Nosferatu shadow

Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)

I thought Nosferatu would be the movie that most scared and therefore most pleased me, but I felt disappointed. The ending was too sudden, and I did not get enough quality Orlok time before then. I did get the creepies from the famous shadow scene, impressive considering that I had seen the image before. (Nosferatu‘s like the Grand Canyon in that way; before you ever actually visit, you’ve seen most of it before, and dare I say that there’s something slightly anticlimactic as a result?)

So, I’m not sure I have much to say about the film except that this version struck me as some strange allegory about extramarital desire, only the ending doesn’t work out as such situations typically do. From the beginning, I hated Hutter; I mean, who gleefully prances off on a business trip after watching his wife weep over his departure? Hutter and Goodman Brown, that’s who. (Jerks.)  I feel like we are supposed to see him as a little foolish. At least naive.

So, when Orlok is all passionately obsessed with Ellen, I thought, “Good for her. At least she’s getting some attention.” And what self-respecting husband doesn’t at least say, “Hey!” when another man says that his wife has a lovely neck? Sheesh. What interests me is that Ellen is equally enamored in this version even though she’s not given a clear reason to feel this way. Coppola had us believe that Dracula and Mina were past lovers reunited by reincarnation, but what is the cause of Ellen’s infatuation? Why does she open the window? My answer: because her husband is sleeping in a chair.

Yet, in the end, Ellen suffers no repercussions for what could be seen as symbolic adultery. She allows herself to be bitten but, in doing so, saves the town instead of earning a scarlet A. After she and Orlok are both sated, he simply disappears in the morning light, like the memory of some forbidden dream.

27 thoughts on “Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)

  1. I love the humor in this analysis. I’ve had to study Nosferatu in a film class before and this outline is much more preferable. I’ve had it up the wazoo with German expressionism, so I’m glad you didn’t go into it.

    It really is a tad anticlimactic and I’ve always felt the iconic shadow scene (wisely chosen as your thumbnail pic) sums up the movie adequately. Scenes become iconic for a reason: they appeal to the eyes and emotions, summing up swathes of characterization in one tidy package. All in all, I’m hoping that the films I haven’t seen on your list are going to supply chills.

    I agree they are jerks, though “gleefully prancing” is perhaps a little harsh. And Karen, I’m going to play psychiatrist now: do you want attention from a tall, pale, rat-faced man? And why should a man be so quick to jump at a neck compliment? I’ll admit, it’s one of the odder compliments but it doesn’t seem like a challenge to his masculinity or “possession” over his wife’s neck. I admit that all of this could just be a difference in opinion between the sexes. Women might read Hutter differently, just as Jack and I weren’t initially disturbed by the thought of Jekyll’s father in law trying to corrupt him. I was bothered by that in hindsight, but not with Hutter. I also admit that you probably brought that up to add a touch of humorous commentary. And now I’ve just plodded over the whole joke.

    Now, I really have to differ with you on something. I always read the window opening at the end as a martyrdom act. She’s trying to rid the community of the vampire, and that book told her how to do it. My male chauvinist viewpoint is that she is deciding to be a virginally pure savior, which is always a bit of a bland character to play. And she doesn’t get out of the deal without suffering repercussions. I know you might have been tired, Karen, but she dies at the end of the movie. She gave up her life to save the day, and that is a huge price to pay for an illicit neck bite from another man. I read her character as being more terrified and thrilled by Nosferatu, by the unknown.

    On a side note, what do you think of the subtitle “A Symphony of Horror”? The original score must have been very elaborate, including a slightly unusual demand for a full orchestra to play along with the film’s screening. That score, however, only remains in fragmentary form. So instead, I’m curious whether the movie lives up to that kind of title, a symphony essentially containing many elements of life, the universe, and everything within its playing time. Personally, I think that the title just shows that Murnau was out to make an art film despite the fact that a vampire flick would likely, even in the 1920s, have attracted people who weren’t looking for artsy material with their scares.

    PS – You and your Hawthorne references…

    1. Brad, you need to go back and watch the scene at 14:30 in which Hutter wakes up. I’m pretty sure some of it would qualify as prancing. And after lying to Faith (about meeting up with the devil, no less) but promising himself not to lie again, Hawthorne says of Goodman, “With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose.” I could read that as prancing.

      Admittedly, Orlok is not the most attractive of suitors, but what he lacks in looks he makes up for with devotion, and there’s something to be said for that. (Too bad he sleeps in a dirt-filled coffin and drinks blood and kills people and all that.)

      I see what you’re saying about martyrdom, but I think it still fits. Adulteresses usually ARE martyrs. They always pay a huge price for illicit neck bites, so to speak. Think Hester Prynne. Think Eliza Wharton of The Coquette. Think Charlotte Temple. Unhappy outcomes for women who step out. Can’t we read the story as a symbolic tale of adultery, only the (male) author has to make both the lover and the act as monstrous as possible?

      As for the score, I decided to watch the movie in total silence at some point. Way too much xylophone. And then we tried Nine Inch Nails’s Ghosts I-IV, and it worked amazingly well.

      One last thing: so many more scene cuts in this film than in the others we’ve watched so far. I imagine it’s supposed to give us a sense of simultaneity and suspense?

      1. You actually went to the sources to reference prancing?! Leave it to Karen. And yes, I will concede that he was prancing like a Disney princess with the horses, carefree in his flowing night garment.

        I want to see Orlock’s singles ad. I think his devotion could be read as obsessive stalking, however, in contrast to sane affection.

        Yeah, martyrdom and adultery still mix. I’ve just always been uncomfortable with such plots. I think that they are stuck in a society where women in art were strictly plot devices. A woman was supposed to be the object of desire and therefore, seen through lover’s goggles, she is always perfect. Even in flirting with a vampire Ellen has to be the savior of the town–and no one would have to know any differently. No one around her would have to suspect adultery. (Adultery is such a strange and, to me, imprecise word. It doesn’t really give many clues for the act the word describes. It’s almost a euphemism.)

        My version of the score (there are many) had xylophones, too. I listened to John Coltrane’s “Om” on loop–I think it added to the horror, because that is a creepy piece of jazz.

        Well, scene cuts do that. But I think this film was dealing with a few more plot points at once than the other films were. So the jumping around is also of service to the multiple character developments, whereas Jekyll was almost solely interested in J&H’s story line.

      2. I meant, obviously perhaps, that Jekyll the movie was obsessed with the storyline of the titular characters and very little else.

    2. Brad, my friend Lee posted this on Facebook: “For your correspondent, this presents itself as containing the original score:”

      Also for your correspondent on the matter of physical appearance, need I say more than “Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street”? And he’s right, she does pay for her activity with her life.

      I don’t have time to re-watch the movie right now, but my hazy memory take (and I freely admit that this is possibly sophomoric) on Nosferatu–and vampire movies in general–is that beyond the veneer of “horror” they are symbolic of the transgressive sexuality of extra-marital obsession, domination, submission, control, penetration. It isn’t about rape, as some commentators read it; the victim must willingly invite the vampire in.”

  2. I commend your bravery. Oldies but moldies are a tough one, for me anyway. And then Nosferatu. Wow. You have made me want to see it, I do admit. All these years and I have never downloaded the thing? Seems almost sacrilege.

      1. Yes, Michael, join us. We’re 3 lonely people and we don’t bite (I think that’s an appropriately bad pun for this film).

  3. I agree on the faster cuts creating a sense of simultaneity and suspense. Nosferatu is easily the most technically accomplished film of the three we’ve watched so far, and I’m sure that part of the editing style is a function of the production values, but I think that the nature of the story itself calls for simultaneity. Of the three films we have watched so far, this is the first one to maintain multiple, parallel storylines at once. We flip back and forth between the castle and the town, between Hutter traveling by land and Orlok by sea, and between the insane asylum and the laboratory. All of these things combine to make the whole narrative—neither Caligari or Jekyll & Hide had anything like this. There were brief asides, but they were more like embellishments to the main plot than necessary constituents of it.

    My knee-jerk response to Hutter was not quite hatred, but more of a deep annoyance, as with an easily-distracted and self-important child on overdrive. So many of his gestures and facial expressions betray a puppy-dog-ish naiveté, but the filmmakers deliberately presented him this way. And the fact that Hutter prefers to go on a business trip and/or sleep in a chair and/or write self-involved letters about mosquitoes to being in close physical proximity with his wife does not help his case. We are supposed to see him as foolish and naïve, and to contrast his twee, boyish innocence with Orlok’s sinister corruption, and we are supposed to see both of them as deeply imperfect.

    Herein lies (what I took to be) the film’s Big Theme: Hutter’s innocence and seemingly unbridled optimism are a little tragic. The conflicts at Orlok’s ancient castle, on the boat, in the town proper, all arise because Hutter was either A) blissfully ignorant of, or B) unwilling to prioritize his wife’s needs and his marital responsibilities over business. This maps onto the historical context of the setting, too. According to the date on the shipping manifest at 44:25 (it’s 1838), the Industrial Revolution is really getting underway, and Hutter has bought into its buffoonish, ideological optimism. Progress and economic efficiency at all costs, etc. He cannot resist seizing the day according to contemporary commercial interests and his innocence is tied up with his inability to critically re-think this. In the end, everyone—but especially those closest to him—suffers for it. So, Karen and Brad, I think we can have it both ways here. It is fine to dislike and even hate Hutter, as I think we all did in our own ways, but this is all a part of his character, and it’s important to the overall narrative.

    The novel, Dracula, plays a similar set of strings, Modern Optimism versus Pre-Modern Corruption, but it comes down pretty firmly on the side of Modern Optimism. Nosferatu, on the other hand, comes off as a more conservative cautionary tale about seeking a middle way. Jekyll and Hyde does something similar. And the only solution to the climactic mess at the end of each film is martyrdom. And neither conflict is fully resolved. And now it all has me wondering about how/whether we can attribute all the high-caliber, horror-movie treatment of this problematic dichotomy to American or German cultural trauma from WWI. The world was changing faster than ever, and was (and still is (and may perpetually be)) negotiating a rocky crossroads between the New and the Old.

    1. Yep, I agree with your opening comments because I said the same thing, only not nearly as well.

      Puppy-dog-ish facial expressions is perfect for Hutter.

      Now, I almost swore I wouldn’t bring up this interpretation of the film. I didn’t want to do it because, frankly, I think this view could dominate the thread and ultimately lead to no new conclusions.

      But everyone else is expressing their pet theory about the movie, so I might as well, even though my theory has always made me uncomfortable with the movie itself.

      It could be said that Nosferatu is a symbol for the Jews. The story is shifted from Dracula’s England to Germany. Nosferatu resembles caricatures of Jews that were widespread at the time of the film, embodying all the features: long fingers, crooked nose, and rat-face come to mind. He is even associated with the rats on the ship, and Jews were called “Ratten” for decades up to and including Hitler’s speeches.

      Nosferatu is also a wealthy foreigner immigrating to a new land and becoming a “parasite” on the populace. (Not to mention that he is Eastern European, the place that Germany critiqued as the hot bed of their own Jewish immigrants.) Nosferatu is, by acts and looks, a clear outsider. The Jews were always labeled as such, with anti-semites arguing that Jews could always be spotted instantly by their features. Orlock doesn’t exactly look normal. Even his servant is given some Semitic qualities.

      All of this speculation also fits in with the vampire mythos about blood drinking. That is a highly symbolic and literal sign of the vitality being sapped from a group of people by a distinctly foreign creature for its sustenance. The blood drinking could also represent an obsession with blood lines; the Germans always seemed a tad obsessed with the percentage of Jewish blood in a person long before the Third Reich. It was common for propaganda to depict Jews as a disease that would overrun the country.

      Now, I’m not saying that Murnau and his crew were doing any of this deliberately. It might all be an unconscious metaphor, maybe even a Jungian one. (I had to get us away from Freud.) Nonetheless, it would be foolish to ignore the Weimar Germany culture that gave birth to this film and even more foolish to ignore all of the analogies. There were even political cartoons, like the following, where the Jews were blamed for causing Germany to lose WWI:

      I’m uncomfortable with this reading because, once I got it in my head, I realized I couldn’t shake it. I first saw this film when I was 14. I found this common analysis of the film on my second viewing. I was bothered that no one mentioned it when I studied this film in college; I just assumed that everyone else wanted to see a vampire flick and ignore the obvious. So I wanted to bring this up and see what everyone else thinks.

      1. PS – For those who don’t read German (mine is spotty, so correct me if I’m wrong), the text in the political cartoon is roughly “Germans, remember!” As such, it is a call to action against the Jews. It also assumes that the cartoon’s message is widely accepted as fact.

        Geez, political cartoons have changed…

      2. I think that’s a perfectly plausible reading, and we can all accept the intended analogy as a description of the film while disagreeing with it on moral grounds.

        Also note that Orlok is associated with the film’s nameless “plague,” and compare this with how the Jews were persecuted throughout 14th century Europe for their perceived role in the spread of the Black Plague. And, if my memory serves (which it may not), Stoker’s Dracula was not associated with rats, meaning that Nosferatu’s writer(s) took the liberty of adding that little juxtaposition, possibly as a nod to the mounting anti-semitic rhetoric of the time.

  4. I had to correct my entries because I was calling Orlok Nosferatu. How embarrassing! I actually attended a talk once years ago that was about this very topic: Orlok as a representative of the Jews. Apparently, his appearance mirrors those used in anti-Semitic propaganda of the time period. I still like to read the movie as an anti-adultery tale.

    1. Well now I’m embarrassed because I didn’t know I shouldn’t be using Nosferatu…

      And yes, his appearance is spot on for stereotypes of the time period. If it wasn’t intentional it’s creepily close. Does anyone know what vampires were depicted as prior to Nosferatu? Say, in some wood carvings or something?

      Also, seeing as I’ve not read Dracula, is Bram Stoker’s description anything like Bela Lugosi?

      1. I found this description after a quick search: “His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.” Decidedly not rat-like.

      2. Nope, not rat-like. I’m really the oddball here, by the way. I don’t watch horror movies at all so I’m really getting an education through this series. (I have, however, seen many of the silent era ones–they tend to become classics for whatever reason.)

        Anyway, as I’m the novice, can anyone think of a vampire with a moustache? It seems a very counterintuitive idea. I imagine it would bristle up against the neck. And a mustachioed vampire just seems so 1970s kinky…

      3. Okay, I meant to be a successful googler and find some art depictions of vampires prior to Bram Stoker’s novel. Just curious, you know.

        Instead, I found these old photos. Apparently, these photos make the case that Nicolas Cage & John Travolta are vampires. They have lived for hundreds of years.

        Seriously, this happens to me everytime with google…

        I just thought I’d share since you love old photos, Karen. These two have their share of creepiness. How would you react if you found a twin in an old daguerreotype?

  5. I almost forgot to mention this: if either of you has not seen 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, I highly recommend it. It’s a really clever fictionalized take on the making of Nosferatu which is simultaneously a parody and authentically creepy in its own right.

    1. Are you talking about Werner Herzog’s 1979 “Nosferatu the Vampyre”? That is a really good one, and it works as a great comparison piece.

      1. I knew you were doing a 30s list…but are you that ambitious? You’re doing every decade? When the time comes, I have some good suggestions for cheesy 1950s & 60s drive-in horror.

  6. Yes, every decade, though I’ve already decided to spread out into the genre of “thriller.” The era of films like The Killer Shrews and The Giant Leeches just doesn’t do it for me. Plus, Mystery Science Theater 3K has already taken care of them for me.

    1. Good idea. We need some actual scares. If you haven’t seen it, one of the ultimate 30s thrillers is “M,” which is worth every second. It does have a criminal monster at the heart of it, so that should count.

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