Designing Fear: Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror

The rooms dark, your tense, hearts pounding, and you scream as a horrifying figure is revealed. These reactions of horror and fear are the goal every horror film is designed to achieve. From House of the Devil in 1896 to Jordan Peels’s Us, filmmakers have been out to terrify audiences for over a hundred years, and we love it. Over the decades, horror has changed to embrace ever-evolving technology and embody the fears of the day. However, one staple of the genera that continues to horrify and fascinate audiences are monsters. From the earliest days of silent film to 2020’s Invisible Man, movies about these terrifying creatures have never gone out of style. In no small part, the monster films’ ongoing success can be credited to the make-up artist, special effects artist, and costume designers who create the creatures that haunt our dreams. Probably the most recognizable of these monsters is the vampire. 

Nosferatu Poster by Albin Grau
Nosferatu Poster art by Albin Grau

For hundreds of years, vampire legends have terrified humanity. Causing us to create thousands of stories and scores of rituals to keep the fear of vampires at bay. So at the dawn of cinema, it was only natural that these legends would be translated to film. Over the decades, vampires have been portrayed as everything from their original form of villains monsters to heartthrobs and anti-heroes. When thinking of this rich history, one of the earliest vampire films that come to mind is 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

American Nosferatu advertisement

Directed by F.W. Murnau, this “retelling” of Bram Stocker’sDracula has become iconic for its main character’s terrifying design. This image of a tall, gaunt, gangly creature of the night has sunk so far into the pop-culture consciousness that even Spongbob paid tribute nosferatu in one of its earliest episodes. Unfortunately, like most film history, little information about Nosferatu’s production exists, and the film itself almost didn’t survive. 

Fledgling German production company Prana-Film wanted to adapt Dracule for the screen but couldn’t afford the rightsSo the screenwriter Henrik Galeen made numerous minor changes to the story, like renaming Count Dracula to Graf Orlok, attempting to cover up the plagiarism. As soon as it was released, Bram Stoker’s estate sued Prana-Film for copyright infringement and won. The German court ordered all copies of Nosferatu to be recalled and destroyed as part of the settlement. Thankfully a handful of copies survived, allowing the German expressionist vision of producer, art director, and costumer designer Albin Grau to survive. 

While not usually credited for the film’s iconic look Albin Grau was a driving force behind Nosferatu’s creation. As an active member of the occult, Grau co-founded Prana-Flim with Enrico Dieckmann to create films about the occult and supernatural. As the companies first project, a lot was riding on Nosferatu’s success. So, Grau threw himself into Nosferatu’s production, starting with his role as art director. 

Nosferatu concept art by Albin Grau
Nosferatu concept art by Albin Grau

The concept-art where you begin to see the dark, surrealist look of German expressionism that defines the film’s style and creates the ideal atmosphere for Grau’s vision of Graf Orlok. A dark, hulking, and lanky creature that still manages to fade into the background. In the concept-art, Orlok appears very bony and gaunt in the face while also being disproportionally large in his shoulders and chest compared to his surroundings sheathed in a bulky overcoat.

In his first of only three costume design credits, Grau knew that bring his vision of Orlok to the screen would rely heavily on the overcoats construction and the actor portraying his creature. The first step to translating this odd morose creature to the screen was casting Max Schreck as Graf Orlok. 

An imposing man himself, Schreck was the perfect fit for Grau’s vision of Orlok. With a bald cap, prosthetic ears, fingers, and false teeth, the concept art’s lanky, gaunt image of Orlok begins to form, but the hulking overcoat adds the final touch. Paired with dark trousers and a cravat, the long, dark overcoat with accentuated shoulders hide any physical feature that doesn’t add to Orlok’s unnatural appearance. Schreck brought this almost formless creature to life. Director F.W. Murnau used the wardrobe to make the iconic images of Orlok rising from his coffin, his silhouette climbing up the stairs, and creating a vampire we all still know nearly one-hundred years later. 

Max Schreck as Graf Orlok
Max Schreck as Graf Orlok
Max Schreck as Graf Orlok

Want to know more? Check out my sources.

  1. “Nosferatu.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 4 Mar. 1922, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013442/?ref_=nm_knf_t1.
  2. Coulthart, John. “Albin Grau’s Nosferatu.” { Feuilleton }, 1 Nov. 2014, http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2014/10/28/albin-graus-nosferatu/.
  3. Markus, Sam. “The True Story behind Nosferatu.” Grunge.com, Grunge, 29 June 2020, http://www.grunge.com/221990/the-true-story-behind-nosferatu/.
  4. Crabbe, Eoghan. “The Shadow Of German Expressionism In Cinema.” Film Inquiry, 16 Oct. 2017, http://www.filminquiry.com/german-expressionism/.
  5. Mancini, Mark. “11 Nightmarish Facts About Nosferatu.” Mental Floss, 18 Aug. 2016, http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/84080/11-nightmarish-facts-about-nosferatu.
  6. Bailey, Jonathan. “Dracula vs. Nosferatu: A True Copyright Horror Story.” Plagiarism Today, 17 Oct. 2011, http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2011/10/17/dracula-vs-nosferatu-a-true-copyright-horror-story.
  7. Reid, Brent. “Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide, Part 2.” Brenton Film, 20 Aug. 2020, http://www.brentonfilm.com/articles/nosferatu-history-and-home-video-guide-part-2.
  8. Brautigam, Rob. “The Vampire of Progatza – ROMANIA.” WWW.SHROUDEATER.COM – Vampire of Progatza, http://www.shroudeater.com/cprogatz.htm.

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Elizabeth Joy Glass grew up on the east coast in Pennsylvania surrounded by early American history. A childhood full of fantasy, sci-fi and historical media, inspired her to start sewing and cosplaying. After high school, Elizabeth decided to move across the country to study fashion and costume design at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. While in school she worked on several AFI thesis films in the costume department. Elizabeth ultimately graduated with a B.A. in Digital Cinema and decided to pursue a career in video production and screenwriting, but she still holds a love for costume design and its history.

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