Nosferatu is arguably the first great horror movie. Nearly 100 years after it was made, it can still inspire terror, revulsion, and dread. But we're lucky that we even have copies to see today.
The film was made under strange circumstances, to say the least. As told by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser in an essay on the film, the idea and much of the artistic direction for Nosferatu came directly from the film's production company, Prana Film. This was the only film the company made. That alone isn't uncommon in the film industry (even today), but it is strange that Prana was spearheaded by a man deeply invested in the occult, Albin Grau. Grau was generally interested in the occult and the sophist movements, each achieving an apex of popularity around the time this film was made. He was a fan of Aleister Crowley's and friends with author Alfred Kubin.
Grau was far from the only strange presence involved in the film. Speculation has swirled for years about the true identity of lead actor Max Schreck, with his layers of grotesque makeup in the Count Orlok/Nosferatu rule. The work "schreck" is German for "monster," leading many film buffs to feel that the moniker was a rather on-the-nose pseudonym for some other individual. Schreck does seem to have worked with F.W. Murnau's own mentor, Max Reinhardt, and does have a bit of a filmography outside of Nosferatu. Greta Schroeder, who plays Ellen Hutter in this film, was a Reinhardt collaborator as well.
Why are we lucky to have copies of Nosferatu? Well, Prana thought it could skirt the permission of Bram Stoker's estate to adapt Dracula by changing the story and characters just enough. Hence, Count Dracula was changed to Count Orlok, the Van Helsing character was demoted to the ineffective Professor Bulwer, Dracula's sharp incisors were translated to Nosferatu's rat-like front fangs, and the vampire of the film developed an allergy to daylight. These cosmetic changes were not enough, and Stoker's widow won a lawsuit against Prana that bankrupted the company and was supposed to result in all copies of Nosferatu getting burned. Fortunately, the film had already entered distribution, so destroying every copy was impractical.
As a piece of film history, Nosferatu is notable for a few reasons. For one, it documents director F.W. Murnau's unique approach to the then-popular German expressionist film style. While other films in that movement relied on vertigo-inducing camera angles and elaborate, surrealistic sets, Murnau using location filming, costume, and camera tricks to do all of the expressionist legwork.
The result is a beautifully dreamlike horror film that, as Siegfried Kracauer notes in From Caligari to Hitler, demonstrates "Murnau's unique faculty of obliterating the boundaries between the real and the unreal. Reality in this film was surrounded by a halo of dreams and presentiments, and a tangible person might suddenly impress the audience as a mere apparition."