Film studies

Nosferatu: Looking to the Future

Simon Bacon talks about Nosferatu and how the image of the vampire has stayed, and will stay, relevant through time. Nosferatu in the 21st Century by Simon Bacon is a celebration and a critical study of F. W. Murnau’s seminal vampire film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens on the 100th anniversary of its release in 1922.

The movie remains a dark mirror to the troubled world we live in, as striking and important in the 2020s as it was a century ago, as the all-consuming shadow of the vampire spreads ever wider throughout contemporary popular culture.

There always seems something slightly anachronistic in talking about Nosferatu and the future. Count Orlok is such a vivid manifestation of the archaic and mythical that he more obviously represents a monstrous past sucking the lifeblood out of the present than any attempt to envision a future, or at least one that does not result in death — unlike most other vampires, Orlok does not replicate himself but only consumes.

Fig 1. The non-reproductive Orlok (Max Schreck). Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau (Prana: 1922).

However, in spite of the film being set in the past — one of the producers many unsuccessful attempts to sufficiently differentiate their story from its source material and thus avoid copyright infringement — its director, F. W. Murnau, not only made a strikingly modern movie but purposely constructed his vampire to be both universal in nature and transhistorical as well — he put a symbolic “pin” in his vampire so that it would remain relevant across time.

The Modern Vampire

Nosferatu was part of the interwar cinematic German Expressionist movement which saw many films produced using exaggerated lighting, set design, and make-up to produce a strong affective response in their audience but also as a way dramatically cut the costs of film making — there was a huge demand for films at that time in Weimar Germany. However, Nosferatu partially escaped that mould and although is largely used the same kind of aesthetics as most other Expressionist films, unlike those mainly studio based film it shot most of its material on location.

Fig 2. The coffins of plague victims being carried down the main street of Wisborg (that was actually the Depenau in Lübeck). Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau (Prana: 1922).

The effect of this was to shift the fantastical settings of the film’s story into the realm of reality — the mythical vampire lived and moved in real and recognizable locations. More so, Murnau used cutting edge special effects in his film. Aside from hand-coloured film stock to distinguish certain environments from others, he also used speeded up film to show just how “the dead travel fast” as we see Count Orlok driving his carriage at superhuman speed to once again show the supernatural as a physical reality.

The Beyond Human Vampire

Unlike many other vampires, such as Count Dracula, it is never suggested that Count Orlok was ever human. Indeed, from the descriptions given of “Nosferatu” in “The Book of the Vampires” — the main source of esoteric knowledge in the film — he is an entirely different order to humanity, and if not exactly demonic then an embodiment of something as fundamental as Death itself — this also explains why he does not create other vampires and just sucks the life out of his victims.

Fig 3. Just like the Venus Flytrap, Orlok is part of nature. Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau (Prana: 1922).

Much of the other information we are given about Orlok reinforces this sense of being something other and beyond human: Professor Bulwer describes vampires as being part of the natural order of the world, akin to carnivorous plants and all other predators; in line with this Orlok has a strong affinity to rats, who follow him everywhere, and consequently the diseases they carry, which again reinforces his connection to death; he cannot exist in the daylight and is truly a creature of the darkness, so much so that his shadow exists as an almost physical extension of himself. And yet, in spite of all these signs of his otherness he seems drawn to humanity, and one human in particular.

The Transhistorical Vampire

Ellen, like Orlok, plays a symbolic role in the film. Although married to Hutter, she represents purity, innocence, and most importantly, life itself. She mourns cut flowers as they will inevitably die and plays with cats — a somewhat contradictory scene that expresses childlike innocence but also shows a predatory creature that likes to play with its prey. But as soon as Orlok sees her picture he is instantly drawn to her, and in fact establishes a psychic connection so they are both instantly aware of the other — Stoker’s vampire requires the exchange of blood to establish this connection but Orlok and Ellen are different. This reinforces the idea that they are opposites — Ellen being associated with daylight and life and Orlok with nighttime and death — that are inevitably drawn to each other.

Fig 4. Ellen (Greta Schröder) establishes an unbreakable connection with Orlok even though he is hundreds of miles away. Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau (Prana: 1922).

Grau’s known interest in Eastern Mysticism is suggestive of the two figures are constructed as a Yin and Yang to each other and which hold the world in balance, and Orlok’s shown connection to nature would suggest he is part of the natural order and serves a specific function. However, his trip to Wisborg has seen the balance sway dramatically towards Death and away from life due to the plague that came with him. And so for equilibrium to be restored Life and Death must meet and die — to cancel each other out — and reboot the system.

Here then, it becomes suggestive that Orlok’s decision was not his own but preordained and this meeting of Life and Death must occur to reset the balance of the world — Just as Bulwer tells Hutter at the start of the film, “You can’t escape destiny by running away.” This would of course also fit with the timing of the making of Nosferatu in 1922, just as Germany was trying to recover from a war and the stirrings of what would lead to the next one were beginning. Orlok then symbolizes not just Death in 1838, the year in which the film is set — 1838 being a time when Germany was moving closer to unification after the Napoleonic wars — but of Weimar Germany in the 20th Century and the need to rebalance the nation.

Nosferatu in the 21st Century

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century and Nosferatu, the film that, allegedly, died — after all copies were ordered to be destroyed — but came back from the dead, is now 100 years old. In fact, in 2022 it seems more well known that ever before. The post-zombie return to popularity of the vampire genre has seen a slew films and series appear with Orlok-style vampires regularly featuring within them — Midnight Mass (Flanagan: 2021-21) being possibly the most well known.

Alongside this is the constant noise around a remake of the original by in-favour director Robert Eggars. One wonders if the reappearance of this symbol of Death is not a sign of the especial relevance of Murnau’s tale, that for the dawn of a new day to begin in a system out of kilter we desperately need to restore the natural balance of our world. Orlok here then, is not a symbol of the past but of the need to bring opposites together, not just darkness and light, but the human and the non-human as well. It is through the symbiotic coming together of humanity and the natural that Nosferatu shows how we can move into the future.

For more information on Nosferatu in the 21st Century by Simon Bacon, visit the Liverpool University Press website.

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