Wednesday, June 26, 2024

First Contact: Nosferatu

The classic that codified vampires on screen for all eras

Previously in the First Contact project…

We've discussed how German Expressionism used extremes of shape and shadow to convey emotional content. Well, what better medium to tell a story about hungry things that lurk in the night? The 1922 film Nosferatu, an illegal adaptation of the novel Dracula (the ensuing copyright lawsuit forced the studio to declare bankruptcy), keeps its most iconic images confined to one short, climactic scene. But what a scene! Making the most of the technological possibilities of the time, the ending of Nosferatu uses one of the most effective tools of horror: suggesting instead of showing. It's just a silhouette moving up the stairs, just a silhouette extending toward a door, just a silhouette grasping a heart… and this little trick suffices to represent the supernatural profanation that has taken place. It's a master class in using a minimum of visual cues and letting the actual horror play out in the viewer's mind.

Nosferatu has both the strengths and the defects of a freestyle adaptation. It omits a handful of superfluous characters from the novel and streamlines the plot down to its basic components. The details that it adds (the references to occultism, the plague outbreak, the town's hunt for a scapegoat, the new method for defeating the vampire) are a natural fit for the heightened sentimentalism of this movie's tradition. However, the character of the young real estate agent who brings the purchase papers to the count's castle is made less interesting in this version. In the first part of the novel, the growing sense of dread comes from reading this character's gradual suspicions about the count's private habits. Nosferatu portrays him as blissfully oblivious to what's going on under his nose. Once the count settles into his new property, the novel switches to detective mode as our protagonists track down his movements and begin strategizing a way to kill him. In Nosferatu, the answer is conveniently found in a literal Monster Manual that the young man already owned, and the count jumps straight to the final confrontation as soon as he moves in. In striving to lose no time, the movie loses much of the novel's suspense.

The least enjoyable part of Nosferatu is the underwhelming way it ends. The method for defeating the vampire is too passive, and the special effects used for the vampire's death by sunlight are disappointingly simple, especially when seen just moments after the expert play of shadows that precedes it. Romanticism is all about feels and vibes, so a damsel's self-sacrifice is par for the course, and the script gets bonus points for the brief dialogue at the beginning where dead flowers foreshadow the loss of something beautiful, but, as I said above, the final scene is where you find the bits that you'll remember.

Apart from the titular villain, the quality of the acting is nothing remarkable. The suffering damsel knows clearly what her role is: to look vulnerable and helpless. She spends the movie visibly sighing with the oh so tragic demeanor that in any other movie would presage a death by tuberculosis. The friends she stays with for most of the runtime are basically skippable, and the madman who waits in jail for the count's arrival comes off more as comic relief (and possible anti-Semitic caricature) than as a supposed secondary antagonist. The young man who visits the count at his castle is consistently clueless, even cavalier about dining with an undead abomination, and after he returns home, he ceases to have any impact on the story. Only the sailors who unwittingly transport their killer do an interesting job in terms of acting, and they're promptly dispatched offscreen.

What Nosferatu lacks in scriptwriting it makes up for in visual memorability. Orlok, Nosferatu's substitute for Dracula, has a fantastic design. Cadaveric yet imposing, frail yet ravenous, this is a monster perfectly made for silent cinema. It's impossible to avert the eye from his unnatural presence, enhanced by a judicious dose of the stop-motion technique in some scenes. The performance is deceptively simple: his facial expressions don't hint at any reasoning intelligence behind the appropriately dead gaze he wears at all times. It's as if the rats that travel with him, spreading his curse of pestilence, had eaten his eyelids and left a hollow, desiccated set of eyes to haunt mortals with. That said, it's regrettable that Orlok's look also happens to match several anti-Semitic clichés. The Germany that birthed Nosferatu had a long and painful road ahead before reckoning with its theretofore unexamined prejudices.

To a viewer of this century, Nosferatu isn't exactly scary, much less after the many ways its memetic potential has been reused and remixed. Vampires have been everything: sublime, detestable, pitiful, sexy, cartoonish, fearsome, pathetic, elegant, repulsive, otherworldly, relatable, beastly, aristocratic, demonic, sparkly, allegorical, ostracized, dominant, solitary, clannish, contagious, playable, killable, dateable. To watch Nosferatu after seeing the plethora of movie vampires that followed grants a humbling perspective on what infinite malleability can result from a modest first showing. By virtue of its own, small addition to vampire lore (killing them with sunlight), it taught writers that more variations were acceptable: garlic, crosses, holy water, silver bullets, dead blood, a lucky roll of Turn Undead. Carmilla, The Vampyre and Dracula brought vampires from the obscurity of folklore into world literature. But it was Nosferatu that positioned them as staples of pop culture. If for nothing else, we must thank it for that.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.