Gothic as a genre is generally associated with horror. But artistically speaking, they are both quite different from, yet paradoxically, quite alike. And yet their coming together was an affair of times, not so long ago. It was as if these two genres were made for each other. Gothic is one of the most mysterious, thrilling and dramatic genres in popular entertainment. Since the inception of novels and novellas, ‘gothic’ has flourished by integrating itself within the desolate backdrops to the macabre, the mysterious and the brutal. An exhibition of the grotesque in an environment of unnerving fear, where the faculties of our intellect are suffocated is the essence of the Gothic horror. The towering castles of Nosferatu with secret passageways and winding corridors filled with mists of a bygone entity all add up to instil fear in our hearts.
In cinema, horror has grown into one of the most popular genres. But the countless horror movies we watch today, often without batting an eye, have been possible due to one creation and one creation alone. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. And what a beautiful symphony it truly is! The movie is a flawless piece of artistic imagination that shines with extreme fervour. It is actually an illegal motion picture adaptation of Bram Stroker’s Dracula, written in 1897. The Stroker estate had refused permission for the recreation of the famous novel. And hence, Count Dracula became Count Orlok and the word ‘vampire’ got replaced by the word ‘Nosferatu.’
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Nosferatu was directed by F. W. Murnau and with Max Schreck in the titular role. Now, Schreck had garnered quite a reputation. This was owed to his ability to physically embody and portray the grotesque. Rumours surrounded him wherever he went. It has often been said that Schreck was himself a vampire. So, people, would go to the theatre and watch the movie under the pretence that they would get to see a real vampire on screen.
Stroker’s heirs sued the creators of the adaptation and ordered that all copies be burned. And that which was akin to a witch hunt began and ended inconsequentially. It was all in vain. A few copies of the demonic work still existed and were in circulation. Currently, it is freely available on YouTube for the pleasure of your viewing experience. The movie has had a great effect and influence on the landscape of cinema as a whole. It is now considered a masterpiece and an important milestone in the road of global cinema. After all, Nosferatu was the movie that popularized the myth of the vampire dying in the presence of sunlight. And to establish such a well-known piece of vampiric mythology is no small feat.
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Max Schreck’s pointy-eared and nimble-fingered Count Orlock is one of the most iconic villains in existence. Today, it is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But it was born out of blatant illegal plagiarism. But perhaps, without this movie, the vampire genre would have never taken off. We would have missed some great classics as much as some trashy young adult novels. Incidentally, this wasn’t the first movie to be based on the character of Dracula. A 1921 gothic thriller Dracula’s Death holds that honour. But this movie was clearly the most impactful of the lot. There are two main reasons for its enduring cult following and undeniable influence over the entire genre. The first was the atmosphere that it had created within its confined space. And the second was the innovative and intelligent use of special effects.
Let us first get into the bit about the special effect for it is really interesting. Stop-motion photography was the director’s closest friend in this ordeal. In one scene, Orlok’s coffin closes by itself after the lid levitates off the ground. A primitive form of stop-motion animation made this possible. A sequence of still images in which the lid moves closer and closer to its final resting spot was rapidly shown. With this, Murnau was able to trick the viewer into thinking that the inanimate object was flying around under its own power. This same technique was also employed during the scene in which Orlok uses his magic to open the hatch of a ship.
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The atmosphere that has been created in the movie is nothing short of genius. The German cities contrast well with the Slovakian castles. These towering beauties exuberate might and dread as they engulf the viewers within their occultic charms. The use of different colour filters also affords a more mysterious quality to the movie as a whole. The changing times of day and night have been reflected through poor quality coloured films of blue and red. This juxtaposition of two highly contrasting colours leads to an almost poetic depiction of the city haunted by a vampire.
The use of negative photography to display white trees as the foreground of a black sky is a truly haunting image. The intelligent use of corners is absolutely genius. The shadows lurk outside our frame of reference. The fear of the unknown elevates tension within our minds.
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The performances are quite commendable for the period in which this movie was made. Many reviewers have critiqued the acting calling it over-dramatised. But this too is only the case with the more recent critics. And I know for a fact that this form of analysis is anachronistic in nature. In the era of silent films, over dramatisation was the norm. Actors had then just made a transition from theatre to cinema. And where words could not be used to convey emotions, it was the body that had to stand in for it.
Nosferatu was the symbol of edginess and eccentricity in its time. And especially the design for the vampire was so ridiculously over the top and oddly terrifying at the same time, that anything other than that exaggerated acting style would not do justice to it. And I cannot get over the way in which Schreck was able to reproduce human emotions on a face that clearly belonged to a monster. This gave additional depth to the character of Count Orlock. I know not why, but I was drawn into his world. His hypnotic eyes make you sympathise with him. There’s a certain deep pain within them. This silent internal and eternal suffering reaches the audience without the use of words and without explicitly mentioning it.
Schreck also keeps theatrics at bay. He portrays a being that laments a dreaded curse; not a flamboyant character, most vampires are represented as today. The beastly nature of the vampire is accentuated with bat ears, clawlike nails and rodent-like teeth. This beastly form is a huge departure from the popular sophistication that is usually associated with vampires.
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Some of the symbolic elements stray away from the story. They are used by Murnau in order to depart from the heavily aesthetic tone. A scientist who gives a lecture on the Venus flytrap, “the vampire of the vegetable kingdom,” a spider devouring its prey, all add to the vampiric semblance to the predators of the wild. The question is asked – if nature can produce such vampires, why can a human not live as a vampire as well? A very deep question that was completely unexpected in that period was asked through the movie. Such philosophical deliberations were unprecedented for the era in which this film came out.
Nosferatu, even as an independent movie, is a great one. Even if we remove the factors about its originality and its status as a landmark movie, we have a film that brilliantly portrays the horrors of the beast in the form of a man. The popular image and internal psychology of the vampire are explored with a lot of maturity. We get a story of Dracula at its purest; without any cliches or caricatures. The creators of the movie have shown such vigour that it seems that they actually believe in the myth of the vampire. They too are in awe of its power and dread its might.
The movie has an almost Victorian character to it. While watching it, I could not help but think about Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. A very similar German Expressionistic and gothic tone was found within its core. Nosferatu was an unclean piece of work. But its impurities peculiarly add to its charm as a whole. The gritty setting coupled with the grotesque imagery and the near-Christian symbolism made the movie transcend the boundaries of its source material.
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But the question remains. Is Nosferatu scary by today’s standards? My answer – no. The movie does not scare me. It haunts me. It does not know the cheap thrill of the jumpscare. What it does know is how to skilfully manipulate viewers’ emotions using artistry and ideas, atmosphere and images. It does not tell us that vampires can just jump out of shadows. The movie shows us that evil can grow anywhere and unhinged evil always leads to death, both symbolic and physical. It is a vampire movie that dwells on war, disease, madness and death. Its visual style aptly conveys these dark fears.
The power of Nosferatu lies in its silence. The movie is very dreamlike. The addition of human speech would have squandered that silence. It would have marginalised the movie. The characters are confronted with terrifying mental images. Yet, they are denied the freedom to talk about it or express their distress. This distress builds within the characters as well as in us, as we too marvel in silence the boiling tension that receives no respite.
It is as if the faceless evil needs no voice to haunt us; we ourselves create, within our being, a shadow that overpowers us. Nosferatu is a poetic piece of redemption and the human tendency to succumb to evil. The darkness lurks around us all, in the corners of life, as in the corners of the frame. The sunlight keeps it away. But once you taste the unrelenting dread that the darkness carries around on its back, you will know that it is impossible to dig out the claws that Nosferatu has sunk into your heart.
By Deepjyoti Roy