The horrifying Nosferatu, personified plague and death (Satan 9)

Last night we watched the original 1922 version of Nosferatu, a movie by German film-maker F.W. Murnau (very loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula — other online information here). In the film, Nosferatu (the vampire figure) is presented as personified plague and death, as well as the seed of Belial (the seed of Satan). His arrival in Bremen in 1838 signals the onslaught of a terrible plague that leaves behind the mysterious double mark on the neck. One has to remember that, when this first dracula film was made, such things were not widely known (at least in visualized form) and the horror is sometimes lost because we are now so familiar with dracula from his many incarnations. This film’s presentation of evil came to have an important influence on horror-films and on the subsequent portrayal of evil in film generally.

Despite the difficulty in getting oneself away from 21st century special-effects expectations and into the silent-era mode, there were certain points when I experienced a feeling of fascination or terror, which points to the effectiveness of the movie-maker in portraying evil in a frightening, though intriguing, manner that spans across time. Well known is Murnau’s use of shadow. The shadow of the vampire itself possesses the evil powers which can grab hold of you and control your feelings, as when the shadow of Nosferatu’s hand firmly clutches Nina’s heart. (This is the source of the title for the recent “behind-the-scenes” movie remake, The Shadow of the Vampire [2000], with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe).

Two other scenes in the original Nosferatu are especially worth mentioning for how they affected me. I found particularly terrifying the slow and magical rising of Nosferatu from the hull of the ship as he comes to Bremen. Even more evoking of dread is the scene where the star-struck lover Nina, presumably in a dream state, longingly goes to the window to gaze out into the distance, namely to gaze out towards her other lover, Nosferatu the vampire. (This growing love of sorts was reflected earlier in the ambiguity of Nina’s cross-stitch of “Ich liebe dich”, “I love you”, which was seemingly directed to her lover Harker but really, we learn to our dismay, at the horrible Nosferatu who has a strange hold over Nina). Nina’s longing gaze is juxtaposed with Nosferatu’s longing reach for the “beautifully-necked” Nina, as he gazes out of his own window at a distance (not in Nina’s actual eye-sight). Nosferatu’s powers are very much at work from afar, but apparently more so as he comes closer. This horrifying love affair ironically ends in Nosferatu’s destruction. For the destruction of a vampire, we read earlier on in the Book of Vampires (shown on screen), requires that a woman of pure heart, namely Nina, offer herself to the vampire in a night of pleasure. Nosferatu-style pleasure, that is. “The blood!”

Photos (above) from Wikipedia, now in the public domain.

7 thoughts on “The horrifying Nosferatu, personified plague and death (Satan 9)

  1. Horace Jeffery Hodges

    The original Dracula by Stoker has some implicit anti-Islamic subtext (if I recall). From looking at these two images, I’m wondering if Murnau drew upon antisemitic imagery. And I’d never previously thought of the vampiric thirst for blood in terms of the blood libel, but I’m wondering now.

    Are these speculations completely off?

    Jeffery Hodges

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  2. Phil Harland Post author

    Thanks, Jeffery.

    In Beal’s book, Religion and its Monsters, he does address this issue of how anti-semitic and other ethnic stereotypes (in terms of bodily features) play an important role in the depiction of the other or the monstrous in film (and I think he suggested Nosferatu as an example–don’t have it in front of me here). He also draws attention to the depiction of the monkeys from Wizard of Oz and European perceptions and distortions of Hanuman, the Hindu god with both human and monkey features.

    The potential anti-semitic stereotyping may certainly be the case for Nosferatu, but I would hesitate from suggesting certainty regarding Murnau’s intentions or subconscious imaginations in this regard. To what degree are these features Max Shrek’s features (e.g. the seemingly stereotyped nose), and to what degree make-up? There may well also be a connection with the notion of blood libel, as you note, especially if the anti-semitic stereotypes are indeed (consciously) put there. Phil

  3. Cathy

    as I was watching the movie, I didnt feel like when Nina was gazing through the window she was longing for her “other lover”, namely Nosferatu, I felt like she was worried for her husband [insert name here, i forgot it] cuz she felt the coming of Nosferatu. But I guess there can be many interpretations. Also, I agree with the shadow effect. quite spooky. if I were to see that on my wall, i’d probably die of a heart attack.

  4. NDR

    Murnau was conscious of the antisemitic imagery of the film–indeed, he used it as a vehicle to explore perception of deviancy. Maria Tatar has suggested that the image of the Jew was his means of exploring his homosexuality and its reception.

  5. Justin

    There is also anti-semitism in what Count Orlock does. He, as a vampire, is a blood sucking creature who needs to suck other people’s blood in order to survive. This is used as a metaphor for how the Germans saw the Jewish people at the time, and eventually what was used by Hitler to gain the heavy anti-semitic sentiment needed to carry out the Holocaust.

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