Posted by David Kalat on October 12, 2013
It’s getting ever closer to Halloween, and TCM is imminently going to screen the spectacular 1922 Nosferatu. I was asked to contribute an audio commentary on this legendary horror classic for the UK Blu-Ray edition from Masters of Cinema. In preparing my track I took the opportunity to challenge some of the received wisdom about the authorship of this film—but one disadvantage of the audio commentary format as a vehicle for that kind of discussion is that I was limited to the visual examples presented by the film itself. To really make my case I wanted to be able to show some other film clips or stills—which is best suited to a blog! So here we go—into the mad world of Nosferatu’s creator, F.W. Murnau Albin Grau!
OK, obviously F.W. Murnau is the director of this acclaimed work. Murnau is himself a once-in-a-generation talent who worked in an institutional environment where the director had a substantially higher degree of authority and creative latitude than anywhere else. As a result, it’s an easy trap to fall into to think of Murnau’s films as wholly auterist creations, in which he and he alone was responsible for all the creative decisions.
But thinking about Nosferatu in these terms does a disservice to the film and leads us down some false trails—one of which is missing the contribution of Albin Grau.
Grau’s credit on Nosferatu is for “costumes and sets,” and he is often referred to as the designer. But as we shall see, that’s a gross misrepresentation.
Apparently there’s some kind of law that when film historians mention Albin Grau they are required to sum him up in a single phrase: ardent spiritualist. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Albin Grau called an ardent spiritualist, as if that explained anything, much less explained everything.
All right, so let’s see what we can do to properly explain this.
It starts around 1920, in Berlin, with an antiquarian bookseller with a special interest in the occult. His name was Heinrich Tranker, and he was extremely successful in selling occult and spiritualist books—so much so, that he started founding various occult societies as well. After a while, he consolidated a number of these organizations into a single group, the Grand Pansophical Lodge of the Orient-Berlin. This group soon boasted the largest membership of any Geramn occult society, and its second-in-command was an aspiring design artist named Albin Grau.
The leading figures in the Grand Pansophical Lodge tended to be authors and booksellers—established representatives of the old media order. But Grau saw the power of cinema, and his interest in the graphic arts predated his interest in the occult. He had studied at the Leipzing Academy of Art, and after WWI took jobs as a commercial artist until he got his foot in the door of the German film industry assisting with design work.
And so it came to pass that Albin Grau decided to put his money where his mouth was, and he founded a movie company with the assistance of businessman Enrico Dieckmann and some fellow Pansophical Lodge brothers, whose names unfortunately have not been recorded.
Grau christened this company Prana-Film, after the occultist journal Prana, a publication of theosophical thinking. Since most other sources you’ll encounter regarding the origins of Nosferatu will tell you that Prana-Film is named for the Buddhist term prana, for the breath of life, I should add that fact as well.
Immediately, Grau and his partners in Prana-Film started coming up with ambitious and weird projects rooted in occult themes and other sundry oddities—like Dreams of Hell, and Devil of the Swamp. We can only guess at what these might have been like, because they never made it past the “what if?” stage.
But Grau did launch a movie.
In a publication from Buhne & Film from 1921 intended to promote the impending release of Nosferatu, Grau said that the film was inspired by an experience he’d had back in 1916, during WWI. At the time, Grau was stationed in the Russian front, and he found himself in Serbia with the grunt duty of delousing a village to halt the spread of typhus. Fun.
While attending to this duty, to help alleviate the boredom, one of Grau’s fellow soldiers started talking about vampires. Like you do. Well, this apparently provoked one of the old peasants getting shaved, and this gnarled old Serbian had a story of his own to tell: back when he was in Romania, where they call the undead “nosferatu,” his father died in a logging accident. He was buried without Christian rites—and what do you know, four weeks after he was put in the unconsecrated ground, the village was hit by an unexplained plague—and the villagers claimed they had seen the dead man walking, he had been spotted with each of the victims before they died.
The villagers decided to dig up his grave—and when they did, they found (uh oh) his coffin was empty!
So they put the lid back and waited until the following day—
And when they opened it a second time, they found the old man inside, his body had mysteriously hardly decomposed—he looked freshly buried. That, and his teeth were strangely elongated and protruding from his mouth. They drove a stake into his heart, at which point he gasped! And to make doubly sure, they burned the staked body—and the Serbian peasant produced an official document attesting that the Romanian authorities had taken these steps and witnessed these events.
According to Grau, years later, when he was working on the film Nosferatu, he ran into that soldier again, the one who first asked about vampires. They reminisced about those crazy days in Serbia—and when Grau mentioned he’d been inspired to make a movie about vampires, the soldier gushed how he couldn’t wait to see it.
Much of that is certainly outright ballyhoo made up to sell movie tickets—Grau spent more on promoting Nosferatu than he spent to make it, and the context of this anecdote is self-consciously publicity. The soldier isn’t named, nor is the Serbian peasant, and none of its many places are identified with any specificity. There’s no way to verify any of this story—which includes such bizarre plot points as a Romanian peasant who now lives in Serbia, but still carries with him at all times this official document stating his father was staked as a vampire. I mean, if my dad was staked as a vampire, I’m not sure I’d be eager to tell anyone, much less make sure I had proof on me even when I was having my head shaved to get rid of lice.
Many occult societies placed Dracula high on their lists of key texts—it was a crossover event, a work of occultist ideas that broke into the mainstream. Some editions of Dracula were published with illustrations inspired by tarot cards—and the artist responsible for the Waite-Smith tarot deck, Pamela Colman Smith, illustrated Stoker’s last novel, Lair of the White Worm. There is a persistent rumor that Stoker was himself an occultist, and was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—but this appears to be a rumor. I won’t call it an unfounded rumor, because of the occult appeal of his works, and the fact that many of Stoker’s contemporaries and associates were members of that order—and he attended a meeting or two, but the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn has reportedly gone on record refuting that Stoker was ever a formal member.
In any event, Grau decided that a screen adaptation of Dracula was to be his company Prana-Films’ debut, and he turned to Henrik Galeen to write the screenplay adaptation. Galeen is a significant figure in German silent cinema, especially the fantastical side of that world—he wrote, directed, and starred in the 1915 version of The Golem, about a creature made of clay that is brought to life through magic. He wrote Waxworks in 1924, The Student of Prague in 1926, and Alraune in 1928—all of them landmarks of German fantasy and horror cinema. Also, like Murnau, he was a veteran of the Max Reinhardt theater company. But for our purposes here, we should also note he too was an occultist, belonging to the Rosicrucian society.
Grau also selected the director.
He did so on the basis of his experience in 1920 designing publicity material for a film called Journey Into Night by an up-and-coming director named FW Murnau. Grau thought to himself, sheesh, this guy really knows how to make pictures tell stories!
Grau engaged Murnau to direct the film for Prana-Film, and assisted in the pre-production development of the visual style of the film by preparing extensive concept art, which bordered on actual storyboards in some cases. Grau’s artwork was also used for publicity purposes.
So… Albin Grau gets credit on the opening titles for designing the sets and costumes.
Which he did.
But he founded the production company, initiated the project, co-financed it, commissioned the screenwriter and director, and was responsible for designing the appearance of the title vampire as well as other key visual motifs commonly attributed to Murnau. In contemporary parlance, we’d have to call Grau the producer. That’s the job he performed. And to consider this film as Murnau’s creative product, without consideration of Grau as a prominent co-creator, not only does a disservice to Grau’s memory but distorts and misunderstands Murnau’s contributions.
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