Cinema as art serves several functions, not least of which is visual impact. Yet because motion pictures are inherently multimedia, soundscape, theater, and writing converge with the elements of visual cinematography and mis-en-scene. Film is often dichotomized, placed into an artificial binary of art films versus films made for a popular audience and designed for entertainment. However, many movies in the history of cinema prove that the line between art and entertainment is at its blurriest with filmmaking. Some films have also reached the level of being considered “classics,” either in their specific genre or in the gamut of filmmaking. One of those films is the original 1922 version of Nosferatu. Directed by F.W. Murnau, the 1922 film Nosferatu exemplifies surreal and haunting cinematography, deft use of timing, pacing, and editing, as well as integration of sonic elements.
Murnau’s Nosferatu has been called the “best and most artistically-realized” film about vampires (Leavy 2). Based on the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker, which was itself inspired by centuries of Eastern and Central European folklore, Nosferatu offers audiences a multilayered work of art: complete with eroticism and a sense of the grotesque (Leavy). Film critic Roger Ebert states, “To watch F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material.” Since Nosferatu was produced, numerous films have followed in its wake, including remakes by another German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. Art films, like other art media, inspire imitation and homage.
Moreover, art becomes firmly situated and reflective of its cultural and historical context, something that Nosferatu certainly achieves with aplomb. Several historians have pointed out the sinister and eerie ways the imagery and character of Nosferatu “foreshadows Nazi tyranny,” given the precarious condition of being undead, both alive and dead (Vacche 162). Nosferatu “combines love and tyranny; he is both helpless and terrifying, striving for harmony…while bringing destruction to everyone who comes into contact with him,” (Vacche 162). Murnau’s Nosferatu also exemplifies the era known to art historians as German Expressionism, which used film as one of many other media. German expressionism capitalized on abstraction and surrealism without being either one, as on the modern world with dark and stark realism too. The liminal position of the character of Nosferatu the undead reflects the filmmaker’s own philosophy, his “ambivalent position between cinema as art and cinema as technology,” as Vacche puts it (162).
One of the most notable features of Nosferatu is its mis-en-scene and cinematography. It is a dark film filled with chiaroscuro. The most famous scenes of the movie are those of the title character’s shadow creeping along the walls of the gloomy castle, death constantly a fixture in the air. The supernatural is also a key element of Nosferatu, linking it to its overarching genre of Romanticism as well as German Expressionism. The Romantic era of painting was characterized by its moodiness and also its fascination with both the supernatural and the darkest sides of human nature. The visual elements in Murnau’s Nosferatu hearken directly to Romantic painting and reflect the filmmaker’s own art-historical training,” (Vacche 162). Like Germany in its first period of unification, the Romantic era was something that was longed for after the First World War, and yet something that was also forever lost. Unable to accept its death, it clung to a mirage of life, an evil living dead form that encapsulated the German cultural zeitgeist at the early 20th century. The film also emerged in an era of , and can be considered a hallmark of the “,” (Vacche 162).
What distinguishes Nosferatu from all other vampire films save only for Werner Herzog’s reinterpretation is the abstract expressionist cinematography and the correspondingly inhuman characteristics of the title character. As Ebert puts it, “Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being.” With impossibly long fingernails that appear like claws, to the ways Schreck moves on screen in creeping deliberation, Nosferatu is clearly not something from this world. He is not a kitch version of a vampire, or a sexy, stylized one. The fact that Nosferatu was made prior to the advent of “talkies,” enhances the inhuman, deathlike nature of the characters, enhancing the unearthly ambiance of the film. The original soundtrack was also lost, degraded as many old films were, and modern film score composers have been able to contribute to the preservation of the art form by offering their versions of the soundtrack. Wordless communication encourages the audience to value the visual dimension of film, and also to pay close attention to elements that might otherwise be overlooked to gain meaning and context. For example, facial expression and body language, light and shadow all add the necessary elements creating tone and mood that a spoken script would otherwise have achieved. In one scene, the Orlok hears something — we know this because he suddenly gets up wide-eyed from bed — and moves to the window. He opens the window and peers out, and suddenly his eyes bulge. He sees something appalling and shocking, we need only look at his face to understand. The editor cuts to an overhead view of the courtyard, from Orlok’s perspective. He sees coffins being arranged on a horse-drawn carriage. In a later scene, a crazy-eyed old man pops up his head immediately before the local mob gathers on the country road, and in the distance the audience espies the silhouette of the vampire. The mob mentality element is also darkly foreshadowing of Nazi Germany, as Vacche suggests.
Death is everywhere, permeating nearly every scene of Nosferatu. Thematically, Nosferatu is hardly divorced from the book that inspired it, and therefore retains its endearing link to the Romantic era. Rough seas, windswept landscape, and of course, large uninhabited castles are all part of the gothic and romantic aesthetic. The Romantic elements of Nosferatu are evident also in its landscape scenes: including one that takes place on a windswept seaside, replete with Christian crosses like grave markers in the distance. Rats and bats, but not the creature himself, pepper the bulk of the film and add an overarching element of suspense to the movie, without which it would not be as successful as it is. The film may in fact have inspired Hitchcock’s lifelong commitment to maximizing suspense and encouraging the audience to actively imagine and generate its own fear.
Nosferatu, like all art, cannot be divorced from its historical and cultural context. Technologically, the film reflects the prevailing art form, as the director uses vignetting and other elements that would not work or be anachronistic in a modern film. Thematically, the film is also entrenched in its era. Orlok comes to the castle on his own volition, drawn to death in parallel with the Freudian concept of the death wish. Nosferatu is clearly part of the collective consciousness of the 1920s, combining elements of Romantic-era nostalgia, fascination with the supernatural, and discomfiting harbinger of the one of the darkest eras of modern history. The film remains relevant as part of the canon of artistic cinematic creations because it can be continually reinterpreted due to its lost soundtrack. It has also become the seed inspiration for a slew of vampire movies that have followed, the most significant of which is Herzog’s remake starring Klaus Kinski, whose facial expressions and body language is the only thing that comes close to the performance of Schreck. Ultimately, Nosferatu is a historical and cultural icon that epitomizes the crux of German Expressionism in film, reflecting the Romantic era’s commitment to a fascination with death and the supernatural.
Ebert, Roger. “Nosferatu.” Retrieved online: http://www.ebertfest.com/three/3nosferatu_rev.htm
Leavy, Bill. “Nosferatu: Murnau’s use of expressionism in his film. SUNY Albany. 24 April 1985. Retrieved online: http://www.academia.edu/2205991/NOSFERATU_Murnaus_Use_of_Expressionism_in_his_Film
Murnau, F.W. Nosferatu. [Film]. Available: https://archive.org/details/Phantasmagoriatheater-Nosferatu1922909
Vacche, Angela Dalle. Cinema and Painting. University of Texas Press.