Why do we hold such reverence for Nosferatu? Why does a film with such simple special effects and occasionally humorous acting linger in our minds? Why, when Hollywood offers a wealth of svelte–even sexy–vampires, do we keep turning to the gaunt, bushy eyebrowed Count Orlok with his protruding rat teeth?
It must be more than simple curiosity to see one of our earliest vampire films, although that’s probably a big factor for many. According to some of my non-silents-accustomed friends, its style and film speed can make it effectively creepy. That said, I’ll admit that plenty of people find it hysterical. (The great Silent Volume blog recounts a particularly dismal experience at a packed theater.) Not being used to the acting style or the undercranking effects, they can’t understand what’s so “scary” about it
And yet, they’ll turn up to a showing in droves. Something about Nosferatu still resonates.
It’s really the audience’s expectations that have changed, not the film. Decades of horror trope conditioning have made us equate “people getting killed by a highly visible monster = scary,” or “gross = scary.” We seem to demand explanations and origin stories for everything. I once saw a review of The Haunting (1963), one of the most frightening and masterful psychological films ever made, that complained it didn’t show any ghosts. (Oh my friends, if only I were making that up.)
Nosferatu doesn’t have any grand origin stories–it makes some comparison of the vampire with other carnivorous creatures, but that’s as far as it goes. Its Gothic atmosphere is straightforward, undiluted by extraneous characters or self-conscious subtexts. My beloved Roger Ebert said, with his customary wisdom: “Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires.”
It is also the story of Dracula before being buried in an avalanche of academic analysis, much of which was written in the ’70s. Bram Stoker’s novel has been practically torn to pieces with conflicting, often ludicrous theories positing everything from incest to fear of female sexuality to psychobabble like the theory of “the oral triad”: “the desire to eat, to be eaten, and to sleep” (just think, that guy is probably tenured). The running theme is that it simply must be all about sex, every jot of it, whether Stoker intended it to be or not (and he certainly didn’t).
To watch Nosferatu means we must clear our minds of all these cultural cobwebs, and regard it with fresh eyes–receptive eyes. What shall we find, then?
Certainly something like what F.W. Murnau saw in Stoker’s novel–something more in the line of the obviously supernatural than psychological theories. It does anchor itself solidly in real life at first. Our protagonist Jonathan Hutter is played by Gustav von Wangenheim, who, with his baby-ish face and awkward habit of laughing a little too long, comes across as kind of a doofus. (This is usually where an audience would start chuckling.) He hears spooky stories about his destination but doesn’t take them seriously, joking to his wife Ellen, “I am going to travel far away to the land of thieves and ghosts.”
Von Wangenheim’s easy to mock, but it’s just as easy to overlook how effective he is when he begins to grow uneasy around the bizarre Count Orlok. When a character that cheerful and naive gets frightened, you start to think it must be for a good reason.
There’s a prophetic shot when Hutter first meets the Count, and the vampire, in the foreground, is framed by an archway in the background. Hutter enters the archway, and for a moment there’s a subtle illusion of the predatory Count looming over his prey.
And what a strange predator Max Schreck’s Count is–a unique, monstrous creature indebted mainly to Stoker’s novel, and partly to Murnau’s imagination. He has fangs like the rodents he unleashes on Hutter’s village. His posture, with the tight shoulders and the arms held stiff at his sides, suggest a body accustomed to the rigid confines of a slightly-small coffin. Schreck dissolves into the role, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine him in anything else.
We’re all familiar (or at least should be) with the plot–the Count’s arrival in Hutter’s town, the pestilence he brings, the nightmares Ellen has and her eventual epiphany. The theme that runs through it all is dread. Not one or more of the various meanings we’ve foisted on Stoker’s text–some trendier than others–but the dread of an evil that will show us no mercy.
Nosferatu gives us a vampire with no attractive qualities. This is not the manipulative, silver-tongued villain of Hollywood, handsome and immaculately groomed, seducing his victims perhaps a little too easily. This is the “seed of Belial,” actively avoided and feared, someone whom only the careless or uninformed would go near. The heart of this vampire tale is something beyond tropes, beyond movies, touched upon in books but beyond them too.
It is the universal dread of the hidden, unseen Thing, the Evil that waits with endless patience in its remote dwelling, like a spider that hangs, motionless, in a dark corner of a forgotten closet. It is the prey’s fear of the predator, only this predator can also ravage the soul.
Here is something not yet touched by Hollywood. Here is a work of art that we can contemplate, if we can clear away our mental cobwebs and let its dark directness in.
Happy Halloween, everyone! I’ve been wanting to write about this film for years; and now, at last, I felt the time was right.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Return of Silent Horror Month! To see reviews of horror movies and spooky topics from previous Octobers, check out the list here.