A scary old movie for a scary new time: ‘Nosferatu’ isn’t about a vampire; it’s about an epidemic

Not quite 100 years ago, a rather strange “want” ad appeared in a German newspaper.

Wanted: “30-50 living rats.”

The ad, which ran on July 31, 1921, was a casting call. The rats were needed for a film that was being shot in the Northern German town of Wismar that summer. The film was “Nosferatu.”

If you’ve seen that film – and many people have – you’ll know that they got their rats.

COVID-19 has made us look at a lot of familiar things with fresh eyes: from a handshake to a doorknob to a grocery list. Certain movies, too, will never look quite the same. One is this early silent movie version of “Dracula,” which might have been made with the present moment in mind. And no wonder, because it was made during a similar moment.

“Nosferatu” (1922) was always one of my favorite films. As a kid, I had an 8mm print – remember 8mm? – and I always found it weird, spooky, spellbinding.

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“Nosferatu” still turns up, on TV and on college campuses, every Halloween. It’s become part of pop culture, to an extent that is unusual for a silent film. It was remade by Werner Herzog in 1979. A quirky film-about-the-film, “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000) starred Willem Dafoe as the actor Max Schreck, whom the film proposed was an actual vampire. The villain in “Batman Returns” (1992) was named “Max Schreck.” There have been “Nosferatu” novels, comic books, model kits. Last year, a supernatural horror series called “NOS4A2” premiered on AMC. There is a “Nosferatu” beer.

You may even know something about this film’s backstory. How “Schreck” is a word that means “terror” – for decades, it was assumed to be a pseudonym, but no, it was the poor man’s real name. How the widow of Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula,” sued to have the film destroyed, and nearly succeeded. How its director, F.W. Murnau, is considered one of the giants of German cinema.

What you might not know is what the rats are doing there.

Batsare the animals generally associated with vampires. Certainly, that was the totem animal in Hollywood’s “Dracula” (1931), starring Bela Lugosi. This was the movie that set the fashion for the vampire as a suave, diabolically handsome aristocrat.

But in “Nosferatu,” it’s rats. When the vampire’s coffin is chopped opened, rats come swarming out. When he debarks from a sailing ship – after killing the entire crew – hordes of rats follow. Schreck, far from being a debonair nobleman, is even made up to look like a rat.

Murnau and his collaborators were not making a movie about a vampire. They were making a movie about an epidemic.

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Between 1918 and 1920, Germany lost roughly 287,000 people in the great flu pandemic – the “Spanish Flu,” as it’s erroneously called today – which killed 50 million worldwide. It was a shattering experience for the Germans, as it was for people everywhere. It may even have helped fuel the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, a recent paper by economist Kristian Bickle proposed. “Influenza deaths themselves had a strong effect on the share of votes won by extremists, specifically the extremist national socialist party,” Bickle wrote.

Between the flu, the lost war, economic instability and political turmoil, Germans of the 1920s were spooked. It showed in their films: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Golem,” “Warning Shadows,” “Tired Death,” and a dozen other creepy titles.

In the case of “Nosferatu,” the Dracula story became a vehicle – a way to deal with horrors that were fresh in the minds of the German audience. Plague is not a concept that comes up in Stoker’s novel. Nor will you find it in the more conventional “Dracula” movies, the ones with hunky guys in capes bending over the necks of swooning ladies. But it’s central to “Nosferatu.”

The scenes in which the vampire brings death to a captain and his crew, and then pilots the ghost ship into the harbor where dozens of rats scurry off to infect the city, is almost literally a page from history.

“In January of the year 1348 three ships carrying cargoes of spices put in at Genoa, Italy,” wrote historian Donovan Fitzpatrick. “They were also loaded with rats, lean and hungry, that scurried down the hawsers and anchor lines and disappeared into the city…The rats died by the thousands, and then the people began to die.” It was the beginning of the Black Death – bubonic plague.

In “Nosferatu,” there are quarantines, funerals, stay-at-home orders: all the things that are so familiar right now. There is also rumor-mongering and scapegoating. Near the climax, an escaped lunatic is chased by an angry mob.

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In his famed study of German cinema, “From Caligari to Hitler,” critic Siegfried Kracauer argued that the vampire of “Nosferatu” was a tyrant figure, a foreshadowing of Hitler. That may be exactly backward.

The vampire, called Count Orlok in the film (it was made out of copyright, which is why Mrs. Stoker sued) is stealthy. An infiltrator, not a conqueror. He is the outsider bearing disease, the snake in the garden, the alien them who brings ruin down on the hapless us.

Such scapegoating, as we’ve seen, is an undercurrent in the 2020 crisis: Chinese Americans, Orthodox Jews and (in India) Muslims have been blamed for the outbreak. And of course in Germany, 99 years ago, there was one particular group that bore the brunt of all such insinuations.

Not that “Nosferatu” is an anti-Semitic film. Several of the actors were Jewish. Others were left-wingers. Murnau, the director, was gay.

But “Nosferatu” was drawing its themes from our collective unconscious. Which is still as active in 2020 as it was in 1920. It’s worth noting that the Nazis, when they circulated lurid propaganda cartoons about “inferior” races, often depicted them with rat-like features. Sometimes they were pictured, like the vampire in “Nosferatu,” in the midst of rats.

“Nosferatu” is old. It will be celebrating its 100th birthday in two years. But history is said to repeat. And in a time of plague, paranoia and fear-mongering, everything old is new again.

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