Nosferatu: from the plagiarism trial of Dracula, who lost at the hands of Bram Stoker’s widow, to the satanic rite that desecrated the grave of its director

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Nosferatu: from the plagiarism trial of Dracula, who lost at the hands of Bram Stoker's widow, to the satanic rite that desecrated the grave of its director

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau he lived only 42 years. Of his 21 films, 12 have survived. At one time, that of the leap from silent to sound cinema, in which prolific directors and industrial jobs reigned (there are the more than 100 John Ford films), Murnau shot little, and a third of his filmography has vanished over time. Nevertheless, even today he is one of the most important filmmakers in history, the greatest exponent of expressionism, a creator whose life and career was cut short in a car accident. Even his best film, Nosferatu (1922), a classic that is now a century old, was about to disappear when the producers lost the plagiarism suit against the widow of Bram Stoker, the writer of Dracula, novel that greatly inspired Murnau’s film.

Despite that, a century later, there is the silhouette of Nosferatu, the undead, silhouetted on the last flight of stairs, those long nails, prominent nose, humped back and long coat. Count Orlok, the mundane incarnation of him, continues to strike fear wherever he appears. “It blew my mind,” recalls the North American Robert Eggers, a leading filmmaker in modern horror. For his part, Werner Herzog, who considers it the most important German film in history, made a version in 1979. Eggers has spent years trying to direct his own remake. “I don’t like Werner Herzog’s movie, even though I revere him and he had a great cast. But it does not work”. And about his project, he points out: “I already failed twice. Either it is a cursed project or Murnau is telling me that I am not up to the challenge”.

That have Nosferatu and Murnau to fascinate yet? First, being an enormous exponent of German expressionism, the film announces other paths. Murnau, throughout his career, was an innovator. He commissioned one of the first storyboard of history for The Grand Duke’s Finances (1924), put the camera in a baby stroller and thus invented the machine dolly for The last (1924), his riskiest film, an excellent job that gave him a passport to Hollywood.

Lotte Eisner, the master of German critics and a student of her compatriot’s work, points out: “The demonic unfolding appears in many German films […]. The vampire Nosferatu, love of a feudal castle, wants to buy a house from a real estate agent who is also imbued with diabolism. […]. The demonic side of the individual always carries a bourgeois counterpoint. In the ambiguous world of German cinema no one is sure of his identity, and moreover he can lose it along the way”. Murnau himself led a double life as a homosexual in a time of absurd moral standards; moreover, he was called Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe: the surname Murnau was given to him in 1911 to break with his father, who rejected his artistic aspirations and his sexuality. Manuel Lamarca Rosales, in his biography of Murnau (Cátedra editions), recalls that from Tahiti, where he was shooting his last film, Taboo (1931), he wrote to his mother: “I find myself at home when I am nowhere and in no country.”

Nosferatu, the vampire, in the film directed by Werner Herzog

Yet Murnau is no Nosferatu, all experts on his career say. Eggers clearly points out that the great plotter of the film was the producer Albin Grau, a leadership that underlines the restorer Luciano Berriatúa, who in 2006 undertook the fascinating task of returning Nosferatu to its original state, including its color tinting, and three years later published an exceptional and detailed study of the film together with the DVD edition. “Grau was the one who commissioned the script, who hired the already renowned Murnau for how he built atmospheres, using the weather to reflect the emotional state of the characters, even who designed the scenarios and later the posters and announcements of its launch, all the publicity usually. In addition, Grau believed in occultism, a fundamental narrative engine in Nosferatu”, explains the director of The Northman.

Murnau, Lamarca maintains, provides the atmosphere, the use of fast motion in some moments, frame-by-frame animation for some effects and the projection of a negative directly onto the camera (thus he achieves a black float in a whitish forest). Berriatúa reflects in his book: “It surpasses the theatrical staging of the cinema of the time, thanks to the application of pictorial resources […] with realistic images” and shooting in natural settings.

In this immersion in the other world, Murnau and Grau gave amazing depth to Nosferatu. Hence, Berriatúa subtitled his study: “An erotic-occultist-spiritualist-metaphysical film”. Grau belonged to several Berlin lodges, he even wrote an introductory manual on the occult sciences; even the logo and the name of his production company, Prana Film, comes from the occult. Prana is a Sanskrit term that defines the vital fluid, the essence of life that contains various mysteries, and Grau planted Nosferatu of occult signs, of reflections of what they baptized as magical mathematics.

In 1925, Florence Stoker succeeded in getting judicial authorities to order the destruction of all copies of Nosferatu, because his script was based on draculathe masterpiece of her husband, who died in 1912. She almost made it. But due to the enormous success of the film, some copies remained in several countries where the film did not reach. judgment. Thanks to them, Berriatúa managed to carry out its restoration. However, in that distant 1925, the judicial resolution ended Prana Film.

German actor Max Schreck, as the vampire Count Orlok, being destroyed by sunlight, in a still from FW Murnau's expressionist horror film
German actor Max Schreck, as the vampire Count Orlok, being destroyed by sunlight, in a still from FW Murnau’s expressionist horror filmHulton Archive – Hulton Archive

after brand new Nosferatu, Murnau continued shooting in Germany. In July 1926, before the premiere in his native country of his last German film, Splendor, the filmmaker traveled to the United States hired by producer William Fox. There he shot four more films: the masterpiece Dawn (1927), the now defunct the four devils (1928), of which he made two versions, one silent and the other sound; Our daily bread (1930), for which he was fired from the Fox studio, and Taboo, that he never got to see released. On March 10, 1931, Murnau was in a car accident along with several of his friends. He was driving his 14-year-old Filipino lover, Garcia Stevenson. The next morning, the filmmaker became the only fatality. In 2015, his grave was desecrated in a Berlin cemetery. From the long corpse (measured 1.93 meters) of the director, wrapped in a shroud, the head disappeared. Instead, the thieves did not touch anything else, not even the bodies of their brothers, and left traces of some satanic rite. Murnau’s skull was never recovered.

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