I was never a film connoisseur but the scene in The Artist where Valentin lifted blankets in Peppy ‘s mansion and was shocked to learn it was Peppy who purchased his auctioned effects has left a deep impression in me. Against the backdrop of a flood of light from the door, Valentin cast a long shadow on every objects he found, in his horror, to have belonged to him, including his self – portrait and the three wise monkeys clock. This use of light, shadow and familiar objects, I later found out, is known as German Expressionism.
Nosferatu is a classic German Expressionist movie directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922. The film is created when the new Weimar Republic just survived the Kapp Putsch in 1920 that paralyzed Berlin and was waiting to see Hitler’s Munich Putsch in 1923. In this politically unstable period, conspiracies were rampant. It was no surprise that many horror films like Faust or Dr. Mabuse at the time featured an evil conspirator who contrived for domination.
Without exception, Nosferatu fell in this genre. It adapted fairly closely to Bram Stoker’s Dracula – close enough for Stoker’s wife to have successfully sued for copyright infringement and a court order to burn all copies of the movie. Knox, a little queer estate agent in Wisborg of Germany, sent Hutter to the castle of Count Orlok for buying a house in town. Hutter crossed the Carpathian mountains and encountered the eerie Count Orlok who looked more like an half – evolved human than an aristocratic gentleman in Dracula. Hutter later found a series of strange happenings: two holes on his neck, door automatically opened by Count Orlok and most of all finding Count Orlok sleeping in the coffin. Simultaneously Ellen, Hutter’s wife, sleepwalked and urged for the arrival of her ‘master’. Knox became mad and similarly called for his ‘master’ to come. It turned out Count Orlok was hatching a plan and was coming to Wisborg for his conspiracy.
The effects that Murnau achieved through primitive film techniques haunt us no less than any modern horror films. When Count Orlok’s servants carried Hutter to the castle, they moved with such fast – motion that it creates an air of unreality and suggests the fact that they were haunted by evil spell. In another scene, Hutter came out from his bedroom and saw Count Orlok standing on the far end of the corridor. Horrified, he retreated back but Count Orlok was approaching in stop – motions. The effect is suspense, especially after Murnau foreshadowed the bloodthirsty Count and already built a paranormal setting.
Eventually the Count entered the bedroom and engulfed Hutter under his large looming shadow. Hutter’s horrifying expression was in full view while the Count can enjoy his treat of the night. This use of light and shadow was also repeated when the Count climbed the staircase to find Hutter’s wife. We only see the shadow of his elongated body, a tiny rodent head and clawlike nails on the wall when he was approaching the room of Ellen. We are prevented from seeing his material body, so that he seems only to exist in darkness or to have belonged to the underworld.
Other than film techniques, Murnau sidetracked from the plot and presented seemingly irrelevant natural phenomenons. Professor Bulwer (or Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula) taught his student the mystery of nature and showed them a venus flytrap that captured a fly alive until it struggled to death. ‘Vampire of the vegetable kingdom’, he proclaimed. In another scene, the psychiatric troubled Knox watched how the spider trapped its prey and devoured it. The whole atmosphere became unsettling and discomforting to see how live beings are killed in front of you, albeit they are mere insects.
As a side point, I also see an interesting coincidence. Professor Bulwer, supposedly a doctor and a learned scientist, wore robe and cap akin to a magician. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès dressed up the astronomers in starry robes and pointed up hats as well. The message is clear. Understanding the mysterious nature in purely scientific light is too simple, sometimes naive.
The overall effect is not gory scene or sudden shock but a haunting suspense that last throughout the movie. The essence of German Expressionism lies in questioning the subjective reality and puts the emphasis on the validity of senses. It seeks to express the innermost self to the screen. In Nosferatu, a hidden terror is everywhere. The fast or stop – in motions are tools to create a supernatural world. The shadows and light cast the world in dreamlike scenes. The trapped flies and deadly spiders are unsettling images that reinforce the macabre Count Orlok.
F.W. Murnau gained international acclaim for his direction in Nosferatu. He made several other profitable German Expressionist movies before he moved to Hollywood and made his another internationally acclaimed Sunrise. At the dawn of talkies, his fate is perhaps too well known from George Valentin in The Artist. His subsequent two talkies were poorly received. He broke new ground with Tabu – a half – documentary, half – fiction movie. Yet he did not live to see it. He died in car crash when his 14 year old Philippine servant crashed against an electric pole. For better or worse, he is remembered as master of German Expressionism and silent movies, rather than a mediocre director in sound films.