Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau | 1hr 34min

Nosferatu isn’t as loaded with disturbing expressionist images as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but it’s the slow-burn narrative tension along with F.W. Murnau’s astounding silhouette and shadow work that puts it up among the best of the silent era. Max Schreck plays the titular vampire as a freakish rat-like creature, a true silent gothic monster to rival the madman Dr Caligari. Gaunt-faced, wide-eyed, hunched over, his mere profile strikes a terrifying image that has persisted in our collective consciousness for almost a century.

Shadows and dreams are woven through the narrative as a motif, both visually and as a device to describe the being himself.

“Beware that his shadow does not engulf you like a daemonic nightmare.”

Gaunt-faced, wide-eyed, hunched over. Max Schreck delivers a grotesque, physical performance, and Nosferatu is just as much an accomplishment for him as it is for Murnau.

Throughout the film we see people sleepwalking, having surreal visions, and going mad, painting Nosferatu out as a monster who doesn’t just threaten his victims physically but psychologically as well. He is the “daemonic nightmare” that they all fear, exerting control over the minds of others like a lurking threat finally rising from some repressed trauma. Though he sleeps his eyes remain open, constantly alert. He is not at the mercy of his subconscious like the rest of us – he is the subconscious. Shadows and nightmares are thus tied together, not just as places where Nosferatu dwells, but where the very fear of what he represents spreads.

Though he brings death in his wake like the traditional Dracula story, Nosferatu himself takes on more animalistic than corpse-like qualities. Heavy-handed metaphors abound in these comparisons, though the lack of subtlety only reinforces the overwhelmingly pervasive fear that seems to spread like an infectious sickness. Indeed, Nosferatu brings pestilence with him, both through the diseased rats which seem to materialise wherever he goes and through his penchant for blood-sucking.

We step outside the narrative at times to join scientists in their study of vampirism, drawing similarities to carnivorous predators like the Venus fly trap or microscopic organisms which are “transparent and ethereal, little more than a phantom.” Knock observes a spider at one point, wrapping an insect in its web to be devoured later, considering its own vampiristic qualities. Yet even as these comparisons to the plant and animal kingdoms are made, Nosferatu still isn’t accepted among them. At the mere mention of his name, hyenas and horses run for the hills. He is a depraved mutation of humanity, both part of the natural order and an abomination to it.

This then brings us back to his representation of the human subconscious – something that is entirely natural, yet widely feared for what disturbing terrors it may be hiding. The tension as his ship docks in the harbour is on another level, as this repressed “other” is nearing our main heroes. Upon discovering Ellen he is intent upon claiming her as his victim, his shadow creeping up staircases and around corners, eventually being cast across her own figure. His clawed hand leads in front of him, and upon reaching her chest it crushes her heart. The darkness, the repressed subconscious, the mental sickness, whatever it is, has finally come to claim our innocent heroine.

No discussion of Nosferatu is complete without mentioning this terrifying shot. The peak of German Expressionism, and an immortal image.

If the shadow is the subconscious, then light must be the conscious mind, and by shining it upon the shadow the threat disappears. Nosferatu is only powerful when hidden in the darkness, and by bringing him into the daylight where he can be seen for what he is, he is finally defeated.

“Obliterated by the triumphant rays of the living sun, the Great Death came to an end, and the shadow of the deathbird was gone…”

Much like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu thus becomes a tale of repressed depravity and its bubbling to the surface of society, feeding off people’s fear and destroying them in the process. Only by confronting the fear directly and without inhibition can humanity stand some chance against their own hidden evils. Some sequences of Nosferatu appear somewhat goofy by modern standards, but those aren’t what stick in the end. It is the stark shadows, the warped, pale face, and the deformed shape of Nosferatu’s being that persists, planting itself in our own subconscious and growing like some mutated carnivorous plant.

Poetic archetypes and justice. Darkness personified, defeated by the light.

Nosferatu is in the public domain and available on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.