Killed in a car accident nine years after Nosferatu had its extravagant German premiere, F. W. Murnau never grasped the extent of his mark on cinematic history. Now widely celebrated as a silent classic and one of the first true horror films, Nosferatu instead served as a thorn in Murnau’s side in the years following its release. The plot was effectively a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only with the names and a few other minor details changed. Stoker’s widow, who was unaware of the film’s existence until after it had been released, condemned the filmmakers for what she considered a blatant copyright infringement and successfully took them to court. As part of the ruling, all existing prints of the film were ordered to be immediately burned.

Nosferatu came within an inch of being confined to the purgatory of lost silent films. Although all original copies of the film were destroyed, a few second-hand reels managed to slip through the cracks after being shipped abroad. One hundred years of extinction were narrowly avoided thanks to these few surviving copies, allowing modern audiences to reaffirm Nosferatu’s status as a masterpiece of the horror genre.

Today – 4th March – marks the centenary of the film’s release, but what is it that makes Nosferatu’s legacy so enduring and influential?

Credit: BBC News

Perhaps the secret to its longevity lies in what it represents. This is, at its most basic level, the story of Dracula: one of the quintessential characters in horror fiction and a universally recognised icon of film and literature. Dracula has been the subject of countless retellings in just about every medium imaginable – cinema, television, literature, radio, theatre, and so on – but Nosferatu was the first definitive adaptation and served as the benchmark for those that came after it. The names may have been changed in a doomed attempt to circumvent copyright laws (Dracula became the hideous Count Orlok, a far cry from the charismatic Transylvanian nobleman that would be embodied in later adaptations), but the plot itself remains fundamentally the same.

And by putting their own spin on certain elements, the filmmakers inadvertently created a piece of folklore that would become a staple of the vampire genre. The end of the film contains a highly influential scene: Nosferatu is killed when he comes into direct contact with sunlight. Now an essential part of any vampire movie, the lethal effect of sunlight on a vampire was not in the original Dracula novel, nor any previous works of fiction. The idea, which has become integral to popular culture, derives exclusively from Nosferatu. Although it is the story of Dracula at its core, these deviations from the source material help to establish Nosferatu as an artistic accomplishment in its own right.

Credit: IMDb

Of course, Nosferatu was produced long before the onset of talking pictures, and the lack of sound could have been detrimental. It forces Nosferatu to rely solely on its visual power; blinking could mean you miss a crucial camera trick or an important detail. But these technical restraints give the film a haunting quality that is lacking from the horror offerings of today. Every corner of the screen is utilised to its full potential: dark shadows seem to emerge from every angle, suggesting that the danger is everywhere, constantly around us, with no escape. Unfortunately, vampires are not the only threat faced by the characters. The plague becomes a secondary villain near the end of the film, something which has disturbing resonance in the age of Covid-19. Nosferatu became a template for the horror films that came after it, but more importantly, it teaches us that evil can lurk anywhere. In a pandemic, this message seems truer than ever.