A REFLECTION: Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)

Disclaimer: This is a collection of thoughts for my personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Anton Kaes’s Shell-Shock Cinema:  Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (2010): ‘Introduction’ and ‘The Return of the Undead’ & UNSW lecture conducted by Julian Murphet (March, 2016).

The effects of the war on national identity are on full scrutiny in Murnau’s Nosferatu – the shellshocks of Weimar Germany – a war and memory that was never officially acknowledged, is instead manifested into a horrific and frightening depiction of a vampire that preys on the blood of humans. Nosferatu’s victimisation of innocent victims most overtly highlights it as a social product that reacts to its specific contextual concerns , questioning the significance of living and the dead, where mass killings occurred in WWI.

Kaes notes that Nosferatu doesn’t rely on character flashback, but rather uses an unidentified narrator whose comments “periodically interrupt the flow of the story”. It is this fluctuation between fantasy and the ‘real’ that works to shock the audience, yet concurrently distances them – allowing them to reflect upon the dangers of a technological war that reduces the value of humanity to nothingness. Murnau thus emphasises his desire to interpret, rather than to reflect contextual determinants, by playing and stretching the possibilities of nightmare dimensions within his story.

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The backlighting works to create a fearful image of supernatural preying.

In the opening sequence of the film, the naive love between Hutter and Ellen is shown by Hutter’s giddy excitement as he peers through a door to hand Ellen a bunch of flowers. But while this pure innocence is momentarily endearing, Ellen’s immediate response, “Why did you kill them…the lovely flowers,” punctures this love, showcasing a worryingly disturbing motif of violence against nature. This portends Hutter’s stripping of any remote innocence, as he confronts the realm of death. It is a trajectory of war, as Kaes writes, that is inevitably despairing. As the old man warns at the beginning of the film: “No one can outrun his destiny.” In this case, the only “destiny” Hutter can foresee is one where he blindlessly but enthusiastically walks into death.  The continuous cross-cutting between story and aerial shots of the natural landscape serve as a persistent reminder of the tragic loss of living things and the depravity of warfare on humanity.

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A momentary innocence between Hutter and Ellen that is shattered at his departure.

And where Murnau points out the destructive nature of war, he links this to the brutal reality of death itself. “Laying bare the primal man in each of us…” states Kaes – and indeed, the breakdown of the glory and heroism of man is shattered. Playing with the tension between life and death – human’s curiosity and secret cravings for danger – Murnau haunts his audiences with a resonating message: that the fictionalising of death becomes insubstantial in representing the impact of mass deaths occurring under acts of blind technological elimination.

The link between clinical issues and hallucination is realised in the hysteria exhibited by Ellen, who is subjected to a supernatural delusionary state – emphasising the secondary trauma by those on the homefront. Her signs of ‘hysterics’ is shown through her vulnerability to outbursts and the ultimate hypnotisation that leads towards her self-sacrifice. Importantly, Murnau suggests that this hysteria derives from a telephatic identification between Hutter and Ellen – that the suffering between battlefront and homefront may be closer than one thinks – epitomizing that the war devastates everyone.

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A wide shot depicts Ellen staring wistfully out to sea, amongst a desolate backdrop of death crosses, foreshadowing the tragic consequences of Hutter’s return.

But perhaps the most fascinating self-reflexive tool that Murnau employs is the relationship between vampiric features and the art of film itself. The act of filming mirrors the phantasmagorical characteristics of Nosferatu, through the procedure of turning life’s pictures into shadows. In this way, Murnau blurs the distinction between the real and unreal, questioning cinematic representation and the power of film to give life to the dead. He never holds back when amalgamating both these elements, stretching both technology (stop-motion and double exposure) yet maintaining a semi-documentary style, to interrogate our consumption of film as a mode of real-life.

Personal Note: There is some kind of lovely incentive being able to write for my blog, collect my thoughts about a film that I have never seen AND complete part of an university assignment, so this was really a joy to write. Stay tuned for more collections of thoughts in the next coming weeks.

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