Movies – Nosferatu

Nosferatu

analysis by A. L.

uttagen

The idea of the Vampire has long been part of the folk imagination. Ernest Jones, the famous psychoanalyst, attempts to explain the currency of this belief in his hook, On the Nightmare. Many of the elements of the superstition are based on facts (burial alive. epidemic mortality, and delayed decomposition ). Its origin, however, must essentially be psychic because these facts “in no way in themselves explain why a dead body should change into an animal. fly through the air and commit sexual excesses with sleeping people.”

Our attitudes towards the dead, says Jones, are based on love and hate. Sometimes the wish to meet again the loved one is projected on the dead. Yet in each person there is also a sense of guilt which desires some kind of retribution; this morbid dread signifies repressed sexual wishes. Jones feels that these wishes are transformed in this fashion: “(1) love reverts to sadism. I 2) the event is feared instead of desired, and (3) the individual to whom the wish relates is replaced by an unknown- being.” Jones continues to analyze the Vampire superstition: “the simple idea of the vital fluid being withdrawn through an exhausting love embrace is complicated by more perverse forms of sexuality, as well as by the admixture of sadism and hate. When the more normal aspects of sexuality are in a state of repression there is always a tendency to regress towards less developed forms.

Sadism is one of the chief of these, and it is the earliest form of this—known as oral sadism—that plays such an important part in the Vampire belief. The still earlier stage, the simple sucking that precedes biting, is more connected with the love side. . . . the sadism more with the element of hate.” (p. 121.1 The makers of the film were of course unaware of Dr. Jones’ analysis. but they were aware of the historical fact that during the Middle Ages there was a close correlation between visitations of the Black Death and outbreaks of Vampirism; even as late as 1855 the terrible epidemic in Danzig revived this belief. The superstition still persists. In 1909 a castle in South Transylvania (the locale of Dracula) was burned by the populace, who believed that a Vampire emanating from it was the cause of a sudden increase in the mortality of their children. _ _ (Neues Wiener Journal, June 10. 1909.)

The Vampire superstition, which had long existed in the spoken traditions of the folk, lost dignity when it was used solely for its fright-ening and gruesome qualities by those who developed the Gothic novel in the late 18th century. By the 1840s the public was reading sensational books like Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood, written by Michael J. Rymer. This is a portion of the fir. of 220 chapters: “The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon itc face. It is perfectly white—perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips were drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth—projecting like those of a wild animal, hideously glaring white and fang-like. it approaches the bed with a strange gliding move-ment. It clashes together its long nails. . . He drags her head to the bed’s edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in its grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in the fang-like teeth—a gush of blood arid a hideous sucking noise follows.

The vampire is at his hideous repast.” This rather indecorous description is typical of the blood-and-thunder school. The most artistic and suggestive treatment of the Vampire occured forty years later in Brain Stoker’s Dracula, in which terror is sustained not by lurid episodes but by careful attention to atmosphere, setting, and character.

THE NOVEL: Jonathan Harker, a British solicitor, travels to Transyl-vania to arrange with Count Dracula the purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. Though not attacked, Harker is left at the castle as Dracula disembarks. After killing all aboard the ship, the Count arrives in Lon-don where there are millions on whom he can prey. He attacks Lucy who in turn becomes a vampire. Van Helsing, a scientist, puts a stake through her heart and looks for Dracula. His Harker resides at her father’s insane asylum. Because Dracula can only enter a house if bidden, he prevails upon the lunatic Renfield (who himself develops a mania for blood) to ask him in. Dracula mixes his blood with Nina’s so that when she dies she will become it vampire. He then returns to Transylvania to escape Van Helsing who wishes to save Nina’s soul.

Almost at his castle. Dracula is overtaken and killed and Nina is saved. In the novel, Stoker had posed the problem of it medieval anachonism—a vampire in the midst of civilized and rational London society. Dracula, with the unholy wisdom of many centuries, is successful until Dr. Van Helsing, it scientist who is well-versed in ancient lore, opposes his will and vanquishes him. THE SCRIPTS: In 1922 Nosferatu was made in Germany by F. W. NIfirnau and in 1931 Tod Browning directed Dracula, based on the Broad-,ac play of 1927. Though originating from the same book, these two films differ in many respects. Stoker had taken the European folklore figure of the vampire and had pitted his wits winst the members of \ Ina., family and Van Helsing. The Germans ignored almost all of Stol,cf., book. most of the Britisher’s plotting, and only drew upon the t.arli chapters in which we have the incidents of 111 the trip to Transylvania by the solicitor, (2) the trip in the coach and the midnight greeting in the castle, (3) the sea voyage and (4) his interest in Nina. Except for these borrowed incidents, the script was a most free adaptation. The biting of Harker by the Vampire, the letters between Renfield and Nos-feratu. all of N ina s actions, the “plague,” and the characterization of Nosferatu are invented. Murnau probably felt that by transferring the action to the year 1838 he would have an atmosphere more conducive to the supernatural. Because of this distance in time, an audience is perhaps more willing to employ its “suspension of disbelief”.

Thus, Murnau, less confined to realism, can have the coach move in its jerky, magical fashion, the quaintness and other worldiness of the costumes, the graceful movement of the sailing ship. the dread fear of the plague, and the procession of coffins. And most important, Murnau felt that he could afford to stylize his Vampire beyond what an audience would have accepted in a contemporary setting. The reemphasis in the film on the more medieval aspects of the myth can be seen not only in the obvious substitution of the more historic Bremen for London, but also in the makeup of Renfield and the vampire who resemble the grotesque figures of the gargoyles sculptured on many old cathedrals. Nosferatu is like the tradition) figure of the Grim Reaper and like the allegorical figure of Death in the medieval play Everyman to whom man must relinquish life whenever he strikes. He tolls the hours as does the skeleton clock in the castle.

The phenomenon of the vampire is a dark and irrational force that is beyond the explanations of science. In the Hollywood Dracula (as in the novel) the vampire is only vanquished by Van Helsing when he un-questionably employs the legendary devices of wolfsbane, garlic flowers. and wooden stakes. But Nosferatu takes an even more mystical attitude towards the vampire; it recalls the ancient myths of a city that is preyed upon by a malignant force (be it plague or vampire) until the curse has been expiated by the sacrifice of a woman “pure in heart.” This idea of sacrifice to remove a curse is an old one, stretching back in history at least to Der Arme Heinrich, by Hartmann Von der Atte, a minnesinger of the 12th century. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow uses this same idea in his Golden Legend: The only remedy that remains Is the blood that flows from a maiden’s veins. Who of her own free will shall die, And give her its as the price of yours. In keeping with this romantic attitude, Nina ignores any rational help and relies upon her intuition, the old book of the vampires merely confirming her suppositions. In her uncanny awareness of the vampire she instinctively feels that it is up to her to rid the world of this curse. Thus, the German film does not rely on the trappings of folklore but on the belief that Evil can only be halted by Good.

And thus it is only the pure Nina in conjunction with the Sunlight that can eradicate the foul Nosferatu )the Darkness. Although the sacrifice of Nina is a more romantic treatment of the superstition. Murnau’s conception of the vampire is decidedly unromantic. He does not wish to draw upon Stoker’s rather full characterization, but depersonalizes the vampire so that he is less of an individual and more of a type. Nosferatu is an IT not a HE. A kind of abstract thing of evil. he has no nobility and does not inhabit the dark world of majestic satanic villains. Instead, he is a lower kind of evil. an obscene and loathsome creature that dwells amongst earth and slime and crawl-ing rats—the very antithesis of light. With his hairy pointed ears, his hideous fingernails, and his lecherous and lustful mask-like face, he is an image of damned flesh and not of damned soul.

There is no Byronic romanticizing of him as we have in the Hollywood film. in which Dracula, superbly portrayed by Bela Lugosi, is a suave Count who is handsome in a kind of fiendish way. He lives in a world that is shadowy but not revolting and declares darkly that his new residence at Carfax Abbey reminds him “of the broken battlements of my own castle in Transyl-vania.” When he hears the cry of wolves he says to the solicitor: “Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” It is no wonder that both Lucy and Nina find his beautiful voice, his Hungarian intonation, and his dark melancholy face rather attractive. This is not to say that the one conception of the villain is necessarily better than the other. Both are effective but for different reasons. One is a foul beastly creature akin to the plague and a loathsome companion of rats; the other is more darkly complex, an aristocrat of evil in the long tradition of Milton’s Satan and Maturins’s Melmoth in Mehnoth the Wanderer (1820).

It is not impossible, however, that certain changes in the conception of the vampire and of the general tone are a result more of necessity than choice. Murnau could not rely on sounds of howling ‘wolves, nor lines of sombre dialogue, nor dramatic music. Perhaps, compelled to make his vampire more visually frightening, he had to concentrate on stylization in both movement and makeup. Some scenes in Nosleratu are not well photographed. The blame could be placed on the primitive camera work of 1922. but when one compares this Oat to Warning Shadows (made the same year) one sees that Murnau’s is much inferior. Of course many shots in Nosleratu were done on location in Hungary, and Murnau, and his camera-man, Fritz Arno Wagner. were forced to light long shots from a general source (frequently the sun) rather than from a particular point. For this reason he could not avail himself of the beauties and suggestiveness of the Rembrant-like playing with light and shadow of chiaroscuro. In the interior shots, however, we can not ascribe the lack of evocative power to technical deficiency alone: sometimes the failure is in the director’s imagination. In the close-ups of the hero and heroine, he is free to manipulate the light at will, yet there is little use of shadow. Murnau only seems to have been inspired in his treatment of the vampire. For in-stance, when Harker looks through an open door at the castle and sees the Vampire across the room, the scene is dramatically lit, and extremely frightening. in the next few shots, as he moves towards Harker’s bed, the shadows of the Vampire’s hideous hands and elongated body play upon the wall. The scene is brilliantly handled. It is perhaps because of the location work and the problems of light-ing that the scenes at the castle are not so effective.

Certainly Murnau has not succeeded in suffusing the castle with a mood of shadow and confinement. Here we can contrast the remarkably successful use of chiaroscuro in the Hollywood Dracula in which the Vampire, obviously a creature of the night, moves amongst shadows in a funereal castle of broken battlements, leaden pointed windows, immense fireplaces, dust and cobwebs and decay. We have large slabs of stone for floors, not black and white shiny square pieces of tile; we have heavy oaken, arched doors that creak slo, IN on their long, rusted hinges. not it flimsy one-inch-thick door as in Aosleratu. However, such differences may per-haps have been more the blame of the budget than of the imagination. Although the scripts differ considerably, as has been pointed out, there are some scenes which are similar in intent. By examining these we shall perhaps be better able to judge the ability of the two directors.

Of course in doing this, we must add that we are, for simplification, placing the responsibility for script, for photography, for acting, for sets solely on the director since any careful and specific discussion would be of too considerable length. The script of the 1931 Dracula seems to be better in the opening reels than No.sferatu. The film begins as a coach bounces along moun-tain roads; the driver, in great haste, beats the horses in order to arrive before sunset. When the coach pulls up at an inn, the solicitor insists on continuing at night to meet Dracula’s carriage. The driver is astounded and during this discussion an old woman comes out of the inn, puts a cross around his neck and says, “Wear this for your mother’s sake.” There’s it long shot of the village as the coach pulls away, and as the sun sets, we dissolve to Dracula’s castle, where we see white-garbed women and then Dracula himself arising from coffins. At night the town coach is met by Dracula and soon the Count’s carriage is speeding danger-ously along. The passenger looks out to complain but he sees only it bat hovering over the horses in the darkness. The coach pulls up at the castle, the door opens by itself, and he is met by Dracula who says, “I bid you welcome.” In Nosleratu the continuity of action is broken by a night spent in an inn which, unfortunately, does not increase the sense of impending doom. No one attempts to dissuade Harker and no old woman gives him a cross. The only thing actually accomplished by the scene is that certain neces-san information is conveyed to the audience about vampires. (It is quite possible that Murnau would have preferred the information coming from the townspeople. but, because it is a silent film he used the narrative device of the book to avoid sub-titles).

In an attempt to add to the sense of impending horror, Murnau makes use of the startling and evocative shots of the horses running in the moonlight, but he weakens this by having to explain that their strange actions are caused by a wolf. Murnau tries to render the supernatural and eerie quality of the Vampire’s carriage by shooting it in fast motion, but this tends to be more amusing than frightening, and it seems that he would have been wiser using slow motion. The Hollywood version does not experiment with film speed but attempts to create a sense of the supernatural by using darkness and by having the bat hover over the horses’ heads. Unfortunately, it did not adopt Murnau’s excellent image of the carriage and the horses and the driver all shrouded in crepe. In Dracula the mood is sustained when Lugosi greets the visitor with a flickering candle, leads him through a gigantic spider web, and declares ominously, “The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life.” In Nosjeratu there is no such “grand” moment. In both films we have the cut-in-the-finger episode. In Nosleratu the Vampire sees the cut and lurches towards Harker; the action is too abrupt and not dramatically handled and appears more awkward than frightening. In the Hollywood version we see a close-up of the blood on the finger. Then the camera dollies in on Dracula as he stands, with his cape fes-tooned in one hand.

In a longer shot he rushes forward but the old woman’s cross falls in front of the wound; the Vampire recoils in horror. Dracula is told rather ironically, as the solicter sucks his finger. not to be afraid; “It’s just blood.” Then follows a shadowy reaction shot of Dracu-la’s face in an evil. blood-lustful glow. This scene shows how an incident can be expanded and made more effective by careful direction. But the Hollywood film is not always superior; in fact, after the rather effective opening reels, its imaginative qualities suffer and the film descends into talk. derived. alas, from the Broadway play. In Dracula the boat scene is not fully handled: we do not meet any of the crew but just see the captain dead at the wheel. Murnau, to the con-trary. has here perhaps his best scene. We see the dying sailor, the hideous coffins with their crawling rats, the heroic captain tying himself to the wheel and that adroitly handled scene in which the Vampire comes out of the hold and stalks towards the captain. The movement, the camera angle. the basic dramatic situations are imaginative. There are other fine moments in Noeferatu.

Murnau suggests a kind of damned ship in which the beauty of the sails and the flow of the waves are an effective contrast to the filthy horror which lies below amongst the rats. While Nina sits between cross-studded hills of sand and looks across the deceptive lovely white sea and awaits the evil fate floating inevitably towards her, ‘we can appreciate Murnau’s talent in translating the ship and the seas into symbols of doom and destiny.  Murnau’s film is powerful also because it concentrates mostlv on the adventures of the Vampire while the Hollywood version concerns itself at great length with Renfield, Nina, Lucy, Van Helsing, and Jonathan. By limiting his scenes to a few fully-developed sequences, such as the approach, the castle, the journey, the unloading of the boat. the plague, and the conclusion. Murnau was able to suggest the idea of evil which the Vampire, floating slowly towards Bremen, represents. Murnau gives us a clash of force against force. of good against evil, that the HollyWOOd film never approaches. This sense of brooding evil and the “tragic” sac. rifice of Nina show that Murnau was much more than a mere monster- monger.

Nosferatu may be popular with horror fans, but to a general audience it will hardly rank as a masterpiece. The film is flawed by the extravagant acting of the hero and heroine, uneven photography, and a weak and disconnected story. :‘Vos/eratu is, in the cruelest sense of the word, “dated.” However, Max Shrer‘k as the vampire and some of the scenes of castle, the ship, and Bremen in spite of the awkwardness of the rest of the film, have enough of that “chilling blast from Doomsday” and enough imaginative use of the cinema to make a viewing by a mature audience worthwhile.