Sympathy for the Vampire: On “Nosferatu”

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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) Dir. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau with  Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Gustav von Wangenheim Our Rating: 3 of 3 STARS

Kino Classics 2-Disc Deluxe Remastered Edition (Nov, 2013) now available on DVD. Other versions available via Amazon Prime and Netflix

PART I. An Introduction to The Film

There are ogres and villains, monsters and demons inhabiting the darkest corners of our collective imagination. Vampires are a case in point; they first became popular in the 19th century and they’ve never gone out of style. From Lord Byron and Bram Stoker to Twilight, True Blood, and the Vampire Diaries, bloodthirsty creatures continue to grace big and small screens alike.

In Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu—the first and oldest vampire movie—Count Orlok of Transylvania plays havoc with a small [fictitious] German town called Wisborg. Dracula fans will recognize the plot: an ambitious young realtor, Hutter, visits the reclusive count in order to finalize the sale of a property in his hometown. Before embarking on the long journey into the heart of Eastern Europe, he leaves his lovely wife Ellen in the care of a friend. Orlok terrifies Hutter with his grim strangeness, and then he sails for Wisborg before the guy can recover. Meanwhile Ellen suffers telepathically alongside her husband and Orlok’s other victims. As you might imagine, she will eventually meet the count.

Max Schrek in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922)

Max Schreck in “Nosferatu” (1922)

Although long considered a masterpiece of German Expressionism, for much of the twentieth century, Nosferatu was only known in fragments or rare prints and largely unavailable in Europe. The film is loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but Albin Grau, the producer, never obtained rights to the novel. Suffice to say, his attempts to disguise the source did not impress Stoker’s widow. She filed suit, and most copies were destroyed in 1923 when a judge ruled in her favor.

Legality aside, Heinrich Galeen’s screenplay is a model adaptation. While Hutter channels Jonathan Harker and Stoker’s Van Helsing is reanimated in Professor Bulwar, other characters are admirably compressed and combined. The land agent who employs Hutter goes mad like Renfield, and Ellen embodies both Lucy and Mina. England becomes Germany, and Orlok’s arrival alongside an army of rats serves to explain a plague in the town. (In the novel, the rats found in Dracula’s cargo are little more than mise-en-scène.) Moreover, the sea voyage and the Transylvanian forest sequences provide some of the most brilliant cinematography in film history as well as a range of fascinating experiments.

Exteriors were shot in Slovakia and in various German towns, Wismar, Lübek. (The famous salt storehouses in Lübek serve as Count Orlok’s newly purchased home.) A truly spectacular mixture of realism and fantasy is the result. For example, in a recent documentary, members of the film crew describe their arduous journey through the Carpathian mountains to reach the Orava Castle, mirroring Hutter’s fictional journey. They also mention anxious reactions from the Slovakian raftsmen hired to ferry earth-filled boxes down the Váh River, and naturally those authentic emotions influence our own fears and doubts. Apparently the cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagener (or DP as we might call him today), and Murnau were tireless.

In the following sequence, shot on location in the Carpathian mountains, Hutter crosses over to the dark side, discovering vampire territory in a vast, eery wilderness. He wanders, his terror growing, until Orlok’s carriage appears mysteriously, to escort him. First you’ll notice the different colored tints distinguishing the Western world from the folkloric, Eastern one, and you’ll also notice that part of the sequence is projected in negative, intensifying the impression of Orlok’s supernatural powers. Finally, the film speed was decreased such that the carriage would appear to move more quickly than realistically possible.

A newly incorporated Prana Films produced Nosferatu, and here begins my discussion of the bizarre and disturbing ideas and events which inspired and shaped the film. Albin Grau, who founded Prana Films, was perhaps the strangest character involved in the production. A graphic artist, among other things, Grau was fascinated by the occult, and he admired the English magician Alistair Crowley. Some speculate that the idea for a vampire movie was his, and that he’d met a Serbian farmer during the war who claimed to have some undead among his relatives.

The early years of 20th century saw peculiar developments and transitions in art history and the history of ideas, perhaps especially in the German-speaking world. Idealism and Romanticism were crumbling, and nihilistic tendencies and aberrant forms and images oozing out. Hysteria and other mysterious psychological disorders—represented in Nosferatu through Ellen’s depressive affliction—had already fascinated Europeans since the 19th century. As early as 1901, however, Sigmund Freud expanded existing notions of pathological behaviors and attitudes when he published his work on the unconscious, the pleasure principle, and repression. Totem and Taboo, his discussion of the primordial pressures that civilization seeks to resolve, followed in 1913, and his work on the death drive, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, appeared in 1920. Meanwhile artistic expressionism combined a fascination with form and technology—typical of other European modernisms—with folklore and the unconscious.

Murnau studied art history at the University of Heidelberg, and his training for the cinema consisted of apprenticeships in theater and painting. He ran with an interesting crowd; the expressionist painter Franz Marc and theater personalities such as Conrad Veidt and Max Reinhardt were among his friends. Murnau’s admiration for Vasily Kandinsky and The Blue Rider almanac, an expressionist journal founded by Kandinsky in Munich, is evident in his chosen sir name. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, he changed his name to Murnau in homage to “Murnau am Staffelsee,” a Bavarian resort town where Kandinsky and his lover Gabriele Münter often spent summers between 1901 and 1913. (The director was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe.)

Kandinsky and his group were inspired by the colorful world of Slavic peasants, the Parisian avant-garde, and driven by a theoretical struggle with form. After the war, however, expressionism assumed even darker tones and characteristics. A brief look at any of Otto Dix’s drawings or paintings, especially those etchings collected under the title, Der Krieg (The War, 1924), will make even the hardiest among us shudder in despair. Like Dix and Grau, Murnau endured WWI as a soldier; he spent eighteen months in a trench in Lithuania and then flew as a combat pilot, surviving multiple plane crashes. During the course of the conflict, he lost his best friend (perhaps also his lover) and he contracted a serious kidney disease from which he never recovered.

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It was after the war, during the era of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), that expressionism discovered the cinema. In addition to Nosferatu, cinéphiles recognize horror masterpieces such as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. R. Wiene, 1920) and Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927) as the offspring of this weirdly fruitful encounter.

While other early modernisms (cubism, futurism, formalism, surrealism) were enchanted by mechanization, German expressionism remained as skeptical of the machine as it was of form, convention, and the body. In Dix’s drawings (see above), the guns, tanks, trenches and gas masks—all cutting edge warfare technology at the time—seem to melt into the mud while the men involved have become skeletons, or ghouls, and their bodies, disintegrating matter. Combining the psychopathology of everyday life with the gothic and the occult, expressionism turned a critical eye on modernity and its alleged achievements. (By way of contrast, see Italian futurist paintings or works by Fernand Léger, such as “Two Woman on a Blue Background” (1927) or “Untitled” (1925). Thanks to the experience of WWI, Murnau and his colleagues understood that nightmares and ghosts were as much a part of reality as were tables and chairs. Likewise they knew that both humans and machines could erupt into monstrosity.

In Nosferatu, human beings behave like mechanized creatures, and machines come to life in the monster. Count Orlok’s thirst is visceral, carnal, yet his movements are artificial, as if he were made of metal and hinges. Just as the vampire is vitalized by human blood, objects and things gain life while human beings are drained of it. The count’s shadow seems to have an existence of its own; it grows and intensifies, independent of the actor who cast it. (Schreck often remains outside the frame.) Doors and windows move on their own. As the count’s threat increases, Hutter and his wife are simultaneously weakened—she by a preternatural illness and he by fear and guilt. Hutter cowers and faints; Ellen seems to fight harder, but in her sleepwalking, she resembles an automaton, and she is often confined to her bed and bedclothes like a mental patient.

Early film theory imagined the camera as a microscope or scalpel and the cameraman as a surgeon, revealing new levels of intimacy with the human experience, capturing phenomena which could not be seen or understood with the naked eye. In expressionism, however, this translates into more than a desire to record reality or reveal the intricacies of matter. Filmmakers like Murnau were more similar to forensic pathologists or psychoanalysts; they wanted to see beyond, into, or beneath the surface of human reality. They aimed at cracks in the fabric of sanity, the fragility of perception, the arbitrary point at which the real becomes surreal, and those vulgar distortions which render the real more faithfully than any postcard could ever do. In the sequence below, we see a polyp through the microscope. But this is not mere scientific curiosity; it’s an analogy for the vampire. If you watch closely, the polyp captures and devours his prey. (The accompanying title card reads, “I should note that, in those days, Prof. Bulwar was teaching his students about the dreadful methods of carnivorous plants. One viewed with horror the mysterious workings of nature.”)

In sum, expressionism has strange designs on reality, and Nosferatu is no exception. Nothing is taken for granted here—mental sanity, architecture and décor, institutional relationships, and even plant life are subject to inquiry. Murnau focuses his efforts, not on capturing the world as it appears to the naked eye, but rather on bringing the latent, the unconscious, the nightmares—all that is lurking in the shadows, to the surface.

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PART II. A Theory Concerning Our Love for Vampires

What exactly does the vampire represent for us? Why this fascination?

When read alongside Freud, Nosferatu provides a few clues. Freud theorizes that three opposing forces motivate us on a primitive level: the pleasure principle (eros), the death drive (thanatos), and the reality principle. From infancy, just as we sought our mother’s breast, we continue to seek happiness, instant gratification and satisfaction, and this is tied up with our sexuality. However, as Freud shows in Totem and Taboo, Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929and elsewhere, basic urges and desires are problematic for several reasons. Not least among these is that we require contrast and intensity in order to feel pleasure at all. Of course constantly seeking pleasure would also be counterproductive or even dangerous, causing us to starve to death or bringing us into conflict with our neighbors. The death drive stands for our purest aggressive impulses—toward others and nature as well as ourselves.

These primitive motivating forces are tamed, harnessed, and made useful by the reality principle, a repressive phenomenon. Hence repression, however unpleasant or difficult, is generally productive and creative; instead of seeking happiness through sexual gratification, we rear families, cultivate the land, build cities, make art, study and theorize, etc. Civilization is the result.

While the death drive is usually at odds with the pleasure principle, there are certain occasions in which the death drive can enlist eros for its own purposes—in war, extreme disillusionment, and mental illness, for example. And where the death drive is in control, the person (or culture) will seek an intensity that burns up life, an intensity always on the verge of exhaustion, of overwhelming or even overcoming life, evident in spasms, excessive passion, drug use, madness, and suicide. As Thomas Harrison shows in his study of expressionism, 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance, that year (1910) saw a host of writers, artists, and thinkers committing suicide. Likewise, many have called WWI—the war that wiped out a generation of young men in several countries, a collective suicide. In the following clip, we see how eros and the death drive are linked in Ellen’s strange desire for the vampire. She senses his presence, and however frightened she may be and however destructive her impulses, she cannot resist the urge to go to her window, to get closer to him. She knows intuitively that he is coming, and she thrashes and moans ecstatically in her nightgown.

Perhaps Nosferatu and Dracula are so attractive to us because they escape the reality principle? Do we admire them for their wanton lifestyle, one that eschews civilization and all repressive efforts? In these singular creatures, eros cooperates with the death drive without consequence or harm to themselves or their kind. Further, vampires awaken a self-destructive instinct in their victims, making of their once healthy lust for life a gruesome downfall.  Discovered by the Romantics in the universe of folklore and born into a world where Romanticism was no longer a tenable solution, vampires are at once a warning against and an outlet for our wildest and most brutal fantasies.

In this light, we might see vampires as a vestige of expressionism—that strange, disturbing early twentieth century phenomenon in art and letters—that has perdured into the contemporary imagination. The problem is that many of their signature traits, especially the disdain for repression, convention and civilization, have disappeared. The Twilight series for example, requires that Edward repress his instincts in order to protect his lady from a race of werewolves. In other movies and series, we are asked to sympathize with the vampire lot—it’s not really their fault after all!—or vampires become doubled and polarized into good guys and bad guys.  In my view, sympathy for the vampire is just another way in which the postmodern imagination aims to sanitize and neutralize the unconscious and to deny the darker side of being human.

* * *

Other interesting vampire movies include Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Werner Herzog’s 1979 adaptation of the original, Nosferatu: Prince of Darkness. This last has an incredible cast, including Klaus Kinski, Isabella Adjani, and Bruno Ganz. Shadow of the Vampire is an entertaining film with a formidable cast, and Willem Defoe’s vampire is especially compelling.

References for this essay include Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents; Thomas J. Harrison’s 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance; Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”— in which he imagines the camera man as surgeon; Roberto Rossellini’s discussion of the camera as a microscope in Il mio dopoguerra; Jean Epstein’s essays “Magnification” and “Senses;” Gilles Deleuze’s entry on German Expressionist Cinema in Cinema I: The Movement-Image; and a recent exhibition of pieces from the SFMoMA collection, “Flesh and Metal: Body and Machine in Early 20th-Century Art” (Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University November, 13 2013-March 16, 2014). A selection of works from the show can be viewed here.

 

 

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