Nosferatu's Gay Master

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday October 25, 2017
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In "The Language of Shadows," a one-hour documentary included on Kino Lorber's DVD release of FW Murnau's classic chiller "Nosferatu" (1922), the auteur is recalled by his niece as a sensitive, artistically inclined young man who was interested in art and theater. As a youngster in Germany he attended the theater regularly, often "restaging" the productions he saw at his home. By his early 20s, Murnau was hanging out with artists and literary figures and acting onstage. Though "The Language of Shadows" never mentions Murnau's homosexuality, the film paints an almost stereotypical portrait of a "sensitive" gay artiste.

That sensitivity could clearly be seen when Murnau became a filmmaker. His first half-dozen films are either lost or survive in short fragments, though most of his 1920s output exists fully intact. What we see today is the work of a man who understood the power of cinema. Murnau painted haunting portraits with his camera, as he did with his visually stunning retelling of the medieval legend "Faust" (1926).

The film's imagery remains unforgettable even today. As the plague ravages a small town, the Satanic Mephisto hovers over the populace, laughing maniacally at the suffering he sees below. Sequences like these are visually stunning. Not even today's computer-generated effects can hold a candle to the dark universe that was Murnau's cinematic vision.

"Nosferatu" (1922) is Murnau's most widely-seen film. The first big-screen version of Bram Stoker's 1897 "Dracula," the film was almost lost forever. Denied the novel's film rights by Stoker's estate, Murnau simply changed the names of the characters and the title. "Nosferatu" is the German word for undead. Stoker's widow sued for copyright infringement, and all copies of the film were ordered destroyed. Fortunately, a few prints survived, and Kino Lorber has restored the film from various prints found in European vaults.

Murnau's take on the Dracula legend is nothing short of magnificent. As portrayed by Max Schreck, Dracula stand-in Count Orlock makes for a terrifying visage. Dracula wasn't human, so Murnau eschewed the concept of the vampire as a courtly if creepy gentleman. Instead, Schreck is made up to look like a human-rat hybrid. One look at his evil countenance and viewers will know that he's out for blood.

The scenes in Orlock's castle were shot on location in a desolate, centuries-old European castle. When we see Orlock in his dungeon coffin, the effect is chillingly powerful. Throughout the film Murnau shoots scenes at odd angles with shadowy lighting effects. The result is almost dreamlike. The director pulls you into the netherworld where vampires reside.

In 1927, Murnau moved to Hollywood, where he made four films. The best-remembered of these is "Sunrise" (1927), a drama about a country bumpkin who leaves his wife after he's seduced by a sophisticated city woman. Murnau used many of the techniques he employed in "Nosferatu" - the strange, off-kilter camera angles, expressionistic art direction and deep shadows take an ordinary tale and make it seem ghostly.

In 1931, soon after completing his final film "Tabu," Murnau and his chauffeur were killed in a car accident near Santa Barbara. Murnau was 42. Rumors persist that the director and his driver were lovers engaged in oral sex when they lost control of the car. There's no way to verify this story.

In 2015, Murnau's grave in Germany was the site of an incident more disturbing than anything he filmed. His head was stolen from the grave. Speculation continues that this was part of a Satanic ritual, but no one knows for sure.

Actor John Malkovich played Murnau in the 2000 film "Shadow of the Vampire," a fictional dramatization of the filming of "Nosferatu." Director E. Elias Merhige opines that Max Schreck was an actual vampire. Happy Halloween!

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