Happy October 31, everybody!
As I noted in my review of The Artist, I have not watched very many silent films. This year’s October 31 offering, Nosferatu, dates back to 1922 and is probably the oldest film I have ever watched outside of a class requirement. Due to my involvement with Old World of Darkness RPGs in the late 1990s, I am intimately familiar with a host of cultural material pertaining to the concept of a vampire that references older works, including Nosferatu; but just as my Honors Proseminar on Gothic Literature back in undergrad discussed Bram Stoker’s Dracula without making it required reading, Nosferatu may have been in the water for material I had seen, but I hadn’t actually watched it as a primary source. These are my impressions now of this ninety-year-old film that helped usher in the vampire as the supernatural horror force-to-be-reckoned-with that we know it as today.
It is impossible for someone raised in the era of “talkies” as I have been to take the audio component of a “silent” film for granted and it would be inappropriate not to comment on it in this review. Above all else, the artistic choice I found most questionable about Nosferatu was its instrumental score. The opening third or so of the story, in which it would have been most appropriate for the score to sound breezy and innocuous, was actually when the score was at its most driving and bombastic. In the second act, when it was time for the score to turn chilling and foreboding, it instead turned placid and serene. By the time the third act had rolled around, when it would have been appropriate to have loud, dramatic, tumultuous sounds, I had already written off the musical score as being able to provide any useful content to enhance the narrative, and was no longer paying any attention to it. I can’t even say, less than eighteen hours after watching the film, what a single musical cue of the third act of Nosferatu sounded like, and I suspect if it had been any improvement over the first two acts, it would have caught my attention. The pairing of music to narrative and visuals for Nosferatu was neither like-to-like (blue with green or indigo) nor complementary and therefore ironic (blue with orange or rusty brown). It was just bad (blue with chartreuse).
Remember what I was saying when I reviewed The Artist, about how female standards of beauty have changed since the 1920s? Nosferatu makes it clear that the standards for men have also changed. The features of Gustav von Wangenheim, the actor who plays Jonathon Harker, are neither the pretty-boy looks of contemporary teen heart-throb bands, nor ruggedly masculine like one finds in the faces of action heroes. Harker just looks common, and the one scene in which his character is temporarily shirtless proves his physique to be unremarkable as well. Clearly the actor was selected along different criteria from today’s stars. Greta Schröder, the actress who plays Harker’s wife Nina, ends up looking like an unpleasant cross between Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: A New Hope and a drag queen. The physical appearance of these characters actually detracted from my ability to enjoy the narrative, although not to the degree that the score did.
The main idea that I took away from that proseminar on Gothic literature is that Gothic material is antistructuralist. The monsters that star in it are monstrous because they remove structuralist barriers between binary opposites. Frankenstein’s monster, for example, removed the barrier between life and death. Gender-bending is a common theme in Gothic literature, as the barrier between men and women gets erased (“About time,” I can hear my Third Wavers and trans readers comment). Dracula by Bram Stoker was the first published account of vampires as erotic beings, destroying the barrier between fear and love. Before Stoker came along, vampires were dread creatures of the night in Eastern European lore, walking bloodsucking corpses possessing none of the allure of an Anne Rice character like Lestat, and certainly not a source of teen romantic yearnings like Edward of the Twilight books. Rice and She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-Aloud have just been surfing Stoker’s wave.
Knowing this about what makes horror tick, I was curious to see how Nosferatu would represent this dynamic. The results surprised me. Despite supposedly being based on an unnamed novel by Bram Stoker that one must assume is Dracula (in which case, as my viewing companion who has actually read Dracula observed, it is very loosely based on that novel in terms of plot – a quick survey of IMDB would indicate that the film was originally created with a different vampire story in mind and the names of characters from Dracula got superimposed later), Nosferatu does not present the Count as an erotic being. He stays firmly on the repulsive side of that binary. Now there is some intriguing manipulation of gender roles – Harker gets portrayed as a passive victim, a role usually reserved for women, even going so far as to escape from the Count’s castle via a rope made of bedclothes like a kidnapped medieval princess; Nina, by contrast, takes heroic action to save Bremen, even at the cost of her life. Also, my viewing companion and I joked that the Count might be gay and the requirement that he stay with a woman until morning if he is to be killed might be a symbolic “conversion” (yes, yes, I know how orientations and preferences actually work!). But actually, the barrier broken down most successfully here for monstrous results is the barrier between the foreign and the familiar.
As long as Dracula dwells in his isolated castle in the “land of the phantoms”, the viewer can feel comfortable. We know what must be done to stay safe from such beings – avoid or stay away from Transylvania. Apparently the peasants who live there know what needs to be done too if they are able to write manuals like The Book of Vampires to leave on bedside tables at inns! But put Count Dracula in the city of Bremen, and he becomes infinitely more terrifying. When Dracula announced to Harker “We’ll be neighbors!” a chill ran through me, undeniably. Nobody should have to sleep with one eye open, afraid their neighbors will stalk them in their sleep. There is supposed to be safety in numbers. Dracula’s ability to cross that boundary line, to be a bloodsucking creature of the night while slowly waving hello to Nina through her bedroom window, keeps him monstrous and ensures that ninety years later, in the midst of laughter and jeering at poor film quality and even poorer lighting technology, I will still get that chill down my spine.
I fear that most of my generation would be unable to suspend their disbelief long enough to appreciate the aspects of Nosferatu that operate on elements of the human psyche that I consider to be timeless. My viewing companion, for example, shook his head at Nina’s noble self-sacrifice and pronounced the requirement that she die in order for Dracula to be killed “lame”. In my opinion, that ritualistic formula for Dracula’s death was, like, the second-best part of the film (“We’ll be neighbors!” being the best moment). But anyone who still appreciates silent film who hasn’t seen this already would do well to check it out, as should anyone who considers themself a film connoisseur. In the latter case, watching this might be a good dose of anti-pretension.
Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0.