The jewel in the crown of the BFI’s ongoing Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu is restored and rereleased this week thanks to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. One of silent cinema’s most widely celebrated offerings, A Symphony of Horror remains an eerily expressionist nightmare of cultural anxiety in post-First World War Germany. A loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu begins with estate agent Knock (Alexander Granach) dispatching his associate Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) on an assignment to “the land of thieves and spectres”.
Leaving his virtuous wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) for the imposing Transylvanian castle of Count Orlok (Max Schreck), Hutter is to help broker the sale of a house in Wisborg. However, once he arrives at Orlok’s ominous fort – set high within the inauspicious shadow of the Carpathians – he begins to witness some unusual occurrences. A book about vampires that he has recently read alerts him to Orlok’s true identity. However, this realisation comes too late, the Count having already smuggled himself amongst a shipment of coffins, bound for Hutter’s quaint rural home town. The vampire leaves a trail of death in his wake and threatens to destroy the town like a parasitic embodiment of death itself.
Stripping away the romanticism we now associate with vampires thanks to Twilight, Nosferatu flickers like a candle in the brooding, cavernous chamber of Gothic horror – exhibiting a series of now clichéd, yet once revolutionary techniques to create this iconic silhouette of German Expressionism. Murnau’s rigid direction and striking composition help cultivate the antiquated frame which encloses the inimitable Schreck’s haunting, hunched and grotesque creature of the night. As the film draws to its illustrious conclusion, we’re presented with this sinister predator ascending the staircase of Ellen’s bed chamber, creeping through the night like an augmented metaphor for the insecurity of the Weimar Republic.
Ostensibly an account of the 1838 Wisborg plague, there is also common belief amongst many film historians that Nosferatu is actually a subtle portrait of Weimar era anti-Semitism, and the fear that this insular community could become corrupted by the ideological disease of foreign invaders. Count Orlok has been seen as the embodiment of the alien aggressor, with his grotesque physical attributes compared to the ‘rat-like’ Jews portrayed in the propaganda films of the Nazis and the symbol associated with the Ostjude that prevailed during the great inflation of 1920. On the other hand, this could easily be little more than a shared aesthetic, with Nosferatu’s gruesome antagonist merely an archetype for future fear-mongering.
Regardless, Murnau’s Gothic horror remains a film that, in one way or another, speaks quite eloquently about the issues of the time. Despite the critical reverie for Sunshine and Faust, Nosferatu remains the most culturally recognised film in Murnau’s celebrated oeuvre. Whilst this infamous specimen of German’s epochal era of filmmaking remains a decidedly haunting experience, it’s how this narrative mirrors the era’s fear of cultural contamination and foreign invasion (all veiled behind a haunting supernatural guise) that makes Nosferatu such an historically illuminating cinematic artefact.
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