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"Nosferatu" by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is the first film version of classic horror novel "Dracula" by Bram Stocker. It is also one of the brightest films of the German Expressionism, which involved highly influential movements in the early years of the cinema. German Expressionism was a reaction of most prominent German directors of the time (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Friz Lang) to the depression caused by dire consequences of the World War I and deep crisis of German society that followed. Films created by the expressionists are characterized by dark, brooding atmosphere and a constant feeling of despair. They have a very distinct visual style – long dark shadows, distorted forms of the sets and the make-up of the characters, as well as deliberate acting. "Nosferatu" is not only a bright example of Expressionism. In many ways, it is a logical product of its time, which reflects the social processes and fears of Germany in the early 1920s.
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There are differences between the film and the source material. Due to legal issues, the authors of the motion picture had no rights for the initial title of Bram Stocker's book and the names of its characters. The name of the main antagonist Vampire Count was changed from Dracula to Orlok, and the film title was replaced with "Nosferatu". Unlike the original Dracula in Stocker's book, who was a handsome, courtly and charming person, the Vampire in the film is repulsive and horrifying. There are other differences between the film and the novel. The plot and the characters were noticeably simplified, the narrative was changed; besides, the setting and the epoch were also different. The word "Nosferatu" originated from the book and meant the "bird of prey" and "the carrier of plague." In folklore, vampires were sometimes blamed for the epidemic of the plague. In the film, Count Orlok brought rats with him, and it was already scientifically proved that rats spread plague. The look of the vampire was also reminiscent of animals, rats and vulture birds, creatures associated with death and disease. In the movie, the arrival of the Vampire to the peaceful German city of Wisborg results in the epidemic of the Black Death. The images of crosses, painted on the doors of the houses struck by the plague and a procession of coffins through the streets of the town represent the fear that the presence of the vampire brought to the society.
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The heroes of the film and at the same time Orlok's victims – the Hutter family, are portrayed in an idealistic manner. The Hutters serve to represent German society pure of inner and outer negative influences. In a very characteristic scene, Ellen Hutter is sad when Thomas brings her flowers; she asks, "Why have you destroyed them – the beautiful flowers." There is a parallel between the Hutter family and Adam and Eve, who lived purely and in harmony with nature before being seduced by the Devil. The part of the tempter in Nosferatu is given to Knock, shady real-estate agent, who offers Thomas to earn much money for a deal with Count Orlok. While Thomas is trustful enough to assent to this proposal, it is obvious for the viewer from the start that Knock is evil (due to his ugly appearance and a document of an obviously occult nature in his hand). While Knock is clearly the film's version of Renfield, his role in Murnau's interpretation is much more important. Renfield in the novel was just a victim, driven insane by the vampire, while in the plot of "Nosferatu", he plays a more distinct role. He sends Thomas Hutter to Orlok's castle, and helps the vampire to get a house near the one in which Ellen Hutter lives. At the end of the film, he becomes a scapegoat when the townsfolk are trying to blame someone for the plague. The character of Knock is used to personify the inner support to the outside threat, represented by Orlok. The visual resemblance of both evil characters in the film to the caricature depiction of Jewish people in German propaganda is obvious. "Jewish threat" was one of the alleged reasons of German failure in the World War I. This image was imposed on German people by then raising ultra-nationalist movement, which would eventually transform in the National Socialist Movement. After the end of the World War I, Germany was going through a deep economic crisis as well as turning point of national self-identification. Thus, the nation had a need for both inner and outer "enemy". The roles of enemies were projected onto Communist Movement that was becoming more and more powerful in the Soviet Union, on the southern borders of Germany, and was considered the main outside threat. The central reason for the loss in the war was the subversive activities from the inside, committed by traditional scapegoats – the Jews. These traditional fears are reflected in the film.
Another prominent motive in the movie is a female self-sacrifice. This is another religious connotation taken directly from the Bible. To defeat evil Count Orlok, Ellen Hutter needs to commit a sacrifice because only a woman of a pure heart can defeat the forces of evil. She gives herself to the vampire to save not only her husband, but also her hometown. Ellen's sacrifice is foreshadowed in the scene on the beach, when she is waiting for Thomas, surrounded by crosses. The crucifix motive is present throughout the film.
In contrast to the book, the characters in Murnau's film are very univocal and one-dimensional. Each character served a particular mission – to represent an archetype and to symbolize a feature. Orlok was pure evil, Knock represented inner threats coming form supposed traitors, Thomas Hutter embodied naivety and simplicity, and Ellen Hutter was meant to symbolize purity and self-sacrifice. By making these changes and simplifications, Murnau managed to use the plot of Stoker’s book to present his own message on the realities that troubled German society of the time.