Release Date: March 4, 1922
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Prana Film
This German Expressionist horror film has a strange history. It was based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but since the filmmakers never got permission for the adaptation, the Stoker estate sued and ordered all prints of the film destroyed. Obviously some prints survived, but they were released in various “bootleg” editions.
I’m not sure which version I ended up streaming, but the title character is known as Count Orlok in all the film reviews I’ve read, but they straight up call him Dracula in the version I watched. Similarly, the heroes are known as Thomas and Ellen Hutter in the literature, but the version I watched called them Jonathan and Mina Harker. I guess that’s the advantage of silent film is that one can just rename all the characters with minimal effort. At any rate, this is a long way of explaining why I’ll be using particular names for characters in my review.
The story begins in a German town where Jonathan (Gustav von Wangenheim) works in real estate for the creepy Renfield (Alexander Granach), who is secretly a minion of Count Dracula. Renfield sends Jonathan to Transylvania on the pretense that the Count wants to buy a house in their town. Jonathan entrusts Mina (Greta Schröder) to some friends for safety, but she has premonitions about his travels.
In Transylvania Jonathan meets the locals who are frightened of the Count and the things that happen after dark. Wangenheim does a good silent movie acting job of showing his derision of their superstitions. Jonathan finally arrives at the Count’s castle and meets the Nosferatu (Max Schreck) who he treats warmly despite his chilling appearance and comments about Mina’s lovely neck. Jonathan ends up being held captive and Wangenheim now does a great job of acting terrified.
Jonathan escapes and the Nosferatu follows him to Germany. One of the interesting aspects of Dracula-lore I wasn’t aware of is that Nosferatu has to be transported in coffins with soil from the burying grounds of the victims of Black Death. So when he arrives in Germany he brings the plague AND feasts on the blood of the town’s citizens. It’s up to Mina to make the sacrifice to offer herself to the Nosferatu to keep him feeding until daylight. This film actually introduced the concept of a vampire being killed by sunlight.
The movie is terrifically atmospheric and spooky. Some of the filmmaking conventions that may seem laughably outdated today are countered by the eeriness of silence, scratchy film, and uncanny production values. I’m not a big horror fan or have much interest in the Dracula story, but this film was worth watching for its part in the history of one of the world’s great legends.