Sympathy for the Vampire: On “Nosferatu”

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.

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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.



Why We Should Tell Martin, Terence, Leo, and Jonah “No” at the Academy Awards

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Dir. Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner and many, many others Our Rating: 0 of 3 STARS

wolfie frat boy
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.

All you need to see of The Wolf of Wall Street are the first twenty minutes. In the second sequence, we meet Mark Hanna, “the guru”: champion Wall Street warrior, shaman of stock sales, cool cat, high roller, alcoholic, coke addict, masturbation junkie. Played by the reigning cowboy of American cinema, Matthew McConaughey, Hanna takes our green recruit, Jordan Belfort (Leo), for lunch and proceeds to teach him the tricks of the trading floor: get off, get laid, get plastered, get high, get pumped, and don’t take no for an answer. As he delivers the monologue containing such wise counsel, Hanna orders the waitress to bring him two dry martinis every seven minutes until further notice, takes a bit of “snuff”, and then shares his insight into human psychology. McConaughey’s brief performance is noteworthy; he carries off the character’s eccentricity with perfect ease and just enough charm. Now, imagine his character multiplied by one hundred, and his chest thumping, powder snorting, cocktail binging extended over three hours and twenty minutes.

To be fair, we should add that Australian starlet Margot Robbie handles the Brooklyn accent admirably, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill perform as well as any drunken frat boy with a penchant for hedonism, exhibitionism, and leadership. We should also own that the soundtrack afforded us a pleasant reverie of parties past thanks to the inclusion Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain.”

Jordan's bachelor party, onboard a private jet.
Jordan’s bachelor party, onboard a private jet.

I could end my review here but for an irksome question. Why make this film? IMDB reports that the production cost roughly $100,000,000, and there are obviously many talented professionals involved. Yet, though I endured all 180 minutes, I fail to understand the significance of Jordan’s character. If there were indeed is a good reason to represent his story, Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese have neglected to reveal it. (I suppose Leo does his best to gain our sympathy—I’ve heard many a respectable viewer admire his bad quaalude trip which includes rolling himself down the stairs of a prestigious country club while foaming at the mouth like a seizure victim. For my part, I can’t help but imagine a bizarre mash-up of Jay Gatsby, Bill the Butcher, and John Belushi in Animal House.)

leo tries to get into his car
A still from the famous quaalude sequence.

The first problem with Scorsese’s film is that it’s a biopic, and the biopic rarely sees its characters as historical agents, suspending them instead among the finer particles of legend—far from time, place, and circumstance. In The Wolf, we never encounter the men and women Jordan cheats or the Lower Manhattanites he claims for rivals. The only glimpse of reality, of the world beyond his home and offices, is a brief, random shot on a New York subway at the end of the film. Suffice to say that this genre does not lend itself to critical conceit or a nuanced examination of character.

To understand Jordan Belfort’s weaknesses and his relationship to a world he ignored, perhaps we need to ask a more essential question. For all the filmmakers, writers and students of human nature out there—what is that appeals to us in representations of the human experience? Courage, fear, honor, disgrace?  Friendship, love, compassion, joy, fun? Excellence? Stupidity?  At the moment, we have a national passion for buffoonery, but Jordan and his friends are not stupid. I have a hunch that what we find striking in him are his audacity, incorrigibility, and doggedness. Are such qualities really so impressive? Boldness alone does not a courageous man make…and incorrigibility and doggedness are something else altogether. For the sake of good argument then, let us consider courage in some detail.

As it happens, I am reading Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, a profound inquiry into strength and weakness in the human experience. In this tale, the narrator, Captain Marlowe, takes an interest in the fate of a young man, Jim, who loses his honor when a crisis overwhelms him. As he relates Jim’s fall and rise, Marlowe introduces us to several courageous men.  There are an aging French lieutenant who rescues a badly compromised ship; Stein, a wealthy Austrian merchant, former revolutionary and all-around hero of adventure in the south pacific; and Doramin, a tribal leader in the pirate colony of Patusan. The way in which Conrad presents these minor characters and their exceptional qualities is worthy of further consideration.

The French naval officer sips cassis à l’eau while leaning against the wall of a café.  In conversation, the man’s “ponderous immobility” is “profoundly responsive,” and somehow filled with wisdom and expression; likewise he utters slang phrases with “imperturbable seriousness.” Conrad sees him as a vestige of time and a testament to a life lived quietly but well: “the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes”(111). Clearly Terence Winter and Jordan Belfort, with their pretense and ostentation, their shouting and flailing, inhabit another universe.

As for Conrad’s Stein, “His life had begun in sacrifice, in enthusiasm for generous ideas; he had travelled very far, on various ways, on strange paths, and whatever he followed it had been without faltering, and therefore without shame and without regret”(164). Yet, despite the accumulation of exciting happenings and illustrious companions, Stein prefers his butterflies, consuming the daylight and many candles besides to study and correspond with other naturalists. He is thin and tall with a serene and thoughtful countenance. While escorting the narrator to his guest quarters, “He walked slowly a pace in advance with stooping courtesy; there was a profound, as it were a listening, quietude on his face; the long flaxen locks mixed with white threads were scattered thinly upon his slightly bowed neck”(165).

During an attack on his enemy, the chieftain Doramin has himself carried up the hill in an armchair. “There he sat, moving neither hand nor foot, a flame of dry brushwood behind him, and lots of people rushing about, shouting and pulling round him—the most solemn imposing old chap you can imagine” (202).  Doramin’s immense girth and silent gravitas constitute the pillar on which rests the fate of his village. Without him civilization would collapse and the surrounding world fall into chaos. Likewise, Conrad suggests that were it not for men like the white-haired Stein and the weary lieutenant, the same would be true in the larger context as well.

Conrad envisions courage as immovability, imperturbability; these men are all stillness and reticence. They listen and ponder, acting upon necessity (as opposed to whim). Fear, loss, and risk are their intimate companions—not enemy phantoms to be avoided, conquered, or purged. As a result, each of these characters is mysterious, and his economical speech both reveals and conceals a story that has not been fully told or not told at all. Meanwhile the man whom fear grips is hysterical; ignoble actions are the result of panic and frenzy, and tyrants are wild, mad, opium addicts. In contrast to the three noted above, the villains in Lord Jim are not mysterious at all. Their faults and weaknesses are obvious, their actions and reactions, predictable, and as a result, any extended treatment of their victories and mishaps would be monotonous and repetitive.

Jonah Hill in a scene inspired by Fellini.

Jordan Belfort cannot be called courageous if he is always high, nor can he be considered imperturbable, since once again, he is always intoxicated. Instead Jordan behaves much like a tyrant, ignorant of courage and honor, cheating and swindling his customers, clients, and competitors. Nonetheless, the film exalts him; it asks us to identify with him through point of view and dramatic ploys. The voice-over and epilogue may aspire to critical commentary, but there is far too much sentimentality in the film for successful satire. Self-conscious shots and sequences are tacked clumsily onto the end. Likewise, it is too boring and poorly organized to be a farce. The melodramatic elements are superficial; Jordan’s authentic experiences and feelings (love, joy, fear) mingle precariously and indecipherably with the effects of chemical substance abuse and various other addictions. In fact, once he goes clean, he seems immune to feeling, fun, and principle alike. Moreover, there is nothing dynamic in Jordan’s characterization, no conflicts, ambiguity, or redeeming qualities to speak of. Even his beloved firm, Stratton Oakmont, his best friends, his wife and daughters, the people whose fortunes he made, have no claim on him. He easily betrays them all. Even sober, he remains as insensitive to the world as ever.

By contrast, Conrad shows that success, ownership, esteem, and admiration possess a man, making him as responsible to his creation and subjects as they are to him. A rehabilitated Jim “looked with an owner’s eye at the peace of the evening, at the river, at the houses, at the everlasting life of the forests, at the life of old mankind, at the secrets of the land, at the pride of his own heart; but it was they that possessed him and made him their own to the innermost thought, to the slightest stir of blood, to his last breath”(190).

My point is the following: If we are going to make this kind of creative and financial investment in a movie (and viewers have a stake too), why not consider more enigmatic characterizations, more complex treatments, and more interesting genre? Of course I also wish that we reevaluate those qualities which make a man like Jordan so successful.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an extravagant film. There are films that exist as homage to the medium, that stand as a testament to the filmmakers’ love for moviemaking. Although the best such films also have moral depth, artistry, or humor. Or, at the very least, a remarkable mise-en-scène! Excepting a few sequences—the underwear-clad marching band among them, The Wolf also lacks this. If you appreciate a movie about loving the craft, there are much better examples in Scorcese’s own oeuvre, voir Gangs of New York (2002), or in the work of Federico Fellini, the original extravagant filmmaker and much admired by Scorsese. If bacchanal strikes your fancy, try Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), based on a satire by the first century Roman author Petronius. For a more soulful example, that exposes the emptiness in ill-gotten gains and senseless revelry while also treating the eye to a lavish mise-en-scène, you might look to The Dolce Vita (1959).

In conclusion, the first question posed above—why make this film—is impossible to answer. One might look upon the best The Wolf has to offer as one of those videos you make with your buddies on a golf trip. You laugh at it together over breakfast, and then quickly erase it before wives, employers, or officers of the law catch a glimpse. It appears that the director and actors, at least, amused themselves greatly—which I applaud, however, I don’t see why I should have spent $12.50 to see their inside jokes—never mind why the American film establishment should distinguish their efforts with honors or awards.

Suggested viewing: For a contemporary example of the farce, consider The Hangover (2009); for a classic example,  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). A Town Called Panic [Panique au village, 2009] is one of my favorite animated farces, and Margerithe von Trotta’s Vision (2009)—about Hildegard von Bingen—is one of the more interesting biopics I’ve seen. Quiz Show (1994) is an engaging drama that successfully integrates a critique of the media industry and American consumers while Winter’s Bone (2010) is a beautiful film about courage that features a female lead. En revanche, if you want to see how ugly doggedness can be—once you take away the Lamborghini, the mansion, and the designer suits, see Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties [Pasqualino Settebellezze, 1977]. If naked marching bands, outrageous sets, and large casts appeal to you, see any of Federico Fellini’s films made after 1959, but especially La dolce vita (1959), 8 1/2 (1963) and Amarcord (1973). If you want to know what a satire is, you should see Fellini’s short film, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio [Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio, in the collection Boccaccio 70, 1962] or read Voltaire’s Candide (1759).

Recovering the Muse: Ralph Fiennes’s “The Invisible Woman”

The Invisible Woman (2013) Directed by Ralph Fiennes with Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Joanna Scanlan Our Rating: 1 of 3 STARS

Currently showing in theaters

I went to see The Invisible Woman with high hopes for an exciting period drama: beautiful cinematography, elegant costuming, and all the literary sensibility and gravitas that Ralph Fiennes can muster. I meant to indulge a weakness for the historical film genre with its ridiculous love affairs and well-dressed women; never mind the obvious clichés in silent muses, middle-aged men leaving their wives for younger women, or highly intelligent maidens coming to no good end in nineteenth-century Europe.  I left the cinema feeling rather perplexed, and I can only conclude that it had something to do with the very clichés I’d meant to gleefully ignore.


Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s eponymous biography of Ellen Lawless Ternan (1839-1914), the film tells the story of Charles Dickens (played by Fiennes) and the actress who became his mistress in 1857 (played by Felicity Jones). “Nelly,” as she is affectionately called, was eighteen when she met the novelist, playwright and poet on the set of The Frozen Deep, a play written by Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins. At the time Dickens was forty-five, married, and the father of ten children. The youngest in a family of players, including her mother (played by Kristen Scott Thomas) and two elder sisters, Nelly is the least talented among them. As her mother puts it, “Nelly’s talents lie elsewhere.” In fact, she is a voracious reader of novels and a passionate lover of Dickens’s fiction, not to mention thoughtful, eloquent, beautiful, and charming. Though the Ternan ladies are glamorous and sought after, we are given to understand through hushed conversation, and by way of sagging chairs and decadent panelling, that life as an actress is precarious. Mrs. Ternan is especially anxious for Nelly’s future, and to a large extent, this fact alone motivates the plot.

This production—Mr. Fiennes’s second feature as director—is remarkably concerned with the fate of women. The  cares of the widowed Mrs. Ternan, a hard-working mother, coalesce with a number of troubled feminine portraits. There is Dickens’s wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), doubtless burdened by the aftermath of ten pregnancies and forced to endure public humiliation and private cruelty. There is Wilkie Collins’s mistress, whose brief appearances highlight her rebellion against convention. In a scene the purpose of which can only be to aggravate the tension surrounding Nelly’s prospects, Dickens is horrified to encounter a young prostitute in the bowels of the city. In the sequence that follows, together with the Ternans, he raises money to support the city’s hospital for wayward women and their children. And this brings us to Nelly herself.


Although she is initially quite taken with the charismatic author, her impression of the man himself seems to sour rather quickly. Following her mother’s advice, she consents to a clandestine relationship and a life in shadows—however reluctantly. But the director leaves the question of her true feelings to the eye and mind of the viewer for they are entirely unspoken. While Charles’s affection is articulated clearly, both verbally and via body language, Nelly never answers the question as to whether she loves him. In close-ups of her face, even in the tenderest of moments, her expression is, at best, ambiguous and more easily, impassive or indifferent. Except for a very brief and elusive memory of joyful companionship, shown via silent montage, she hides any authentic feelings, needs, or desires.

Has necessity hardened her? Was she disgusted by her paramour’s behavior toward his wife? Did the transgression of convention shame her in her own eyes? Does she begrudge the effacement of her identity? Was she lonely? To his credit perhaps, Fiennes does not resolve these doubts. Most of the story is told via flashback from the perspective of Mrs. Nelly Wharton-Robinson, a woman very much haunted by her past. Shunning company and confidences, she paces feverishly along the beach, under a cool gray sky—for miles. She often appears distant or lost in reflection, even in the presence of others. The story is thus set in a mental landscape, inspired by the vastness of the ocean upon which Nelly frequently gazes. Sounds are stupefying as they serve to transition us in and out of reminiscences. Crashing waves, pounding hooves, and rustling petticoats come on forcefully and abruptly, suddenly immersing us in another place and time. Vertiginous camera angles function similarly; in one example, Nelly suffers a loss. Shaken with sobs, she falls to her knees—cut to an extreme low-angled shot of Mrs. Wharton-Robinson’s feet and the hemline of her skirts as she marches on the shore.

Nelly and the ocean

The film’s epigraph, from A Tale of Two Cities, captures the argument: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” This insight into human nature becomes more melancholy and less profound when we remember that Nelly dreamt of breaking down the inner fortresses that separate us from one another, rendering men and women unfeeling and incomprehensible. Her own view was much more hopeful; in an early conversation with Charles, she proposes that an exception might be found in certain loving relationships.

In sum, the film suggests that Nelly was not satisfied with the sublime, “so far refined love” (or her own sublimation), and she longed for a bit of that “dull, sublunary lovers’ love.” The story itself isn’t terribly compelling, and the treatment is inconsistent, but even still, the film is not wholly without merit.  In particular, the punctured clichés and feminine perspective make The Invisible Woman worthy of further consideration.

Suggested Reading: Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens; George Eliot, Middlemarch; John Donne, “A Valediction (Forbidding Mourning);” Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations *  Suggested Viewing: Jean-Marc Vallé, The Young Victoria (2009); Nikolaj Arcel, A Royal Affair (2012)

‘Talk to Her’: Spike Jonze’s New Love Story

Her: A Love Story (2013)
Spike Jonze with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde and Scarlett Johansson Our Rating: 3 of 3 STARS+

Currently showing in theaters

Watching Spike Jonze’s new film, “Her” (2013), one is immersed in an ever-so slightly futuristic Los Angeles. The changes to contemporary urban life are so subtle that we are left with only the vaguest sensation of estrangement. The vibrant colors of the office décor and the protagonist’s cardigans, a skyline borrowed from Shanghai, the preponderance of the virtual and voice activated software stretch just enough into the fictional that the distortion of our normal is barely perceptible.  A gutter-mouthed avatar, a ‘good mother’ video game, and, the protagonist’s place of employment, are uncanny precisely because they are as plausible as they are imaginative and ironic. We chuckle nervously, musing that nothing here is all that far-fetched.

joaquin pheonix in her 3

Like the vast interiors and broad sidewalks, the story is minimalist but artfully arranged: Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely late thirty-something divorcé and his intuitive operating system (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love.  Advertised as a “consciousness,” Samantha learns to feel the human way. Her ‘consciousness’ develops in response to Theodore, and when he describes the relationship first to a friend and then to an acquaintance, he says that it’s nice to be with someone who is excited about the world.  Jonze, who both wrote and directed the film, appropriates the clichés associated with romantic relationships while transcending them: to love is to re-discover the world, the heart grows, people grow apart, communication can fail where it is most important, the past is a story we tell ourselves, loving is learning.  In his depiction these observations and suggestions resonate sincerely, and hackneyed expressions regain their vitality. Likewise the commonplaces of science fiction, in the distinctions between ‘human being’ and machine intelligence, materialize as honest discoveries: being human is about spontaneous reactions—Samantha is proud of feeling suddenly annoyed, or the experience of inexplicable emotional phenomena—in spite of her impressive processing capacity and mathematical origins, the operating system admits, happily, that she cannot explain why she has fallen in love. And, perhaps above all, being human is about the embodiment that limits and tethers us to the material world, that conditions our consciousness and moves us through space.

joaquin pheonix in her 2scarlett johansson

“Her” explores empathy on several levels. Narratively speaking, Theodore writes meaningful letters for couples and families he doesn’t know; it’s his job. Perhaps his ability to imagine a stranger’s emotions predisposes him toward a love affair with a thoughtful voice? On a deeper level however, the director encourages an empathetic response from his viewers. Cultivating intimacy via close-up framing and soft lighting, he makes feeling and growing, both intellectually and emotionally, palpable. The protagonist’s friendship with a neighbor (Amy Adams), his awkward sexual encounters, a first date (Olivia Wilde), and his falling in love draw us in with striking intensity.  

Finally, in this film, the future is as nostalgic as anyone who has loved, learned, and lost. Scarlett Johansson’s husky, playful voice resides in a phone that resembles a 1940s-era cigarette case, Joaquin Phoenix wears high-waisted trousers and shirtsleeves, los angelinos travel by train, and hand-written letters make for a profitable business.  Memories appear as mildly over-exposed Super8 footage, and they mingle easily with the pensive close-ups, filtered light, and reflective surfaces in the mise-en-scène. There is no overwhelming or cathartic battle with machines, such as we find in the Matrix series or or the Terminator films; progress is, quite simply, a steady removal from embodiment and feeling. Yet, in spite of all this listless slumber, Jonze presents a film that is ultimately about awakening.  “Her” is a beautiful love story that takes full advantage of the medium’s ability to engage us. The casting is spot on as the power of Johansson’s voice is matched by the expressive potential in Joaquin Phoenix’s face. Together with a delightfully unassuming performance by Amy Adams, they show us what being in the world is all about.

Suggested Viewing: “Her” recalls the science-fictional premise and themes of action films such as Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), but it also evokes the thoughtful mood, intimacy, and everyday enlightenment found in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” (2003) or her “Somewhere” (2010). For an ‘art house’ experience, you might try Wim Wenders “Tokyo-Ga” (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” (1983). Working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze directed the strange and cerebral comedies “Being John Malkovitch” (1999) and “Adaptation” (2002). He also wrote and directed an adaptation of the popular children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009), and he is a creator of the “Jackass” series for MTV and the Jackass films.

Exploring the Virtual World

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to fall into a gorge? To soar across the sky, chop down a tree, or sit in the front of the classroom?  A visit to Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) might allow you to try any of the above and more besides – by way of a simulated experience.  Last week we visited this experimental work space designed by cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson and run by his team in the Communications Department.  We were able to try out a couple of the demos including an adventure in logging that involved the use of a kinetic device as a saw.  But the most affecting of the experiments was by far the oldest known to psychologists working in the field – the pit demonstration.

The facilities in Bailenson’s lab are custom designed, state of the art and brand new.  In a special room equipped with a multitude of concealed sub – woofers and speakers, we were directed to a plank of wood on the floor.  Donning a $40,000 stereoscopic head-mounted display – reminiscent of the Matrix’s cyber punk mise-en-scène, complete with a power cord extending from the ceiling – we endeavored to “walk the plank”.  At first we saw an animated representation of the same room, rendered in 3D.  We had read about virtual pit experiments and were eager to participate, yet nothing had quite prepared us for the sudden appearance of a chasm beneath the plank.  We shuddered as the floor dropped out from under us and, despite lab manager Cody Karutz’s reassurances, we couldn’t help trembling as we scurried over the board/virtual bridge.  A further challenge involved jumping into the pit (a brick cellar of sorts with a visible floor and walls); the tumble, simulated via images, sound and vibrations, induced an involuntary shriek.  And not only …. we grasped for the spotters, clutching their forearms as if they might prevent the inevitable horror.  Or so it seemed.

The strengths of the experiment lie in its ability to cultivate an atmosphere and an interactive environment – one that can be seen, heard, felt and engaged with.  The combination of sensory perception with action in choice (intellectual) and movement (physical) is essential to the totality of the effect.  Though most of our experience was merely imagined, we were reeling for some time afterward.  Further, statistics show that only 1/3 of adults venture to cross the void and even fewer jump –  naturally one begins to question how we define reality.

Prof. Bailenson’s new book Infinite Reality (William Morrow, 2011), co-authored with Jim Blascovich of the University of Santa Barbara, examines the growing presence of the virtual within our world.  From chat rooms and chat bots to social networks, video games, kinetic devices, 3D LCD displays, avatars and second life, our culture is both colliding and coalescing with an immeasurable computer generated universe.  The authors of Infinite Reality are primarily concerned with the practical possibilities of this alternate realm – immersing the U.S. military in foreign custom, instilling an environmental conscience in school-age children, creating optimum learning conditions in college classrooms, work-shopping racial and sexual prejudices – to name a few of the dozens of examples they provide.  Perhaps above all however, their research shows the ways in which we might use the virtual cosmos to study ourselves as biological and social animals.

The implications for film and media studies are vast and exciting. Concepts like Francesco Casetti’s “cinematic reflexivity” have suddenly exploded under the pressure of a multiplicity of digital realities and the “viewing” experience is evolving and expanding in ways that are as fascinating as they are frightening.  Moreover, if our existence is becoming a mixed medium – something like a movie that integrates animated sequences – how does this change our social, political and moral systems? And then, what is the role of artistic representation in this place?

Anatomy of a Sequence

In this interesting feature from the NYT, filmmakers discuss technique in the context of a particular scene.  Darren Aronofsky plays with mirrors, Kathryn Bigelow shoots explosive close-ups and Lars von Trier moves seamlessly from his dogma-era hand-held camera to brain surgery using computer animation.  Catch insider details on the making of ‘Black Swan’, ‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘The Fighter’, ‘127 hours’ and 30 others.

Modernist Multi-Media “Papers” at NYU

This week my Modernist Italian Cinema & Culture class posted their analysis projects on film and media in Italy in the 1950s and 60s.  This original work – by current New York University students – is the result of careful research and scene selection and each paper includes a series of clips and images.  Ranging from investigations of the family, the feminine condition and cold war- era alienation to close analyses of Ermanno Olmi’s style, the sources of Federico Fellini’s creativity, Michelangelo Antonioni’s actors and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic censure – these projects capture the essence of Italian film in the decade of the “economic miracle”.  Highlights to come.