Revisiting Nosferatu (1922)

By Jordan Gerdes

               In Murnau’s Nosferatu, we are given the classic retelling of the Dracula tale by Bram Stoker, but in a wholly new fashion. The general tale stays the same, as a man named Hutter is summoned to a remote castle in Transylvania in order to do business with the mysterious owner, in this case Count Orlok, the vampire himself. Hutter begins to see eerie things happening all around him as his time in the castle just brings to light all that is wrong. He becomes wholly aware that Orlok may be a nosferatu, a Romanian word synonymous with vampirism. Feeling imprisoned and unsafe, he struggles to wrap up business and return as quickly as possible to his home, and his fiancée. It is only then that the business he was sent to do is realized, as Orlok is interested in a residence across from Hutter’s own house in Wisborg, as he has become enamored with his fiancee. Hutter and Orlok begin their own respective treks toward Wisborg, racing against time in order to save his fiancee from the seemingly dangerous Count. Hutter is hurt in his trek, and waylaid at a hospital, while Orlok is shipped on a schooner in coffins, and slowly kills every person onboard, as news of a mysterious plague reaches Wisborg. Hutter arrives home to his fiancee Ellen, and they think everything is alright, though the plague begins to decimate the city population, with people succumbing to Orlok nightly. In the final act, Ellen realizes that the only way to rid the world of Orlok is to sacrifice herself and keep Orlok out until the sun rises, effectively destroying him in the process. Hutter returns home with a doctor to find his fiancee bitten, and the Count destroyed.

The classic scene of Orlok sneaking into Hutter’s house to find Ellen is the highlight of the film, as his long claws and malformed body are shown only in shadow, creeping up the stairs. Murnau’s use of light and atmosphere is masterful, creating depth to indoor sequences and adding a mystery to the outdoor sequences. The film revolves around the thematic element of duality, showing two sides of man. Orlok is ancient, having lived many lives at this point. He has lost his civility, becoming this animalistic force. Hutter on the other hand is young, naive, and reacts to everything with a wide-eyed demeanor. The duality is also applied to Ellen, as she is different to each of the men in the film. For Hutter, she is his faithful fiancée, waiting patiently for him to return from business abroad. For Orlok, she is a conquest, one who gives in to her almost sexual desire for him.

In Clover’s “Gender In The Slasher Film”, she attempts to reconcile the role of gender through the many tropes and familiarities of the slasher genre. Her thesis lies in her question of “that particular audience’s stake in that particular nightmare: with what in the story is “crucial” enough to warrant the price of admission, and what the implications are for the current discussion of women and film.”(Clover 192) Clover explores numerous categories through which this question is lensed, the killer, the “terrible place”, the weapons, the victims, The Final Girl, shock, and the body. The killer’s psychology is often due to childhood trauma or misgendering. The Terrible Place is that because of its decrepit nature and the “human crimes and perversions that have transpired there.” (Clover 197) The weapons are often hand held, citing that “knives and needles, like teeth… are personal extensions of the body that bring the attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace.” (Clover 198) The victims include both genders, though the tropes heavily rely on “beautiful women “ (199) and “sexual transgressors.” (199) The Final Girl is usually the one that wants to fight the hardest, often the least sexualized, and often “boyish.” (204) And the body, lies in the idea that “the death of a beautiful woman” is the “most poetical topic in the world” (206) Clover finishes with the idea that the “slasher does, in it’s own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representation.” (221)

Eisner’s “Symphonies of Horror” reads as a film review of Nosferatu. Using the terms of cinematography, the duality of Orlak, and German Romanticism, Eisner tries to reconcile the “weird pleasure Germans take in evoking horror.” (Eisner 6) The desire lies in the ideas of discipline, and the consequences of doing the wrong thing. Through examinations of The Sandman, as well as Nosferatu, Eisner shapes the argument around filling this void of humanity with monsters and the supernatural. Eisner delves into Murnau’s personal life, examining the man behind the lens. His upbringing in rural environments had great influence on his later work, and his strive to film outdoors and not just on a sound stage. This is apparent in Nosferatu, as the outdoor scenes are not the fantastical recreation like in Calagari but instead using the natural look to evoke horror.

Nosferatu is a silent film. Culturally, that is almost nonexistent these days. Watching such a film years after the fact, the audience has to rely on the cinematography and the symphonic score to tell the story. The silence is tense, almost palpable. We watch this with baited breath, waiting for the release of a subtitle screen or a location marker, so we have some kind of grounding for the story. The absence of voice and diegetic sound are a new phenomenon, stringing the audience along simply because we don’t know what other way to go or how to approach such a thing. In the world of today, we have so many distractions from a myriad of things, that being made to submit to 75 minutes of silence and symphonic sound is uncanny to us, and it forces us to simply watch and wait for familiarity.

Full version of Nosferatu is on Youtube, though a better copy is available on Shudder.

Texts: “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film –Carol J Clover

“Symphonies of Horror” & “The World of Shadow and Mirrors” in The Haunted Screen – Lotte Eisner

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