A Century of Nosferatu: The Art of Conjuring Ghosts

taken from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. The art of summoning ghosts by Andrea Minuz (Edizioni Fondazione Ente dello Spettacolo, p. 190, €12.90)

Nosferatu it was among Murnau’s first great successes and we can still consider it as his most famous film today, a work whose undisputed charm is renewed with audiences of all ages. It was above all following the “adoption” of this film (and gradually of all of Murnau’s work) by the group of young critics of the «Cahiers du Cinéma» that, starting in the 1950s, his cinema entered the a fruitful phase of critical rediscovery and historiographical revisitation after his death had essentially fallen into oblivion.

In Nosferatu on the other hand there are some themes which, even in a filmography so refractory to a homogeneous reading, can be considered as constants of Murnau’s cinema. Here we find developed above all the elaboration of a figurative model and a work on the construction of the spaces that decisively mark his idea of ​​staging, as will later be realized in the more ambitious projects realized for the UFA or in Hollywood. But also the attention to the motif of the gaze and to the ways of subjectivating the images already emerge in all their importance in the overall economy of the staging.

As Eisner recalls: «The histories of cinema never cease to repeat to us that Dupont was the only one in Varieté who was able to film a scene as if it were seen by the actor, placing the camera over his shoulder. But Murnau had no need of Dupont’s lesson: already in Nosferatu the camera, and therefore the spectator, sees with the eyes of the madman who clings to the roof the small floating shapes that move through the alley» (Eisner, The Demon Screen. The influences of Max Reinhardt and Expressionism).

Nosferatu (Webphoto)

The free adaptation from Dracula by Bram Stoker also becomes an opportunity to re-read the theme of the double and the dark and threatening atmospheres dear to German cinema of those years, in the light of a more complex figurative horizon in which the luministic solutions of Scandinavian cinema and the suggestions of painting converge romantic by Caspar David Friedrich.

In Nosferatu, the hallucinatory and restless horizon of Expressionism merges instead with the figurations of the landscape and the disturbing feeling of nature. It is then around this duplicity (the shadow and the double on the one hand, the infinite mutability of nature on the other) that one of the first underlying motifs of Murnau’s cinema can be traced. According to Dudley Andrew, a film like Aurora, a work in which all the elements (from the narrative construction, to the staging, from the lighting to the acting of the actors) combine to develop this dichotomy, like the very motif of the dramaturgical structure of the text which is presented in the cohabitation of two styles director and two cinema models. And it is around the idea of ​​a multiple style, or it would be more correct to say split into its double, which can also be traced Nosferatu.

Nosferatuthat is to say, it is not only one of the most important works of German cinema of the 1920s, or the first vampire film in the history of cinema which is still regarded today as the archetype of every film adaptation of the Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is also one of the clearest demonstrations of Murnau’s stylistic eclecticism and his ability to tell stories suspended between the real and the fantastic, reworking both the lesson of Scandinavian Naturalism and the suggestions of Expressionism in a personal way, both finally reinterpreted in the light of a visual sensitivity imbued with romantic elements and a fascination for the supernatural, in which the echo of the painting of Friedrich or Böcklin merges with the mystical accents of the Romanticism of Novalis or Franz Marc.

Nosferatu (Webphoto)

A film, as stated in the advertising of the time, “erotic, occultist, spiritualist and metaphysical”. The work on the staging staged by Grau and Murnau composes images through which the plane of reality is reorganized into symbolic forms mostly coming from painting, but in general looking at that phantasmatic and hallucinatory horizon that takes place in nature. That is, without the artifice, the deformation of the visible or various unrealistic processes intentionally exhibited in the staging, having the upper hand on the indexical dimension of the filmic image. See, for example, the use of negative film in the segment in which, like a ghostly presence, the carriage that crosses the forest appears. While highlighting the ghostly trace character of the film image, this process here does not imply any disintegration of the form, any distortion of the objects dear to the principle of expressionist stylization.

It is a change of light into which images, bodies, forms slide, and if anything an inscription of the theme of the double and the hidden face of things, within the process of recording the visible of the filmic image. Precisely the discourse relating to Nosferatu allows us to better clarify this point by referring explicitly – with Jean Douchet – to the idea of ​​a vampirized real: «Murnau was certainly the master of vampirism. And isn’t this at the very heart of the cinematographic mechanism? The shot collects and captures the daylight, which the projection sends back into night light. The real vampirized by the film is no more than a ghost on the screen. This reflection on art, which manifests itself in Murnau from the first films, finds fulfillment in the adaptation of Dracula. Nosferatu reveals and frees the filmmaker’s sources of inspiration: the ever-living German romanticism, the inner and hidden fear of an extraneous, parasitic force that one feels is taking possession of one’s being and feeding on it (specifically, for Murnau, the profound sense of guilt for his homosexuality); and finally the externalization of this fear» (Douchet, The sprawling cityin AA.VV., Cités-Cines, tr. en. in O. Caldiron – S. Lucci – L. Marzo (edited by), Cinemaamerica 1919-1929. To the sources of the myth).

Nosferatu (Webphoto)

It is no coincidence that some critics have interpreted Nosferatu in a metalinguistic perspective, i.e. in terms of a film about the uncanny power of cinema. In the wake of Dracula by Stoker, a metaphor for the fear of changes associated with modernity, also the struggle of shadow and light in Nosferatu, and the same impalpable figure of the Prince of Darkness, cross the process of reification of the technique. In short, man’s innermost anxieties become the mirror and the allegory of his contemporary alienation.

In a similar way, the idea of ​​vampirism that Douchet talks about therefore refers to the work that the camera carries out towards the profilm, whether it is set up in the studio or configured in the forms of the landscape and in the nature of the outdoor shots . Secondly, vampirism assumes the vicarious forms of precise characters within the diegetic world built and developed by the film’s story. Count Orlok in Nosferatu, Tartufo who “vampirises” Orgone, Mephistopheles in Faust or the “woman of the city” in Aurora, to cite the most emblematic cases. But also – always thinking about Nosferatu – vampirism is a phenomenon within nature and not outside its horizon; it is not a monstrosity that nature excludes, but a phenomenon that it carries within itself.

We think of the famous sequence, constructed in the manner of an autonomous interlude in the film, in which the Paracelsian professor underlines how in the state of nature there are practices not far from the horizon of vampires and ghosts (while the film shows us close-up images of an ethereal octopus, almost ghostly in its transparency, and above all the disturbing carnivorous plant defined in the comment «a plant that acts like a vampire»). This same role, in an equally explicit way, can be played by the spaces of the metropolis. In other words, it can identify with progress, with the frenetic and alienating rhythm of urban life and its ruthless gears, as both Ghost that The last manor in an exemplary manner Murnau’s American films built on the city-country conflict such as Aurora And City Girl. A conflict that is often refigured in the forms of crossing, of flowing from one space into another.

Nosferatu (Webphoto)

The journey made by the young Hutter up to the Carpathians, in Count Orlok’s castle, to conclude the deed of sale with which the latter will come to live in a house in the town of Wisborg, is almost the archetype of those passages on which built many of Murnau’s films (from the city to the countryside, from darkness to light, from familiar places to the disturbing strangeness of the land of ghosts). These borders are continuously broken, they gradually slide into each other according to a highly formalized illusive production system which finds its first important directing solution in the system of virtual conjunctions of spaces that we have seen above.

But even the luministic composition of the scene that sculpts the plastic volumes of the picture and the work of assembling the broader sense of his organizational capacity of the spaces are affected by this desire to blur the line between perception, imagination and inner vision, so that in Murnau, and specifically in Nosferatu, «all the visual components are immersed in a chromatic atmosphere, marked by a slow, gradual chiaroscuro, a shifting from black to shades of grey. And montage operates from the perspective of enhancing vision, revealing and contemplating visual configurations. If anything, favoring an expansion of the visible that allows a prolonged perception of the painting» (Paolo Bertetto, Expressionist cinema and the shape of the imaginary).

A Century of Nosferatu: The Art of Conjuring Ghosts