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It has been ninety-four years since its release yet Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens has lost little of its impact, still terrifying audiences almost a century later. Created during an era in post-war Germany in which the cinema industry had begun to flourish, with such master filmmakers as Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang pushing the boundaries of technical achievement while the medium was still in its relative infancy. But perhaps the most acclaimed of these directors was F.W. Murnau, whose genius could also be seen in his interpretation of the Faust legend and the Academy Award winner Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. But Nosferatu remains his crowning achievement, an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula, published a mere twenty-five years earlier and loosely adapted in 1921 by Hungarian director Károly Lajthay as Drakula halála. It could be argued that Nosferatu was cinema’s first true horror picture, as the likes of Der Golem and Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari focused more on fantasy than real terror, therefore many of the traditions and cliches of the modern horror film may have originated with Murnau.
Produced when the country was still struggling from the aftermath of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles, in which Germany were forced to take the blame for four years of fighting against the Allied forces, Nosferatu was a loose reworking of Stoker’s story, taking the basic premise but portraying the events in expressionistic fashion. Stoker had passed away a decade earlier and would not live to witness the impact that his novel would have on the world, but in the wake of the picture’s release his widow, Florence, would take legal action due to the filmmakers’ failure to obtain the rights to the story. ‘The case dragged on for a year. By June 1923, the committee of the Society of Authors was thoroughly sick and tired of the whole time-consuming mess. But Mrs Stoker would not let it lie,’ explained author Kevin Jackson in his summary of the trial. ‘After it became clear that she would be winning little if any money, she changed her tactics and demanded that all copies of the film be destroyed. On 10 July 1925, the receivers finally agreed to comply and junked every print in their possession.’
While the majority of movies shot during the silent era remain lost forever, Nosferatu would survive thanks to one individual, an archivist at the Cinémathèque Française called Henri Langlois, who had retained a copy that had been distributed in France which would eventually make its way to the New York Museum of Modern Art. Over the decades its legacy would grow, with the iconic shot of Max Schreck’s shadow cast against the wall becoming one of the most recognised images in horror history. Fifty-seven years after its release German filmmaker Werner Herzog remade the picture as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, with Klaus Kinski taking on the role of the Count. ‘Herzog’s Nosferatu is a remake rich with references – to expressionist cinema in general and to Murnau’s film in particular that stands on its own as a mid-twentieth century rendition of the Dracula tale,’ claims Laurie Johnson in the booklet that would accompany BFI’s blu ray release. Herzog’s rendition of Nosferatu would receive considerable acclaim upon its release in 1979 and is widely considered one of the finest remakes of all time.
Fast forward thirty-seven years and the tale of Nosferatu is set to be told once again, this time by an American filmmaker. Last year it was revealed that Robert Eggers, fresh from the surprise success of his feature debut The Witch, had been approached to helm a new interpretation of Murnau’s masterpiece. With a background in theatre and having first cut his teeth in film as a production designer on numerous shorts, Eggers’ first foray into directing considerable acclaim, with the Guardian stating that ‘its true impact only reveals itself once the credits have rolled and it stays buried under your skin, breaking through every now and then to remind you of its insidious power.’Despite the honour of being entrusted with a project as prestigious as Nosferatu, Eggers admits that he approached the project with some reluctance. ‘It’s shocking to me. It feels ugly and blasphemous and egomaniacal and disgusting for a filmmaker in my place to do Nosferatu next. I was really planning on waiting a while, but that’s how fate shook out,’ he recently told Indiewire. ‘I saw a picture of Max Schreck as Count Orlok in a book in my elementary school and I lost my mind. Then, when I was seventeen, I directed the senior play of Nosferatu. It was very expressionist, it was much more expressionist than the film is. It was Cabinet of Dr. Caligari style.’ He continues, ‘Nosferatu has a very close, magical connection for me. Though if I were to make the movie seventeen-year-old Rob was going to make of Nosferatu it would have been something between like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sin City, whereas this is going to be the same approach as The Witch, where 1830s Biedermeier Baltic Germany needs to be articulated in a way that seems real.’