The classic vampire movie Nesferatu is a silent film from 1922, and is the great-grandfather of all horror movies. The movie later won many awards, but at first the film was surrounded by controversy. The German film was a blatant rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Director F.W. Murnau was one of the top Expressionist filmmakers, whose primary goal was to focus more on the feeling of the characters than the strict setting of the story. Murnau wanted to make a movie version of Dracula, but couldn’t secure the rights from the author’s estate. In order to still be able to make his movie, he just changed a few names and decided that was enough. It was not, and Stoker’s widow successfully sued for copyright infringement, and the court ordered all copies of the film destroyed. However, much like the titular character, the movie was hard to kill. One copy was already distributed worldwide and was duplicated over the years and kept alive by a cult following.
However, while the film is based on eastern European folklore, it served more as a warning to its viewers and the dangers of immigrants. The movie creates Count Orlok to look as a stereotypical Jewish man, with a long and pointed nose, bushy eyebrows, long greedy fingers, and even his costume making his lack of masculine musculature apparent. Orlok, Jews, and the original Dracula embodied the Other and the xenophobic fears towards immigrants, a trope that worked both in Germany – emerging with scars from the first world war, as well as Americans when it premiered in 1929, seven years after the movie originally premiered in Germany.
The America that Nosferatu premiered to was short lived. Just a few short months after the premiere of the movie in June, the stock market crashed, sending the country into a depression that would take over a decade to recover from. But just like the world today, there was a source of xenophobia, a fear of the other, that the movie could still play off of. Still deep in the throes of prohibition, 1929 America was a time of duality. As Rosenburg notes in her post, The Roaring Twenties, the country was celebrating a never before seen prosperity, but writes such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were cynical and disillusioned about the state of the world. The Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom, with African Americans changing popular art and music, but racial stereotypes and segregation still ran deep.
The most distinct difference between German-made Nosferatu and American made movies at the time was a lack of opulence. As Sternheimer remarked in her book, Celebrity Culture, the middle class was making economic gains that allowed them to purchase items such as appliances and cars for the very first time. Slowly, these modest increases in personal wealth were transitioned onto the silver screen, where actors and actresses went from modest characters such as farmers to larger than life heiresses and kings. Nosferatu on the other hand, displayed the much more simplistic life of a semi-rural village in Germany, and a village in Transylvania. Even the Count’s castle looked more like a barren fortress than an estate you would expect a count to live in.
Nosferatu. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Screenwriter Henrik Galeen. Prod. Albin Grau, Enrico Diekmann. Perf. Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim. Prana Film, March 4 1922. Nosferatu. Kanopy. Web. <http://sdsu.kanopystreaming.com/video/nosferatu-0>.
Rosenberg, Jordan. “Essay Topic- The Roaring Twenties.” HACK It! N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 July 2017.
Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity culture and the American dream: stardom and social mobility. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Image source: http://littlehorrorshop.tumblr.com/post/109337138403/your-wife-has-a-lovely-neck-nosferatu1922