nosferatu1   Nosferatu2 (Original Promotional Poster, 1922: Murnau) 

Trained originally as an art historian, Murnau, considered by many like Lotte Eisner as Germany’s greatest film director, made only 22 films throughout his whole film career, a third of them lost like The Head of Janus (1920), a remake of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Though he did not direct nearly as many films as other German directors, his films remain some of the greatest silent film classics. Through Nosferatu, Murnau took Bram Stoker’s Dracula and used nature, which served as an eerie reflection of the melancholy atmosphere pervading Interwar Germany, to exemplify dark, hidden truths. Regarded by many as his most memorable film, it did not need Caligari’s effects or articulated sets. It is as effective today as its first appearance, not because it is terrifying but because it leaves with its viewers, as the film critic Béla Balázs put it, “a chilly draft from doomsday”.[1] With techniques and images that would be admired worldwide, Murnau “created the most overwhelming and poignant images in the whole German cinema”, intrinsically captivating and altogether haunting.[2]

Nosferatu3 (Hutter and Ellen’s house, filmed in Wismar, Germany)

Nosferatu opens in a small, pleasant village Bremen where his boss Knock, a secret follower of the vampire, commissions a young man Hutter to go to the castle of Count Orlac, Nosferatu, to negotiate a housing contract in one of the broken, abandoned buildings. Despite all the warnings he receives from villagers and his abandonment by his coach and companions, he stays at Count Orlac’s castle and is almost killed before he escapes and rushes home to save his wife Ellen. However, Count Orlac travels by ship to his village, kills all on board and wreaks havoc in the once happy town. Almost like a plague, Nosferatu claims countless victims in the village and its residents give in to despair. When Ellen sacrifices herself to Count Orlac, his own lust for blood defeats him and through her death she restores peace to the town.

nosferatu4

(Max Shreck as Nosferatu; Bela Lugosi as Dracula) 

The silent horror of actor Max Shreck’s Nosferatu does not share Bela Lugosi’s dramatic flair as Count Dracula. However, Shreck’s rendition provided a more poignant aftertaste.  As film critic Roger Ebert observed, “It doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us. It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows, but that evil can grow there, nourished on death.”[3] These elements of horror slowly sink in, through scenes with the phantom carriage, the haunted ship carrying Nosferatu’s body, and most importantly Nosferatu’s assured steady approach. As Eisner described it, “the hideous form of the vampire (approached) with exasperating slowness, moving with extreme depth” both awe-inspiring and an altogether terrifying figure.[4]

nosferatu5 (Ellen by the Sea) nosferatu6 (Forest outside Count Orlac’s castle) 

Murnau incorporated Expressionist styles through natural scenes to evoke terror. Most German Expressionist filmmakers, like Fritz Lang and Paul Leni, rejected nature and real life sets in favor of artificial ones. An oddity, Murnau nonetheless used real locations to great effect. Drawn to the natural landscapes he had enjoyed throughout his life, he perceived the many fine images nature had to offer and employed it almost as another character, affected as much as the people by Nosferatu’s company. By taking backgrounds like the forest outside of Orlac’s castle, the street in Hutter’s village, and the ocean and distorting them through lighting he portrayed the corruption of pure and beautiful places, as though a dark, shadowed world had overtaken them, breeding fear and death.

nosferatu7 (Nosferatu emerges from ship’s hull) 

In order to evoke the needed themes from his sets, Murnau employed camera techniques that would capture nature’s dark underbelly through shadows. He employed shadows as lifelike elements of the film to reveal the dark world that lingered alongside perceived reality. These shadows accentuated the story’s horror, especially when showing the subtle changes that came with Nosferatu’s appearances. Like in his later film Tabu (1931), “Murnau was to use the shadow as an element of foreboding”.[5] In Nosferatu, such shadows meant that death was imminent. For example, the closer Hutter came to Count Orlac’s castle, the darker the roads became and when Nosferatu’s phantom carriage came to take him to the castle, it seemed as though even the forest’s shadows elongated in reaction to the monster’s presence.

nosferatu8 (Shadow of Nosferatu almost overtakes Hutter) 

The chilling words Hutter read from a small vampire novel, “Beware that his shadowe weigeth not upon you like a terrible nightmare”, warned him too late of Count Orlac’s true nature.[6] Soon after, its darkness a replication of his true nature, Nosferatu’s shadow almost overcame Hutter, who lay paralyzed by fear, until Ellen intervened and drove the monster away. Just as Cesare’s shadow portrayed Alfred’s murder, so did Nosferatu’s presence come coupled with his shadow’s distorted figure.

nosferatu10 (Nosferatu creeps to Ellen’s room)

Like in Caligari, all of the character’s movements were ripe with meaning. Murnau relied on embellished gestures and facial expressions, similar in other German Expressionist films, to emphasize most of his character’s emotions. For example, when Hutter opened his bedroom door and saw Nosferatu standing feet away, he forcefully closed the door and a look of complete horror slowly and elaborately spread over his face, tension and fear evident even from his eyes. As for Nosferatu’s design, because he essentially represents pestilence and death, his more animal like appearance provided such character that he did not need elaborated gestures or horrible grimaces. This allowed the natural decrepit horror of his presence speak for itself, advocating the other character’s extreme, negative emotions and their erratic movements.

nosferatu9 (Hutter opens bedroom door to corridor) 

Unlike in many earlier silent films like The Great Train Robbery (1903), the camera was an active participant in Nosferatu and the making of its incredible atmosphere. Rather than simply placing the camera in a locked position, “Murnau chose to employ the camera as a performer, whose movements were always logical and whose stillness always significant.”[7] Eisner recognized that “Murnau had a complete grasp of the visual power that can be won from editing, and the virtuosity with which he directs this succession of shots has real genius”.[8] To do this, Murnau positioned the camera to conjure illusionary perspectives. In the above mentioned scene, when Hutter opened his bedroom door, the door appeared large and a strong safeguard. However, once Hutter sees Nosferatu and runs to his bed the door grew thin and weak because of the camera’s changed position. These “extraordinary visual qualities which Murnau brings to (Nosferatu) and the atmospheric, imaginatively Expressionist backdrops he invokes,” conjured images of intense fear without having to rely on special effects used today in horror films.[9]

nosferatu11 (Lines of coffins with Nosferatu’s victims)

Initially made as a horror film, Nosferatu is one of the greatest reflections of Germany’s fearful state of mind. Images of the once happy streets of Bremen poisoned by Nosferatu’s imminent arrival, beautiful forests turned dark and oppressive, and the beautiful sea turned into a raging storm by Nosferatu’s haunted freight really symbolized Interwar Germany. Scenes like the procession of the dead through Bremen’s streets adhered to the Germans’ inability to escape from an environment they could not control. “The undertakers’ mutes dressed in top hats and skimpy frock-coats moved slowly over the crudely hewn cobbles, black and stiff, bearing, two by two, the slim coffin of a victim of the plague” harkened too the many victims brought home from the War and the sorrow that permeated throughout the interwar period.[10] Kracauer believed Nosferatu, in one instance a Count and another a monster, symbolized tyranny overcome only by purity and youth. Effectively, Ellen became “both the victim of the vampire’s desire and the means of the vampire’s destruction” signifying that love would overthrow tyranny at great sacrifice.[11]

nosferatu12 (Nosferatu looks at Ellen through window) 

After its release, critics and audiences worldwide loved the film, however Stoker’s family sued because Murnau was unauthorized to use Dracula’s story. The court ordered the studio to destroy all copies of Nosferatu, though the original prints survived. Ironically, Nosferatu popularized Stoker’s story and built Murnau’s image as a prestigious director, despite copyright complications. Later German Expressionist film directors, though they did not share Murnau’s love of nature or simpler sets, employed similar themes and tactics. Paul Leni, whose first and last German film, Waxworks, followed Nosferatu as one of the greatest examples of exemplifying a story’s mood through stylized Expressionist sets.

 

[1] Balázs, Béla, Der richbare Menach. 108. Quoted in Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler, 78.

[2] Eisner, The haunted screen, pg. 97.

[3] Ebert, Roger. “Nosferatu”, The great movies. New York: Broadway Books, 2002, 332.

[4] Eisner, The haunted screen, pg. 102.

[5] Eisner, The haunted screen, 133.

[6] Murnau, F.W., dir. 1922. Nosferatu. Films Art Guild.  Accessed May 26, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/.

[7] Parkinson, David. History of film: Second Edition . ed. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 2012, 60.

[8] Eisner, The haunted screen, pg. 103-04.

[9] Hunter, Allan. Movie classics, 151.

[10] Eisner, The haunted screen, 101-02.

[11] Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, 79.

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