Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
Directed by F.W. Murnau
1922, Germany — 84 minutes, silent, black and white (color tinted), aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Horror
This landmark film, with imagery both grotesque and beautiful, defined the horror genre even as it helped expand cinematic language
F.W. Murnau (18881931) towers over most filmmakers, and not just because he stood nearly seven feet tall. He is one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of all time a master of composition, movement, and suggestive effect. He created masterpieces in several genres and styles, from the landmark psychological drama Phantom (1922), to Expressionist classics like The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926), to the rich Poetic Realism of Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1931), which was released after his tragic early death. Here I look at his first masterwork, Nosferatu (1922), one of the two or three most important fantasy/horror pictures ever made, and a landmark in the evolving language of cinema. Confession: it's taken me a few viewings, over several years, to get into the (shall we say) spirit of this film. Viewing it initially in screening rooms full of guffawing undergraduates who couldn't get past some of the woefully outdated special effects didn't help; and neither did having seen hundreds of later horror movies which borrowed from it: many of Murnau's then brilliantly innovative techniques have long since become routine. But now, after re-exploring this often sublime (and occasionally silly) film in its broader context of literature, painting, and film (Murnau was a brilliant authority in all three areas), I enjoy it more than ever. It also presents an opportunity to discuss some of the fascinating same-sex connections between this film, and filmmaker, and horror in literature. (To see this film in a broader context, here is my brief look at Germany in the 1920s: History, Cinema & GLBT Life.) Kino's outstanding DVD of Nosferatu is the edition reviewed here, but be warned: there are many different DVDs of this film, including a rash of inferior low-budget discs made from deteriorated public domain copies. Kino's has both the best image quality I have seen for this film and some outstanding supplementary features, including excerpts from six other Murnau films.
Summary: In Bremen in 1838, the grotesque real estate agent Knock (Alexander Granach) sends his assistant Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to finalize a property purchase with a distant client. Hutter leaves his beautiful bride Ellen (Greta Schröder) and makes the long, perilous trek to the Carpathian Mountains. After stopping at an inn, where a terrified but friendly local gives him The Book of Vampires, he continues his fateful journey, eventually meeting the mysterious and loathsome Count Orlok (Max Schreck). The rat-faced vampire soon begins dining on the comely lad's blood. Although weakened, Hutter manages to escape, even as Orlok, determined to reach his new home, loads a ship with caskets filled with the native soil he needs to rest in, along with plague-carrying rats. As he slowly sails towards Germany, one by one the entire crew dies. Orlok reaches the city on the now-phantom ship and carries his coffins to his new home, even as an epidemic breaks out, rapidly killing Bremen's plague- and panic-stricken inhabitants. After the failure of Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) and the local physician Dr. Sievers (Gustav Botz) to stop the pestilence both natural and supernatural Ellen learns from The Book of Vampires that only a "pure woman," willing to sacrifice her life, can kill the vampire. She lures Orlok to her bedroom and lets him drink her blood until the sun rises and it's too late for him to escape. He disintegrates into thin air. Hutter goes to his wife, but all he can do is hold her lifeless body in his arms. As the final title card tells us, "the sick no longer died and the stifling shadow of the vampire vanished with the sunrise."
Despite its many original elements, Murnau did borrow the skeleton of his plot from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula [free online edition]. That fact which was not lost on the author's widow or her lawyers who successfully sued for copyright infringement: thankfully their demand that every print of Nosferatu be destroyed was not realized. But before looking at the similarities and striking differences between Stoker and Murnau, here is a little background information on the ancient tradition of the vampire.
The modern vampire was refined into existence by Abraham "Bram" Stoker (18471912), after gestating for millennia in folk lore from every corner of the world. You can find versions of the vampire an already-dead creature which drinks blood to extend its cursed existence from the lamia of ancient Greece and Rome to the Asasabonsam of the Ashanti in western Africa, from India's Rakshasa to the Ch'ing Shih of China, the South American Azeman and the Native American kwakiytl, the Wampir of Eastern Europe and Russia, and dozens more. The vampire provided an explanation for such devastating, and otherwise incomprehensible, phenomena as mysterious deaths or epidemics and pre-modern people felt empowered because they knew the steps necessary such as a stake through the heart to destroy the vampire, and thus stop the deaths; it's not suprising that the vampire came to prominence in Europe during the bubonic plagues of the Dark Ages, when a third of the entire population died. In terms of blood the vampire's stock-in-trade from prehistoric times humans have revered it as magical, which explains the sacrifice of living creatures in every world culture. For instance, before modern man began christening boats with bottles of wine, Vikings ran their longships over prisoners' bodies to drench the keels in blood to gain the gods' favor. On yet another level, drinking blood can be seen as a trope for vampirism's ancient roots in cannibalism.
To create the ultimate and modern vampire, Stoker drew together readings in anthropology, history (although he didn't learn about the fifteenth century tyrant Vlad "Dracula" Tepes until his preparations for the novel were far along), and popular culture. Dracula's main literary antecedent was as we know from Stoker's notebooks Shakespeare. His earliest outline of the novel is structured in the five acts of the Shakespearean tragedies he knew from his day job of managing Sir Henry Irving's prestigious Lyceum Theatre. Popular culture provided Stoker with such seminal antecedents as the 1819 tale, The Vampyre [free online edition], by physician/author John Polidori (who modeled his title character on his private patient and lover, Lord Byron) in its day this wildly-popular work inspired a half dozen different stage and two operatic incarnations and J.S. LeFanu's 1872 engrossing lesbian-themed novella, Carmilla [free online edition]. Strikingly, Stoker's character is unlike its predecessors in that Dracula is not Romanticized as a dashing Byronic anti-hero (or -heroine). Rather, he reflects the xenophobia and misogyny which terrified Victorian men (for instance, Stoker's "lusting" and voracious female vampires represented the increasingly sexually-emancipated "new women" of that time); not only that, he has an ugly white moustache and really bad breath.
Although those two qualities have yet to be depicted onscreen, Dracula has appeared in well over a hundred pictures, and is perhaps the single most durable character in film. Each decade redefines him for itself: lately his passionate Byronic/Romantic side has been in the fore). Although Murnau's is still the most viscerally gruesome vision of the Count, it is an enduring standard against which all vampire, and horror, movies are measured. Besides Dracula movies per se, there are several hundred additional vampire films, making it perhaps the most popular sub-genre in film and television (not to mention publishing, with Anne Rice's multi-volume Vampire Chronicles). (As a serious student of the fantasy film, I have endured hundreds of vampire movies; below I discuss the 10 best vampire films I've seen although others certainly will have substantially different lists.). Here are just a few pictures which use Murnau's Orlok, ranging from such exceptional films as Herzog's 1979 meditation on Nosferatu, the early scenes in the misleading-entitled Bram Stoker's Dracula (it's Coppola's Dracula) and the subterranean "Crawlers" in Neil Marshall's superb The Descent (2005), to TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer's first season villain The Master, down to the first miniseries version of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot (pedestrianly directed by Tobe Hooper, 1979) and the clunky Shadow of the Vampire (2000; director Edmund Elias Merhige's surreal 1991 experimental film, Begotten, is much more interesting) which posits that Murnau (played by John Malkovich) hired a "real vampire" for his production. Murnau's Transylvania scenes with Hutter were lifted by Browning's Dracula (the creators of this first legally-sanctioned film adaptation studied Nosferatu very closely) and many later versions; Ingmar Bergman transformed the Hutter coach sequence for his film, The Magician (1958); Knock is the prototype for Tim Burton's version of The Penguin (Danny DeVito) in Batman Returns (1992) and those are just a few of the pictures which lifted from Murnau.
Nosferatu in its originality, visual power, and influence is in a class by itself, one of a small handful (or talonful) of indispensable films in the horrror genre: if you want to know what horror means, both cinematically and at its core, you must see this film. Looking at Murnau's film in relation to Stoker's novel is especially revealing, as much for what it shows about about the filmmaker's originality as for his borrowings.
The most obvious changes are in character names and locations; but even those reveal some interesting aspects of Murnau's unique vision. We know from Murnau's papers that he worked very closely with screenwriter Henrik Galeen, who also wrote such macabre Expressionist classics as The Golem (both the 1915 and better-known 1920 versions; he directed the 1915 film), Waxworks (1924), and The Student of Prague (1926; Galeen also directed). Several of Stoker's main characters have counterparts in Murnau Dracula/Orlok, Jonathan Harker/Hutter, Mina/Ellen but the inflection of each character is distinct; other Murnau characters, like the ineffectual scientist, bear little resemblance to their Stoker forebears: Prof. Bulwer is no Prof. van Helsing. There is even some playfulness in the possible derivation of 'Orlok,' which may come from a pun on the English 'warlock,' not to mention its rhyming with the name of his minion, Knock. (Speaking of names, I have to mention that Max Schreck a name which in German literally means 'maximum terror' is incredibly that stage actor's real name.) Murnau's characters are more isolated from each other than Stoker's intrepid band of vampire hunters. In a strange way which is exactly right for his film Murnau's actors often seem to be a bit hypnotized, and not just when Orlok is around (or because of then-current theatricalized styles of film acting); yet paradoxically there is something more immediate and flesh-and-blood about them than Stoker's characters (and not just because we can see Murnau's cast onscreen).
Stoker's novel is so effective because he grounded it thoroughly in the specifics of the time and place in which he lived. Except for the opening and brief closing chapters set in Transylvania, Stoker lays his scene in modern England (the only locale depicted in the extremely popular stage version). Murnau's changing the setting and period to Bremen, 1838 were done in a (futile) attempt to throw the copyright lawyers off his trail; but his revisions reveal some important qualities about his intentions. He was a brilliant student of art history and literature but that he not coincidentally situates his version at the height of German Romanticism. (Later we will look at the influence of Expressionism on this film; philosophically, Expressionism with its jarring emphasis on portraying subjective experience through distorting stylistic extremes is an extension of Romanticism.) Stylistically, even more than Stoker we see the influence of the great fantasy author (and composer) E.T.A. Hoffmann (17761822), whose grotesque, and sinister, supernatural characters in stories such as the 1816 "The Sandman" move in and out of people's everyday lives much as Orlok does here.
Visually, Murnau draws extensively on the painter Caspar David Friedrich (17741840), whose vast, mysterious, and sublime landscapes and seascapes suggest our helplessness against the forces of nature. Dozens of shots throughout Nosferatu bring to mind specific works or motifs in Friedrich, from the vast barren hills around Orlok's castle to Ellen waiting on the beach surrounded by a few lopsided crosses with the endless expanse of ocean before her (compare the 1822 painting, "Moonrise Over the Sea"), to the final image of the burned-out ruin of Orlok's castle. Murnau's haunting images are inspired by but never slavishly imitate the German Romantic master.
Murnau also drew on contemporary works of Expressionism in various media, including Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" (1893) this 'poster boy' for Expressionism also bears a striking resemblance to Orlok; the troubling "dream plays" of August Strindberg; and perhaps the stories of Franz Kafka, which capture the essence of the movement in prose. Murnau also knew Robert Wiene's landmark Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), in which the profoundly distorted buildings and costumes reflect the insanity of the title character. A key difference between that picture and Murnau's is that Wiene's and virtually all other Expressionist films were shot entirely on soundstages; Murnau achieves a unique, yet still clearly Expressionist feel, by angling his camera to photograph real-world locations in ways which are at least as unsettling as the most carefully-designed sets (as we'll see more fully below).
These are just a few of the literary and visual works which Murnau drew on for his darkly visionary film. Although no one doubts the excellence or importance of Stoker's one great novel which has spawned countless pages of both commentary and vampire fiction Murnau was an artist whose brilliantly original imagination was able to draw on a deep knowledge of the arts, not to mention his work as actor and set designer for the great theatre impresario Max Reinhardt, even as he invented some fundamental aspects of filmic language. Before looking closely at how those developments grew out of this film, let's explore how Murnau achieves so much thematic richness in a 'mere' shocker.
One aspect of the film which especially struck me on recent viewings is how strikingly it works both emotionally and aesthetically. Basically, it does that by interweaving a diverse range of tensions, both in its themes and in its narrative and visual technique.
To state the obvious, Nosferatu is an out-and-out vampire film: the first and still perhaps the greatest. But even as it presents much of the tradition, it offers some revealing riffs all its own.
Since Stoker's vampires are not 'Expressionism friendly' they can't cast shadows or reflections in mirrors Murnau dropped those particular traditional characteristics. After all, what fun is Expressionism without shadows and sinister mirror 'doubles'? Other Murnau innovations were more suggestive.
Rather than depicting his vampire as the shape-shifting monster or folklore or the Romantic aristocrat popularized in the nineteenth century, Murnau's Orlok is a nightmarish, spidery creature of bulbous not to mention phallic head, batlike ears, ratlike fangs in the middle of his mouth, and taloned claws perhaps the most genuinely disturbing incarnation of vampirism yet envisioned. What's especially unsettling is not only how Murnau has fashioned a part man/part animal creature human/bestial duality is always a key element of the vampire but in how Orlok does not change. He is what he is, and that is both grotesque and redolent of the supernatural, a realm literally 'beyond nature,' which is not supposed to exist. It would be more comfortable for us if, after drinking some blood, that thing transformed into, say, handsome Gary Oldman (as he does in Coppola's excellent Bram Stoker's Dracula; even Stoker has his initially wizened Dracula become younger after gorging on blood). But out comfort is never Murnau's intention.
Murnau's Orlok both looks back to the monsters of folklore and ahead to Anne Rice's suavely seductive bloodsuckers (who would view Dracula as a crude 'country cousin'). Orlok embodies all of the basic characteristics of the vampire: human/beast duality, immortality, immense power (including the ability to victimize), mystery, entree into the supernatural, as well as the forbidden eroticism (both hetero- and homosexual) which is always key to this myth. The vampire most clearly in his modern form allows us to indulge our fascination with proscribed feelings and acts, perhaps as much in terms of power as sexuality. For some psychoanalytically-inclined readers, vampirism represents infantile oralism sexuality involving none of the body parts which might cause 'performance anxiety' in adults. The vampire's superhuman power makes his act 'guiltless' for the victim since it wasn't their 'fault,' and especially terrifying for society since vampirism spreads, well, like the plague. The immense success of Stoker's novel simultaneously transgressive and moralistic is not surprising in light of the repressed Victorian culture in which he wrote; the genre's continuing popularity might also make us wonder, on one level, just how sexually enlightened people are a century later.
Looking specifically at Murnau's film, we can see a host of interwoven tensions, not least of which is the pull between Nosferatu as an artistic film and its origins in popular, some would say 'trashy,' Gothic melodrama. The 'class warfare' in the film takes several forms, but Murnau is careful to present completely authentic portrayals of the usually-ridiculed "peasants" of Transylvania, who in fact were played with dignity by local people. Murnau directs his most pointed satirical barbs at the middle class, although the film is vastly more than some reductive social satire. He includes a (literally) grotesque and hilarous portrait of business enterprise run amok Bremen was even then known as a commercial hub in the form of the realtor Knock. He resembles a manic hairy toad with a grin so leering that, despite this being a silent film, you can hear his demented cackle. (Dwight Frye's career-making laugh in Browning's Dracula would surely have nothing on Knock's.) In another unsettling yet funny bit, we see that Orlok's letter to Knock is written not in words but mysterious and cartoonish occult symbols. As Knock sends stalwart young Hutter on his mission to finalize the real estate with Orlok, he points out the window to the property he's selling Orlok: the multi-storied building is dilapidated, off-balance, crumbling with rot.
After the plague comes to Bremen, the formerly passive townspeople are ignited into violence by rumors that Knock is responsible for it. Knock, who has been locked up in an insane asylum since his Master Orlok's arrival, strangles his keeper and flees. Men chase him down the literally and metaphorically narrow streets, out into the fields where, in one of the funniest moment in this film (which has a rich vein of humor), they attack a scarecrow thinking it's Knock. The professional are not presented as much more enlightened: the mercantile association, the local physician Dr. Sievers, even the officious Prof. Bulwer (who is a far cry from Stoker's enlightened and effective Prof. Van Helsing) are at a loss, as they watch chaos, mass deaths, and despair rapidly engulf their so recently prosperous and pretty town.
Most films which undercut such authority figures present a brave hero to save the day; and at first that seems to be what Murnau is doing. Hutter manages to escape from Orlok and, defying the odds, makes it back to Bremen, only to peter out as the lead protagonist. Hutter's quest to contain external evil fails since as he may or may not realize the blindness within himself, and society, is what allows it to flourish. The ambiguity in his situation is key to Murnau's complex vision of human nature.
Murnau then reveals that our hero is actually a heroine, Hutter's wife Ellen, who is brought to life by the warm and ingratiating actress, Greta Schröder. But she is more, or perhaps less, than what we expect. Significantly, the first time we see Ellen she is toying with a cat. The scene is cute, but later it reminds us of how Orlok toys with his victims, who are as inferior to him as the cat is to Ellen. Also, until the final minutes of the film she is a curiously passive heroine. She first rescues her husband from Orlok telepathically while she is sleepwalking and he is hundreds of miles away (I'll look at this scene more closely below when I talk about Murnau's influential refinements of cross-cutting technique). Later she mopes around a lot, often sitting alone on the desolate (Caspar David Friedrich-inspired) beach, waiting and waiting, surrounded by falling-over crosses which both presage her coming martyrdom and perhaps suggest Murnau's suspicions about any institution which promises absolute truth (also, Orlok never comes face to face with a crucifix).
Ellen's climactic sacrifice is much more ambiguous than in a simple melodrama. One one level, the myth of the hero(ine), of the power of the individual, is reaffirmed; yet what gives the ending an edge of honesty is that in order for her to triumph, she must willingly sacrifice her own life to save the population: "only a woman pure in heart who freely offers her blood to the vampire" can stop him. But this reliance on a 'savior/hero' is disturbing, and not just in light of Germany's soon-to-appear fuehrer who will vanquish the monstrous outsiders and restore national 'purity' (obviously this phenomenon is not limited to Murnau's homeland). Murnau knew that audiences in Weimar Germany, still reeling from the crushing defeat of World War I and the catastrophic depression which ensued, would interpret Orlok and his rats as, on one level, symbols of the "plague" of the invading victors. But an artist as thoughtful as Murnau would never posit a simple-minded "heroic leader" solution to such a multi-faceted problem, which is why his Ellen is no superhero; she's just a sometimes confused woman who does her best and, fortunately, saves the day. Murnau knows that heroes are inspiring, but he also knows that hero-worship can be a first step on the road to authoritarian rule.
While Ellen is less than a "pure" hero, Orlok is more than a simple monster. Orlok, like Dracula and other vampires, offers some disturbing parallels with Christianity, since he combines elements of both Satan (pure evil) and Christ (drinking blood via Communion wine, making 'disciples,' offering eternal life). Orlok also blurs the line between human and beast, between nature and the supernatural. Although Murnau omits the animal transformations of Stoker (whose Dracula is as much a werewolf as a vampire) perhaps because he knew the special effects would be impossible to pull off he more than compensates with his and art director Albin Grau's immensely influential bat/rat/spider/bird-of-prey/old-man design for Orlok.
Orlok's grotesquely mixed, and contradictory, nature also indicates the profound dislocations which Murnau presents on every level of this film. Murnau uses his unparalleled visual imagination to create the images needed for his complex and purposefully ambiguous multi-voiced narrative structure, with its astonishing range of collisions (such as nature/the supernatural; 'reality'/fantasy), repulsions (including the literal and metaphorical use of light/darkness), and unsettling analogies (such as Orlok/Ellen).
Unique in Expressionist film, most of this flm was shot on location. While directors such as Lang and Wiene and Murnau himself in later big-budget works like Faust and The Last Laugh controlled their visual design by building vast forests and entire towns within the studio, Nosferatu's landscapes, villages and castle were actual locales in the Carpathian mountains, which give scenes a documentary feel. In a move which would inspire countless later filmmakers, Murnau was able to find in real locations the precise angles to achieve the emotional, and thematic, effects he wanted. Not only do we see this in the Transylvania scenes, but in the ominous low angles he uses to shoot the phantom ship's sails, and Bremen's endless, narrow cobblestone streets, wedged in between faceless and creepy but authentic brick buildings. Who can forget the image of the endless single-file line of undertakers with coffins of plague victims slowly moving down those tight, and real, streets.
Murnau was able to infuse his film with the reality of nature, both pure and direct as well as twisted and sinister. But even in the scenes of nature there is danger (the ravenous wolf), madness (the wild horses fleeing in panic), and irony (Hutter is less wise than the animals who know to flee Orlok). Murnau's fascination with the mysteries of nature, in which the natural and the supernatural blur into each other, also explains why the middle of the film is given to Prof. Bulwer's biology lecture. He tells his rapt students that the Venus flytrap (as we read in the intertitle) "is the vampire of the vegetable world," and that a microscopic "polyp with claws" is "another type of vampire... transparent, without substance, almost a phantom." It is suggested that the professor is too rigidly and narrowly rationalistic to understand and defeat the 'real' vampire.
Murnau holds his film together, with all of its dualities, because he is brilliant at giving equal weight to dream (Orlok but also the masterful Expressionist design throughout), to reality (documentary-like techniques, seen especially in the scenes shot in the Carpathians), and the unsettling liminal space in between, where you have images of obvious fantasy set in the real world, as exemplified by Orlok on the deserted ship. Few pictures feel as genuinely hallucinatory as this one (Dreyer's Vampyr (1932) is another), yet Murnau's artistry keeps it from ever degenerating into either cheap sensationalism or true derangement.
The richest tension is between the madness of the content and the intricate form of the picture, as seen in Murnau's subtle narrative techniques and extraordinary images which bring out the full thematic, and emotional, richness of his themes.
Although the wealth of grotesque imagery suggests that Orlok is the guiding intelligence of the film, it is in fact a multi-voiced work in which not even the implicit narrator who 'arranges' the scenes and intertitles is definitive. And it's no accident that while Murnau gave Orlok's 'species,' Nosferatu (vampire), the title, even as he subtitled the film a "symphony of horrors." This is a work dramatically focused on one character (who has a vastly greater percentage of time onscreen than his counterpart in Stoker) but which uses that approach to spin an intricate web of contrapuntal ideas.
Murnau's narrative structure is, paradoxically, both linear, in that the story moves forward without any flashbacks, and jarringly non-linear. The action is interrupted many times not just for the expected intertitles of a silent film but for a range of documents, such as journals (the first shot is of the Diary of Johann Cavallius, "able historian of his native city of Bremen," which details the plague of 1838), the Book of Vampires (one-stop shopping for vampire lore), the ship's log, and letters. This creates a tension between the traditional story arc (set up, rising action, climax) and the narrative intrusions, which are both weirdly authentic (all those documents look "real") and, in the jarring way they continually break the flow, a bit avant-garde. Although Stoker's novel consists entirely of accumulated documents, it feels like a storytelling device; in Murnau, the technique also gives us necessary information, but more importantly it pulls us away from a simplistic reading of the film. It's not used for realism but as a distancing device, to give us some space in which to contemplate the film (this of course anticipates a similar strategy employed by Godard four decades later; in fact, Godard's use of negative images in Alphaville (1965) is an homage to this film).
Distinctively, that play of opposites both literally and figuratively also helps Murnau achieve the symphonic form announced in the subtitle: historical and personal documents are set against the nightmarish, and ironic, imagery, even as in music a symphony contains themes and opposing-yet-complementary counter-themes. That resonant device also carries over into Murnau's highly influential editing techniques.
Among the film's most important innovations was the cross-cutting in which we move back and forth between simultaneous actions employed in two major sequences. D.W. Griffith had only recently introduced this technique, which can be seen in his masterpiece, Intolerance (1916), but Murnau's use of cross-cutting is, despite this being a horror film, more subtle and suggestive. The first sequence shows Orlok advancing on Hutter while, simultaneously in Bremen, Ellen is eerily sleepingwalking on a ledge, cries a warning that 'telepathically' causes the vampire hundreds of miles away to turn away. A three-way cross-cutting sequence comes a bit later, with Hutter escaping from the castle and racing back to Bremen, Orlok traveling there by sea, and Ellen restlessly awaiting the return of her husband.
Murnau is a visual master, as he draws on his vast art historical background and his own genius to create images to explore the nature of Orlok, and evil, even as he invents the language of the horror film. (Although Kino's DVD tints the film as it would have been screened in 1922, it's also interesting to turn off the color and savor the rich black and white tonalities achieved by Murnau and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, who also shot Lang's M (1931), Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Threepenny Opera (1931).)
Murnau captures our deepest fears: disease, madness, terrible other worlds waiting to break in and devour us. He uses visual style to suggest, to embody, those fears. While always aware of the tension between light and darkness, he often shoots in shadow, forcing our imaginations to fill in, often to horrific (auto-suggestive) effect, what we can't see; and he uses the corners of the screen to unbalance compositions, making us feel dis-ease. Although Murnau was fully aware of how to use eyeline matches, for smooth continuity between shots, he also purposefully broke those rules to achieve his desired, unsettling effect. Characters lurk in the darkness, at the farthest edges of the frame, creating a subtle but palpable tension in us. This is also a remarkably tactile film, as Murnau's design makes us feel the cold, wet textures of this world this is one of the most subtly visceral films I know which suggests immeasurable evil waiting just outside of our daily lives.
Movement is another powerful element in this film. But before I look at the many ways in which Murnau uses it to superb effect, I want to note the brief but long-insurmountable stumbling block I (and I know others) had with this film: the infamous 'fast motion' coffin loading scene. In a word, Ugh! What you never want to do, especially in a fantasy film, is break the mood of 'suspended disbelief.' Some eyebrows would have been raised during Hutter's coach ride to Orlok's castle when Murnau cuts to a ghostly but technically obvious negative image; but when he undercranks the camera to speed up Orlok's rapidly loading dozens of coffins for his move to Bremen, I've heard several different audiences howl with laughter (this was probably a hoot back in 1922 too). Allow me to share the advice I've since given to myself: get over it! Instead, imagine how you would re-do this ludicrous but brief scene and consider the intention behind it: Murnau, on an extremely tight budget, wanted to show yet another aspect of Orlok's supernatural power. But what does work, on many levels, is how Murnau uses movement throughout the rest of the film.
Murnau is a master of rhythm, a quality fully as important to cinema as to music (or any of the arts). He knows how to use cinematic movement in all its forms, both within shots and between shots through editing; movement is so skillfully choreographed throughout this film that it's almost as much a 'ballet' as a 'symphony,' let alone a work of complex horror.
Murnau's rhythmic masterstroke is the use, at times, of eerie slowness which creates effects of terrific suspense, even in an image of the fraught stillness of the deserted ship drifting down the Weser River into Bremen. The most unsettling use of this technique of course involved Orlok, as we wait for his gradually approaching hideous form suddenly to leap out at us. Murnau achieves this effect through a then-unprecedented use of transversal movement, as when Orlok appears on the ship and moves at an oblique angle. Uncannily, the flat screen has been thrust into three-dimensional space and look what's slowly, slowly coming for us. But Murnau can top even that effect when, on occasion, he abruptly cuts from slow movement to a close shot, that's the essence of cinematic horror. The effect is both more subtle and devastating than any contemporary digital-FX monster.
As we have now seen, this film is remarkable for its complex interplay of narrative space (how the chain of events unfolds both action and documents but, disconcertingly, never with a definitive narrative voice, i.e., we are ultimately on our own in making meanings), visual space (the content and, fully as important, the composition and tonalities, of each shot, all modified by movement), and what we might call imaginary space, which 'magically' and often ominously is much more than the sum of its dramatic and visual parts. One of this film's signal achievements is not just as the film which defined the horror genre, but more generally and certainly more importantly as a film (some would say the film) which finally shattered the theatrical restraints of earlier cinema. Not coincidentally, early cameramen called shots "tableaus" (as in a theatrical tableau). But Murnau bringing together all of the strategies we've looked at showed just how flexible image can be in creating meanings as simple or dense as the filmmaker's imagination; for the first time image could be unpredictable, even astonishing. And so this low-budget 'shocker' is a landmark in the evolution of cinematic language.
Let's look at one specific motif to illustrate the point. We have seen Orlok's attempts to break out of the frame, but there is a counterbalance to that. Orlok is often shot within an arch (for instance, when we first see him in his castle, emerging out of the shadows; after he retreats from Hutter when Ellen's 'telepathic' scream drives him away; when he's unloading his coffins happily without the fast-motion effect at Bremen). The rounded top of the arch parallels his head in disquieting ways; but it also shows the complex of feelings which Murnau's images can produce. This motif is both strangely comforting (it feels like a safe, protective place for Orlok, as it conforms to the shape of his body and head) and constricting, as it visually binds Orlok. Murnau also shows Orlok imprisoned in other ways, including several shots of him behind bar-like window frames. This creates a tension between Orlok's supernatural power which is so great that he can seduce Knock telepathically from hundreds of miles away and his limitations.
On recent viewings of the film, Orlok has seemed more multi-layered, which may also account for his continuing influence on film and literature. Orlok is the king of vampires, sure; but he's also a disfigured, terribly lonely old man not to mention the only Dracula figure who doesn't have any vampiric handmaidens living in his castle. Although certainly not a sympathetic figure by any stretch, he does seem much more than simply monstrous (like, say, the Lovecraftian insectoid things in the Alien series). Orlok is more complex, and hence involving, than that.
This radical sympathy on Murnau's part reminds us not only of similar emotional complexity in other classic monsters such as Frankenstein's creation but that so many of these icons were created by gay or bisexual authors or have important same-sex aspects. For instance, Frankenstein was popularized by gay filmmaker James Whale, who also highlighted the many homoerotic aspects of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, from a man creating life without the aid of a woman, to the love/hate relationship of creator/created, to the frame story, which has never been filmed as written, in which a ship's captain is obviously smitten with the Romantic Dr. Frankenstein, who pours out his tale of terror. While I'd never advocate a reductive 'same-sex-only' reading of a film, it seems clear that Murnau's sexual orientation played a key role in Nosferatu, and his other films. That may also have been the case with Bram Stoker, whom some biographers now believe was gay or bisexual, and who may have been enamored of his tyrannical boss, theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving adding yet another sado-masochistic layer to Dracula's already-entangled sexual subtext. Although Stoker married Florence Balcombe who almost married Oscar Wilde instead! and had a son with her, they soon became estranged (which of course did not stop widow Stoker, who inherited the Dracula copyright, from suing Murnau and trying to have every print of Nosferatu destroyed). Intriguingly, Stoker added some dialogue to his own never-produced stage version of Dracula in the scene where the Count hurls away the three vampire women from the unconscious body of Harker; as Dracula lifts him up he says, "This man is mine. I want him." (Earlier I noted Dracula's gay and lesbian antecedents in Polidori's The Vampyre and LeFanu's Carmilla.)
There is more same-sex inflection in Nosferatu than the seemingly gratutous 'beefcake' shot of Gustav von Wangenheim as Hutter stripping and washing himself at the inn: metaphorically, that action also signals an important shift, as Hutter and the film itself 'strip off' the shell of conventional reality and enter the supernatural realm. Typical of most cinematic monsters, we can see traditional homophobic elements in Orlok, most clearly in his kinky S-M relationship with Knock, who becomes his groveling slave. Discreetly, the seduction takes place telepathically, and they are only together onscreen for a moment unlike their defining predecessors in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which the perverse title character uses hypnotism to turn his assistant into a literal 'toy boy' who will robotically do anything he asks, even murder. Generally, Orlok evokes what you might call The 3 Ps of Homophobic Horror: he's perverse, predatory, and possessed of immense power (is that 4 Ps?) and he's dead set on destroying bourgeois life, from the board room to the bedroom. Such a "queer" monster lets audiences enjoy the cathartic experience of watching their traditional way of life which they may unconsciously feel to be repressive shattered in a "safe" way, via a fantasy figure who is destroyed in the final reel.
But Murnau uses Orlok to deepen his vision of the film as a whole. Significantly, much of the supernatural perspective reflecting Orlok's point of view (athough as mentioned above the film has a much more subtle and complex narrative voice than just Orlok's) is grotesque, a sort of queer monster's eye on the majority-culture guy. Murnau, using Orlok's point of view (or blinders, if you prefer), shows the world through a distorting, disturbing yet strangely beautiful, perspective. Like Orlok, we find ourselves both in this world which is made to feel authentic by all of the location shooting yet not of it, even alienated from it. Brilliantly, Murnau does not create a uniformly deformed world but rather shows us fully the monster's distorted, but revealing, point of view; we are allowed to re-experience the world through a unique perspective (this paved the way for countless later 'double perspective' films, including James Whale's 1935 masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein, as well as works in other genres).
I believe what gives Nosferatu its ultimate power is how Murnau uses horror not only to tie together every aspect of the film, but to open it up to the most expansive possible interpretations. Here, we see horror in all of its expected forms as fear of death, as terror at the unknown but Murnau takes it further through his use of images which are tactile, visceral to suggest a metaphysical dimension. Like Friedrich or Munch he creates indelible pictures of the uncanny suggesting a mysterious, often terrifying, world which exists both inside each of us but also, possibly, in dimensions beyond our everyday world. The unprecedented power of Murnau's achievement is why this film is so influential on later works, from horror to such Expressionism-inspired genres as film noir. But part of that power also derives from the film's same-sex aspects.
Nosferatu, like Stoker's Dracula and other masterpieces of horror, were created by gay or bisexual "outsiders" with strikingly discordant attitudes towards society, and even themselves, including Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the best work of H.P. Lovecraft ("The Call of Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" a weirdly affirmative 'coming out' story with alien/human hybridism as a trope for being gay). What do all of these works have in common, besides their extraordinary use of language (literary or filmic) to create effects of profoundly evocative, and simultaneously analytical, horror? They are all like Murnau's film simultaneously reactionary (valorizing the 'conservative' values of the status quo), anarchic (painting in seductive strokes the allure of the transgressive and forbidden), and perhaps what makes them masterpieces capturing the awful / awe-full feeling of an infinitely complex universe which toys with us in profoundly contradictory ways.
On the one hand, it implies free will, while on the other it presents vast cosmic forces who, in the words of Shakespeare's King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1, when Gloucester says, "as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/ They kill us for their sport." IV, i. Recall the intertitles in Nosferatu referring to fate including one of the first, in which the 'narrator' ironically 'tells' Hutter, "Wait young man! You can't run away from your destiny..." Yet perhaps the film's central tension is between such 'closed' fate and 'open' free will. It certainly feels like Ellen is using her free will to lure the king of lurers to his doom: but is she? This also points up Murnau's master plan behind his visual style in the film: the infinitely complex pull between tightly-composed, restrictive 'closed' frames and those disturbing, yet aesthetically beautiful, moments when the flat frame seems to shatter and we find ourselves unexpectedly in a three-dimensional, and terrifyingly open, world.
Murnau has captured the essence of horror, as he thrusts us into a now-boundless, even metaphysical realm. Usually we have social institutions or sacred texts to guide us through such unknowable territory; but for a few moments in this film we are thrust there, without even a central omniscient narrator to guide us, completely on our own.
We have come face to face not only with a (complex) monster like Orlok, but now for a moment we can sense the utterly mysterious force which permits such monstrosities.
But Murnau isn't blinded or besotted by horror; he is a man of both artistic intuition and reason who gives us one of the most extraordinary final shots I've seen.
On the surface, the image of Orlok's broken-down castle could hardly be more simple. But look at what it actually reveals. Murnau strips away the illusion which the vampire has foisted even onto the film itself: it was always a hulking ruin, but not only Hutter but even the camera itself was fooled into seeing it as a great edifice. Even if, like Murnau, we know it was inspired by Caspar David Friedrich's 1810 painting "Abbey in the Oak Forest," its context in this film makes it a sublimely powerful and original image.
Murnau ends by drawing back the veil of illusion which he has so masterfully and ambiguously created, on so many levels, throughout the film. We are left with a vision Orlok's castle as a form which is simultaneously crumbled, authentic yet strangely beautiful of what is real.
Kino's DVD offers excellent image, as well as first-rate supplemental features.
- This Kino edition of Nosferatu is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1, mastered from a color-tinted 35mm negative restored by the Cineteca del Comune die Bologna at the laboratories of L'Immagine Ritrovata. It is licensed by Transit Films on behalf of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden, Germany
- Optimal image quality: RSDL Dual-layer edition
- New and improved English intertitle translation
- Includes extended excerpts from other films by F.W. Murnau (* indicates not otherwise available on DVD): *Journey Into the Night (1920), *The Haunted Castle (1921), Phantom (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), Tabu (1931)
- Choose from two alternate musical scores in digital stereo: one by Gérard Hourbette and Thierry Zaboitzeff, performed by Art Zoyd; the other by Donald Sosin, vocals by Joanna Seaton
- Selected scenes comparison: Stoker's novel, Galeen's screenplay and the film
- Photo gallery
Of the many many dozens of vampire films that I've seen, these ten are the most outstanding dramatically, visually, and even emotionally. Spanning almost 80 years, each one adds a significant new twist to this often benighted genre. They are presented in chronological order; but if someone were to put a stake to my heart and demand that I select the best of the best, I'd seriously consider Dreyer's Vampyr ... but then pick Murnau's Nosferatu. A few of these films also appear on my list of the 10 Best Horror Films.
Reviewed May 15, 2004
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