. His unnatural thirst for blood can be interpreted as a metaphor for sex; his atypical lifestyle symptomatic of his inherent moral corruption. The specifics of his condition and lifestyle resemble a pseudo-medical sickness, with opportunities for both diagnosing and defeating him — the ‘science’ providing a rational counterpoint to the paranormal.
Elements of Gothic horror were later used in Nazi propaganda; to perpetuate the racist representation of Jews as sinister and untrustworthy. These propaganda reels often incorporated images of mentally disturbed people, and associate them with a plague of apparently diseased rats. Nosferatu’s popular horror, and Count Orlok’s exaggerated features foreshadows Nazi hate propaganda, and its attempt to portray Jews as the ‘other’, the monster: something to be feared.
Ellen, Thomas Hutter’s wife, is notable for proactively planning the scenario that leads to the vampire’s demise. She offers herself to him, allowing him to feed on her blood at night, which distracts him from the impending morning sunrise. Her sacrifice results in her own death. Her husband, Thomas, on the other hand, is a weak protagonist who fails to stop Count Orlok through his own endeavours.
Nosferatu is an influential vampire film, a warning about a monster who looks human, but it’s an abomination with deadly paranormal powers. It’s also a celebration of the damsel in distress who turns out to be the heroine — sacrificing herself to destroy the monster — saving her husband, and the people of her town, so that life can return to normal.