Dispelling the Shadows

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As part of something called “symposium” — in which students at Edinburgh College of Art’s School of Visual Communications are shuffled together, first and second year, and students of Film, Animation, Graphic Design, Illustration, Performance Costume, Interior Design and Product Design — I had to give a ten-minute talk on “light.”

This involved talking to the biggest assemblage of students I’d ever faced. It wasn’t that I was intimidated, so much, as slightly overwhelmed. By the barrage of scent. As the students filed into the main lecture theatre, the predominance of young women who study art had an olfactory impact. The ladies of Film & Television don’t perfume to such a dizzying extent. It was like walking into Lush. A kind of claustrophobia of the nose set in. It was like drowning under waves of pong.

“Ah, the lovelies,” said my boss, Emma, when I mentioned this. “We don’t tend to get them in Film & TV.” Lest that be thought a slur, I should clarify that while the balance of sexes in the department swings erratically from male to female and back, the girls don’t tend to be of the very girly sort that you might get in the more arts-and-crafts areas of study.

Anyway, mainly what I discovered that day was that a ten minute talk is harder than a two-hour talk, and you’d better have an ending prepared. My subject was “light,” as I mentioned, and so I chose NOSFERATU as my subject.

To begin with, I remarked upon the odd fact that produced Albin Grau had set up his company, Prana Film, to make “spiritual movies.” Grau (like Murnau) was really into astrology and magic and so on. Still, a vampire movie would seem a strange project for such a seemingly idealistic enterprise (unless you’re a born-again who considers all other spiritual beliefs to be Satanic in origin).

My half-arsed theory is that Grau and Murnau wanted to coalesce an evil force into filmic form — and then exorcise it.

Graf Orlok, the vampire who isn’t Dracula for copyright reasons, played by Max Schreck, is identified from the first with shadows.

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The coachman, who is Schreck/Orlok/Dracula, takes the doofus hero, the enthusiastic Gustav Von Wangeheim, for a ride through a strip of negative. During this sequence, Murnau substitutes the black horse and carriage for white ones, so they will look the same when all the toher tones are reversed. The carriage also moves as if photographed at about 8fps. The tricks of cinema are deployed in a forceful, weird and obvious way around this character. Also, Orlok’s castle is separated from reality by a strange interstitial hyperspace of negative footage, as if it were not part of the same movie, but an invading force from beyond celluloid. The negative comes before the printed film. And before the negative? Reality.

At other times, Orlok shows an affinity with cinema — he passes through a closed door by means of a dissolve, and later opens the doors by a series of jump cuts. Unlike every other character in the film, Orlok seems able to influence people appearing in different scenes from himself, via parallel montage. It’s suggested that perhaps Wangenheim is psychically connected to his fiancée Greta Schroeder, but this only reveals itself when Orlok is advancing upon him to drain his juices.

While the mythic vampire casts no shadow, Orlok casts a giant one — he is often represented solely by his shadow. And by the film’s climax, his shadow virtually supplants him. In climbs the stair to Schroeder’s room, and it is his shadow’s hand that reaches for the doorknob — his shadow apparently opens the door! And then his shadow reaches for Schroeder’s bosom, and clenches into a fist — the suggestion is that he has somehow seized hold of her heart within her rib cage, as if this shadow-hand were simultaneously intangible enough to pass through flesh, and corporeal enough to grab ahold. Of course the action is photographed to suggest he might also be clasping her breast, but I think her reaction leans more to a cardiac seizure (the word is oddly appropriate here).

And finally, being a creature of shadow, Orlok is destroyed by light. In this major departure from the source novel, screenwriter Henrik Galeen sidelines the buffoonish Wangenheim completely (to, I think, everyone’s relief) and uses the Van Helsing character, Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt), only as an excuse to get him out the way. The vampire is defeated by Schroeder, who has lured him to stay out after cock-crow. Also unlike the book, she apparently sacrifices herself for the greater good.

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(Note the silhouette on the wall — note also Bulwer’s ominous gaze outwards, into the audience.)

But what happens to those who perish at the hands of the vampire? Why, they become vampires too. And it is this unfortunate loophole in Galeen’s scenario that I’m afraid has caused the spell crafted by Grau — drawing evil into the film’s substance, embodying it in a character personified as shadow, and destroying him with light — a plan to purge evil from the world and to cleanse the medium of cinema of its darkest impulses — ultimately to fail. For fail it clearly did. Look at the world. Look at cinema.

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10 Responses to “Dispelling the Shadows”

  1. I really like Dafoe in this. But I don’t really like IT. They de-gay Murnau (although casting Malkovich at least leaves possibilities open) but make him a junky as if that were somehow equivalent.

  2. True, but Udo Kier is in it (essential for such a project), and the whole notion of Max Schreck being the “stage name” of a REAL vampire is ever-so delightful.

  3. It had been mooted for years — the “mystery” of Schreck, who seemingly appeared in no other films. In fact, we now know he appeared in numerous other films, including one by Murnau! I like it as a fantasy, but it does turn Murnau into a snuff film pioneer, which is rather unfair.

  4. I trust you recall Murnau’s death — particularly Kenneth Anger’s version.

  5. David E. just made me think of Guy’s Big Bite.

  6. There’s more genuine mystery about Henrik Galeen than Max Schreck. I think it’s only fairly recently that his real name has been nailed down.

    There’s a touching story about John Gottowt. Unlike his friend Galeen he did not survive the Holocaust, but his memory was unexpectedly salvaged from the anonymity of mass death. He was shot by the SS in 1942 while hiding a child. That child survived, and while writing a memoir a few years ago he contacted German film historians to verify the identity of an old man that he remembered as having been a famous German actor.

  7. Amazing!

    If you have any good Galeen sources, Katya, point me towards them.

    The Death of Murnau: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/01/07/the-prophecy/

  8. I nominate your version of Murnau’s death to supplant Kenneth Fucking Anger’s! When I first heard the latter I wondered how he could have known, unless Murnau was found with a dick in his mouth. The driver wouldn’t have told, nor the dog. It was a relief to learn that his books are mostly pretend.

    I don’t know of any good Galeen sources offhand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more about him emerges from the Cinegraph group; he’s their kind of guy. The Concise Cinegraph gives his original name as Heinrich Wiesenberg, born in Lvov. So like Gottowt (originally Isidor Gesang) he was an “ostjude,” and in fact he and Gottowt appear to have co-run a Yiddish theater in Berlin for awhile. A complicating factor, perhaps, for those who see “Nosferatu” as antisemitic, and particularly directed against Jews then arriving in Germany from Orlok’s part of Europe. But I’m peeved when critics respond to this issue by just toting up the antisemitic tropes, without dealing with the fact that so many people involved with the film were not only Jewish but ostjuden. Plus, there’s no evidence that I know of that Murnau was antisemitic, and there is evidence that he wasn’t. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that that bird doesn’t fly, but it’s not a simple flight.

  9. Thanks!

    I sort of think Murnau and his collaborators were acting as a radar dish for whatever was in the air — concerned with their own art, they picked up anxieties about immigration and they found their way into the work unconsciously. This kind of unintended influence is often only noticed in retrospect, but can be far more powerful than deliberately placed subtext (ie the references to sexual disease in the Coppola Dracula).

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