Monday, October 17, 2011

The Undead: Nosferatu

In the Romanian language, nosferatu means "the undead." If you have never seen a silent film before, Nosferatu would be a good one to start with because it's still one creepy film. Based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, but changing the names in an attempt to avoid paying royalties, Nosferatu parts from Dracula in very significant ways which, I hope to demonstrate, are due to the historical context, 1922.
The most important difference between Stoker's Count Dracula and Murnau's Orlok is that Orlok is bald, whereas Dracula has a thick mass of black, curly hair, a thick mustache and even hair on his hands; Orlok is clean shaven, all around. Whereas, for example, the thick mustache of Dracula (the only time, I know of, that Count Dracula has a mustache) resembles pubic hair and so makes his mouth, specifically his fangs, more of a phallic symbol and heightens the sexuality of his attacks, Orlok's great bald head emphasizes the forehead, suggesting knowledge.
In 1922, what was there knowledge about?
The Great War, World War I.
My, what a big head you have!
The impacts of the Great War cannot be underestimated: "No other war had changed the map of Europe so dramatically — four empires disappeared: the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and the Russian. Four dynasties: the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburg, Romanovs and the Ottomans, together with their ancillary aristocracies, all fell after the war. Belgium and Serbia were badly damaged, as was France with 1.4 million soldiers dead, not counting other casualties. Germany and Russia were similarly affected. The war had profound economic consequences. Of the 60 million European soldiers who were mobilized from 1914–1918, 8 million were killed, 7 million were permanently disabled, and 15 million were seriously injured. Germany lost 15.1% of its active male population, Austria–Hungary lost 17.1%, and France lost 10.5%. About 750,000 German civilians died from starvation caused by the British blockade during the war. By the end of the war, famine had killed approximately 100,000 people in Lebanon. The best estimates of the death toll from the Russian famine of 1921 run from 5 million to 10 million people. By 1922, there were between 4.5 million and 7 million homeless children in Russia as a result of nearly a decade of devastation from World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the subsequent famine of 1920–1922" (Wikipedia, World War I). Count Orlok's big head, symbolizes the hard lessons learned from the Great War.
Trench warfare in World War I: they lived and died in mud holes.
But how does that explain his vampirism?
World War I was a war fought in the trenches. Bram Stoker's novel was a hit when it was released but there is a reason why in 1922 it was adapted for the cinema and I think that had to do with homosexuality being brought home by soldiers that had survived the war; it's not that much of a stretch given that the 1998 film Gods and Monsters also discusses homosexuality in relation to World War I. My supporting reason is that in Nosferatu Count Orlok wants to feed on Hutter at the Castle when the two of them are alone and there are no "brides" present (unlike in Castle Dracula, where Dracula--except the accidental shaving incident--doesn't seem interested in feeding on Harker and he does have three brides). It's not just that Orlok wants to feed on Hutter while they are alone at Orlok's castle; Orlok enters Hutter's bedroom to feed on him.  The film suggests that, thousands of miles away, Hutter's wife Ellen senses that her husband is in trouble and cries out to him and her love protects him; the woman protects the man from a homosexual predator.
I really have to do a good job of making this case, so now that you know my thesis, we'll start at the beginning. The first shot we have of Hutter is him looking in a small mirror tying his tie; then we see his wife Ellen, and she's dangling a ball in front of a cat. In For Dead Travel Fast: Dracula, I point out the importance of Jonathan Harker "reflecting" and Dracula not being able to "reflect"; since Hutter, in Nosferatu, is dressing himself (and his subsequent actions) Hutter "reflecting" in this mirror in the first scene is an act of vanity rather than self-reflection and self-awareness; in fact, Hutter seems to be a total idiot. Ellen's teasing the cat, however, foreshadows that she herself will tease Count Orlok with her own sexuality and entice him away from her husband and destroy him.
This rather passionate kiss between husband and wife illustrates the difference between the kiss of life and the vampire's kiss of death. Ellen and Hutter already being married at the time of Hutter's journey to Transylvania is a significant change from Stoker's novel.
Another difference is the heroes: in Dracula, Harker is a solicitor (lawyer) but in Nosferatu, Hutter ("hut) is a real estate agent. I have noted in How To Eat Art that a house is a symbol of the soul, so to be a real estate agent (in art) means someone who is selling abodes for the soul (we'll discuss this more in an upcoming post on The Shining). In Dracula, Count Dracula purchases a run-down, ancient abbey on the other side of town from where Harker lives and Dracula himself was the one who investigated it; in Nosferatu, the run-down abbey is across the street from Hutter's own house and is suggested by Hutter's boss who seems to be much closer to Count Orlok than Dracula's Renfield is to Count Dracula (Renfield is a character of special interest to me and I will be elaborating on him in tomorrow's posting The Children of the Night: Dracula 1931).
Knock, Hutter's real-estate agent boss in Nosferatu who also doubles for the insect-eating crazy man Renfield. Knock holds a paper written to him from Count Orlok in their special coding.
As Hutter has entered the realm of the Carpathians, the land of ghosts and thieves, he stops at an inn for dinner and mentions he's going to Count Orlok's castle; the keeper tells him to stay the night because the werewolf roams the forest. The next shot is of a heyena roaming around and coming close to Hutter's bedroom (at the inn). There is every reason to believe that the heyena is Count Orlok who has changed form to visit Hutter (because, as in Dracula, Orlok "changes forms" and as himself, "changes duties," being Count, cook, coachman and executor of his estate). 
Hutter in Nosferatu.
The next day, his coachmen have taken him as far as they are willing to go and Hutter has to make do on his own; once he crosses a bridge, the strange forces he had heard of start to take effect of him. That "crossing of a bridge" is an important symbol in the battle of good and evil being used in the poem Tam O'Shanter by Robert Burns and in Washington Irving's tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: spirits of evil cannot cross running water because of its purity. In Dracula, the Count has to be very careful as he travels by ship to and from London because of the tides (and the explanations of incoming and outgoing tides are too technical for me to understand). But a stream or river acts as a barrier to any evil that they cannot cross, so crossing a bridge means you either enter into their territory or you have crossed into a realm where they cannot enter.
Count Orlok posing as a coachman picking up Hutter after the village coach has abandoned him. Orlok's coach approaches Hutter very fast--utilizing the descriptions of Stoker in Dracula regarding speed and strength of vampires--and then proceeds to Orlok's Castle with great speed. Murnau employed the "reverse negative" effect for this scene, so the horses and carriages are white, and the trees are in black, implying that Hutter has entered into a "reversed world" where nothing is as it appears, even the coachman. Why is this important, that Orlok does all these different things? To insure us that a "vampire" can appear anywhere in any walk of life, and is not limited to a place, job or social status, or that any are immune from it.
Orlok picks up Hutter in his coach and hurriedly drives to Castle Orlok, and, without a word, just pointing with the whip, instructs Hutter to go to the Castle. Once inside, Hutter meets Orlok and the Count takes him to dinner. This makes a significant diversion from Dracula, because Harker realizes Dracula drinks blood when Harker is shaving (after having been in Castle Dracula for quite some time) whereas Hutter has just arrived and is having dinner; while cutting a piece of bread, Hutter also cuts his thumb; Orlok sees the cut and says, "Oh, the precious blood!" and takes Hutter's thumb and actually starts sucking on it...
Hutter holds up his bloody thumb as Orlok approaches him, takes the thumb and starts sucking on it. The hat which Orlok wears in this scene is not a coincidence: Orlok is hiding something. By covering up his head, he's trying to keep his intentions for buying the old abbey a secret from Hutter.
As I pointed out in For the Dead Travel Fast: Dracula, Harker shaving when he first "sees" that Dracula wants blood and has no reflection, is paraelled against Harker removing his own animal passions from himself; it's not just that Hutter is eating dinner and fulfilling his appetites, but he's eating bread, suggesting that it's "the Bread of Life" which protects him from Orlok. Why? Orlok says, "Oh the precious blood!" which clearly invokes the Precious Blood of Christ that paid our price for Original Sin. Hutter's blood is "precious" because, if it is taken by a vampire, it gives life to evil, whereas Christ's Blood gives life to His children
Our best "close up" of Count Orlok and that's intentional, because we never really see "the full face of evil," part of evil's evil nature is that it hides because it doesn't want to be seen. A further act of hiding is the bizarre symbols on the letter from Hutter's boss, Knock to Orlok: the symbols hide their intentions. So there is the hat which is hiding Orlok's thoughts, the paper hiding Orlok's face and the symbols hiding their communications as well as the shadows in the scene hiding parts of the castle.
Before Hutter had left the inn, he bathed himself; when he was at dinner with the Count, he was cutting bread; after the first night, and Orlok wanting to sit and visit with Hutter for awhile, Hutter wakes up (remembering nothing, of course) and feels his neck; taking out his shaving mirror, he looks and sees two punctures in his neck which he writes to his wife are mosquito bites. The bathing of himself is an act of invoking baptismal Grace, the bread is the partaking of the Bread of Life and the mirror is an act of meditation/self-reflection, but Hutter, please forgive me, is still an idiot, and we are intentionally led to believe this because he himself refuses to assess the situation, but keeps ignoring the danger he is in.
Orlok's strange dining room clock that strikes midnight as Hutter is about to be attacked by Orlok. The skeleton and clock face work together to form the momento mori, Remember, you will die, but also the time that "gives life to evil," the times of the day when evil can be open and work its mischief.
Why do vampires bite on the neck?
More of the "stylized vampires" of today (such as Interview With a Vampire and Underworld) use the wrist for biting (but that is saved for a little later) but the reason vampires traditionally attack the neck is because that is what animals do, and it brings out the animal nature of a vampire's attack (especially when it's a sexually charged attack). Animals attack the jugular vein in the neck because that brings death quickest. Vampires drink from the jugular vein because that fulfills their "appetite" quickest. Hutter comparing the two bites on his neck to mosquito bites puts Orlok on the level with a pest, the kind of pest that Knock will eat, but Orlok is a far greater evil, and it's a sign of Hutter's spiritual immaturity that he can't tell a mosquito apart from a vampire... a comparison would be the difference between mortal and venial sin.
As Orlok and Hutter go over papers for the transaction for Orlok to purchase the house across from Hutter's own; Hutter accidentally pulls Ellen's photo from his bag; seeing the photo, Orlok takes it up and studies it, then comments, "Your wife has a beautiful neck...!"
Having retired to his bed chamber, Hutter realizes that a book on Vampires, Magic, Terrible Ghosts and the Seven Deadly Sins, from the inn where he stayed is, miraculously, in his bag. He opens the book and the page reads, in large black and white letters that even he can see, that Nosferatii grab their victims and drink their blood, and this, finally, awakens Hutter to realizing what Count Orlok is. At that exact moment, the skeleton clock strikes the hour and Hutter, opening his door, realizes that Orlok is coming to feed on him again. Hutter closes the door and tries to find a way of escape; looking out the window, there is a steep drop and a raging river below his window.
One of the most famous shots in cinema history. Hutter hides beneath his blankets as the awful shadow of Orlok creeps up on him in Hutter's bed chamber.
The drop symbolizes a leap of faith and the river the necessary river of grace to be able to help him escape this moment. Hutter isn't capable of making it, he doesn't have the spiritual maturity needed for this battle with evil. On the other side of the world, however, his wife Ellen awakens from sleep, gets out of bed in a trance, and tip-toes to the door of her balcony, and, sleepwalking, gets on the ledge and balances herself until her friends come to wake her up. Symbolically, Ellen, the stronger of the couple, is literally more in-tune with what evil is and how it could destroy her husband. For Ellen, her sleepwalking is a symbol of blind faith and obedience and because of these two virtues, she's able to defeat Orlok from a thousand miles away (in Dracula, Lucy sleepwalks, but that is a sign of her weakness and will be discussed in the next posting, The Children of the Night: Dracula 1931).
Ellen, Hutter's strong, devoted wife in Nosferatu.
When Hutter awakens the next morning, he goes around the castle, discovering the room where Orlok sleeps in a coffin during the day; peering through the planks of wood, Hutter sees Orlok's face and falls into despair, returning to his room. This is important because, in Dracula, Harker at least attempted to kill Dracula in his coffin (but missed with the shovel and only scarred his forehead instead) but Hutter is so weak, he can't even try. That he sees Orlok's face through the boards signifies that, in the "cracks" of Christianity is where we see evil, that which doesn't fit into the Holy Carpenter's design is not His design, but evil. Now we know that Count Orlok is a Warlock and Hutter is, literally, a "hut." After discovering Orlok, he does nothing but return to his room, a "hut," that symbolizes his soul.
Hutter, "who lives in a spirtiual hut" and Orlok who lives in a coffin, spiritual death. Both are exposed for who they really are and are not in this shot, as Hutter is powerless to do anything about Orlok.
Orlok then goes to Wisborg, the town where Hutter lives and Hutter manages to get back home. There is rumor of plague, and it's what is blamed for people dying everywhere when it's really Orlok who is to blame. How do we know this? In the book from the inn that Hutter brings home with him, Ellen reads:
Nobody can save you
unless a sinless maiden
makes the vampire forget
the first crow of the cock
--if she was to give him her blood willingly.
As Ellen sleeps, she is awaken and gets out of bed, knowing that, across the way, Orlok is looking out his barred window and trying to communicate with her. She throws open the window in an act of abandonment and "gives her consent," so to speak, for Orlok to come. She sends Hutter out to get the doctor and, once he leaves, Orlok opens the doors of his deserted abbey and prepares to "visit the neighbor." Orlok comes, enters her room, and feeds on Ellen. The cock crows and, passing a window to leave, Orlok is touched by the sun and disappears forever. A title card explains that, at the very same our, the Great Death ended.
Orlok entering Ellen's bedroom. The stair railing, on the left-side, indicates that Ellen is on an "elevated" plane of thought and knows exactly what she does; similarly, when she first got out of bed as Orlok was "calling to her," she could be seen in a large mirror, indicating her reflection on the situation. Finally, her throwing open the window means she is willing to accept the consequences and the pain that "freeing Hutter" will cause her.
In Stoker's novel, Harker and Mina are engaged and get married after Harker has been to Dracula's castle; in Nosferatu, Hutter and Ellen are already married. I would like to suggest that, in Dracula, the temptation of the three brides presented to Jonathan invokes the temptations that men have of breaking their chastity before they wed; with women, the temptation (at least to the understanding of the Victorian mind) to break chastity came after marriage, because then a woman had an "idea of what she was missing out on." Mina is loved by all the men who vow to protect her, and they each say that, chastely in the novel, of course, but the men are all very handsome and she admires them greatly, always going on about their masculinity. Knowing the sexual pleasure she has with Jonathan, in Dracula, she now has the temptation of expanding her sexual experience with these other men who all love her and this fight (to remain faithful to Jonathan) is her inner struggle against Dracula.
The other most famous shot in cinema history: Orlok feeding on Ellen in her bed.
In Nosferatu, Ellen and Hutter are already married, but we have seen that Hutter is effeminate and soft. Orlok, in his sexual appetites, is a double for Orlok because Hutter is passive; suggesting that a man who is passive in life is also passive in the sexual act, hence, his homosexual tendencies. In the phrase, "a sinless maiden" "who gives her blood willingly," refers to a virgin who is willing to give her virginity (the blood from the breaking of the hymen) so a man will no longer have homosexual cravings but, having spent the night (had sexual intercourse with) a virgin, he will become the man he was meant to become (this was made in 1922).
Orlok passing Ellen's open window and dying in the sun rays.
What is the most compelling reason that Nosferatu, literally, the "undead," is about homosexuality in the early 1920's? The film is referenced by a blatantly homosexual film, Interview With the Vampire (when Louis, Brad Pitt, is in the theater), and that post is forthcoming. But both refer to "the plague," both utilize that vampires can't be seen in the light and both use "feeding" as a metaphor for the sexual act. As I hope to continue demonstrating in that post, vampirism is a culturally useful tool for deviant sexual behavior and the havoc it causes society and individuals.