What follows is a textual analysis of a classic of the silent era; Nosferatu. This analysis was written as an additional resource for A-Level Film Studies students. Nosferatu is widely accepted as the first filmed version of Dracula; Murnau’s film is an example of the German Expressionist movement. Filmed on location, it’s use of chiaroscuro and its oneiric, unsettling atmosphere mean that this film is recognised widely as being one of the most important films made during the silent era. This film doesn’t clearly follow Field’s ideas of narrative structure; it predates them. We can apply the three act structure roughly, Murnau split Nosferatu into five sign-posted acts, similar to theatre.
The on location shooting of this film leads to an increased verisimilitude (level of believable reality) for the audience. The film starts with intra-diegetic intertitles; pages from a book. The identity of the author, the narrator, is withheld from the audience. The setting and location are established; Wisborg, 1883. Hutter (the protagonist) and his wife, Ellen, are introduced.
Ellen is introduced playing with a kitten, framed by flowers. The characterisation is of a young woman full of life, love and hope. Hutter is characterised similarly; his large, expressive gestures suggest a character with energy and enthusiasm. Hutter brings Ellen flowers; a symbol of his love. Her reaction (‘Why have you killed the beautiful flowers?’) allows key ideas and themes to be established for the audience. Firstly, the idea of death is foregrounded. She is shown to be emotionally sensitive, and we understand that their love, and life in general is fragile.
In the next scene, the estate agent, Knock, is introduced. His physical appearance and performance lead us to be suspicious of him. He is shown to be hunched over, and his appearance is unattractive. He is shown looking at documents that contain symbols that the audience would associate with witchcraft and black magic. He is clearly not to be trusted, and we anticipate he is involved with the threat that will later manifest. He is shown to be Hutter’s boss. The relationship of power is connoted through their relative positions in the scene. Knock is higher up than Hutter. Knock introduces the character of Count Orlock, of Transylvania, who wishes to buy property in Wisborg. This introduction starts the audience anticipating his appearance in the film. The line of dialogue ‘it might take a little blood’ is a knowing, tongue-in-cheek reference to vampires. Knock is the dispatcher (Propp) as it is him that sends Hutter off to Transylvania to help with the purchase.
In the next scene, Hutter is characterised as being unknowing and naïve, as he tells Ellen he is going to the country of ‘thieves and ghosts’. She, like us, is concerned for his safety. The film language in this film is much more varied than in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Weine, 1920), the camera is less static and there is a greater variety of camera angles. The opening and closing of scenes tends to be signalled the opening and the closing of the camera’s iris. Masking is also used to direct our attentions. For example, Ellen’s sadness at her husband’s departure is shown in a vignetted close-up.
The start of Hutter’s journey is shown in a wide shot, with the horse at the centre. Hutter is shown to be small in the frame, suggesting his vulnerability. He is alone, heightening the peril he is likely to encounter. The first shot that has a definable German Expressionist aesthetic is the shot of the mountains on Hutter’s journey. The black mountains contrast with the white clouds and the grey sky. The landscape provides jagged, asymmetrical lines in the frame.
Hutter arrives at an inn in the mountains. This is a generic location. It is the last outpost of civilisation in the remote location. The locals are shown to be connected to this landscape, and are contrasted to Hutter through their traditional and folky costumes. When Hutter mentions who he is visiting, the locals react in horror. Clearly they have knowledge about Orlock that Hutter doesn’t. The innkeeper warns him, and mentions werewolves. An insert shot of a hyena is shown; it represents the werewolf; a supernatural predator. It is juxtaposed with a shot of a group of horses, who seem spooked at its presence. In later shots, we understand that the horse represent humans, as a shot of the horses is paired with a group of scared-looking local women. These shots are used to convey the on-coming night.The audience understand that this is the time when the monsters come out.
We join Hutter in his room. He discovers a book which seems to a compendium of local and Christian superstition. The book helps establish the mythology of the monster for the audience as well as being a warning which Hutter will ignore. This is a convention of the genre. His rejection of the information it contains is shown when he emphatically throws it to the floor. The morning is connoted by the exterior shot which shows the horses returning. This further reinforces their symbolic connection to man, and also establishes that it is the night which brings fear. This links in with Tudor’s ideas about the paired oppositions in horror – day vs. night, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.
Hutter takes a coach for his onward journey to meet Orlock. We see more journey shots of the landscape that convey the remote location and length of the journey. This is further reinforced by Hutter’s line that conveys his worry about the approaching night. An element of a ticking clock plot is introduced. Enigma is created for the audience; what will happen if Hutter doesn’t reach his destination by nightfall? These series of journey shots also show how Murnau is able to find chiaroscuro and violent asymmetry in the natural landscape. After a while, the coach stops and the coach driver refuses to take Hutter any further. This is another generic convention which reflects the knowledge that the locals have over the hapless and unknowing outsider. This reinforces the idea of the threat for the audience.
Count Orlock’s castle is a generic setting for the horror genre; it is ancient, imposing and remote. Orlock’s carriage arrives to collect Hutter in fast-motion to create the impression that he is a supernatural being. It is an effective and creepy effect. Hutter boards the coach, and it moves off, again in fast motion. The audience worry for Hutter as he is no longer in control of his own journey. The use of the negative footage for part of the journey suggests that the world is in complete disequilibrium; the world is inverted by Orlock’s presence in the narrative.
The coach drops Hutter off at the castle gates, which swing open by themselves (again, a generic feature of the haunted house). We are finally clearly introduced to the antagonist, as he emerges from the darkness. The use of chiaroscuro and the Expressionist aesthetic is evident in these shots as the arches and the dark create stark visual contrast. Orlock is hunched over, and his hand rest in a position reminiscent of bats’ folded wings. He is shown wearing all black, and wearing a hat which masks his bald head, which is revealed later on. Orlock beckons for Hutter to follow him into the darkness. Hutter does; the sense of impending doom for our protagonist is foregrounded.
Hutter eats, Orlock does not. There is an insert shot of a clock in the dining room, which is topped by a small model skeleton. This signifies death and suggests that Hutter’s life is in danger. There is a close-up which brings the audience’s attention to Orlock’s suspicious eyes. Whilst slicing bread, Hutter cuts himself. This is an iconic moment for vampire fiction. The antagonist’s reaction to his blood suggests his vampire nature. Through dialogue, Orlock indicates he sleeps in the daytime, again reinforcing the mythology for this monster.
The next scene shows Hutter waking in front of the fire-place. There is ellipsis, as we are not shown all of the events from the night before. However, Hutter examines his neck with a mirror, and there are two small wounds. The audience know the cause, Hutter seems oblivious. This is dramatic irony.
During the this and the following scenes, we can appreciate Murnau’s use of depth of field; he creates shots that allow for the German Expressionist aesthetic to be created through the use of the planes of vision; foreground, middle ground, background. Here, we find oblique lines and chiaroscuro in these wide and long shots. These shots also emphasise the scale of the location.
Hutter writes a letter to Ellen; a narrative device which pays homage to the source material. The narrative in the novel is conveyed through letters. This letter also allows the audience to understand that Hutter has misinterpreted the bites, and is a unknowing victim. We anticipate that he will inevitably uncover the truth.
Later, Orlock sees a photograph of Ellen, and his reaction foreshadows the danger she will be put in and also provides more dramatic motivation for Orlock to get to Wisborg. Hutter is shown to be reading through the book he previously rejected in his room. The lighting tells us its night-time. This prop is used as a way for Hutter to start to comprehend the threat. Hutter peers through the door, and we are shown Orlock, now without his hat, stood in front of the fireplace, seemingly aware that Hutter is looking at him. The drama of this moment is emphasised by a jump cut into to a closer angle, to show the audience the monster. The absence of the hat now makes him seem less human. His ears are elongated at the tips, and his countenance is more rodent-like. Hutter steps away from the door in horror, and cowers in his bed. The door swings open by itself, and Orlock slowly makes his way towards the door. The tension is built for the iconic moment when the vampire is framed by the doorway, which is reminiscent of a coffin.
There is then a cut on parallel action back to Wisborg, and a sleeping Ellen. Similarly to Jane in Caligari , the setting of her bedroom is to be understood by the audience as a sacred space, where she is made more vulnerable by the juxtaposition of the threat. She wakes from her sleep; enthralled. We understand that Orlock has made a psychic link to Ellen and now can control her behaviour. This is demonstrated as she gets out of bed, leaves the room on to the balcony and starts to sleepwalk, precariously across the balcony wall. This ability to control Ellen, allows a link to be made between Doctor Caligari and Orlock, both characters who are shown to manipulate others. This ties in with the key themes of the movement; manipulation and distrust of authority.
We cut back to Orlock and Hutter; the attack and subsequent feeding is made implicit, through the use of the approaching and threatening shadow. This links to Caligari too; the same technique was used to relate Alan’s murder. The shadow in both cases, is used to increase the sense of the insidious threat for the audience.
In the morning, now fully realising his danger, Hutter explores the castle. In one of the lower rooms, he uncovers the sleeping Orlock in a coffin. We are shown Orlock’s sleeping face in a close-up that peers through the broken lid. The jagged shards of wood again give us another Expressionist visual.
Hutter flees, and later witnesses Orlock loading coffins on to a cart. The superhuman and supernatural abilities of the antagonist are reinforced through the use of fast motion and then stop motion animation to convey Orlock’s ability to move inanimate objects with his mind. The carriage leaves. Hutter realises his plan. The narrative goal of the protagonist now changes. He must return to Wisborg to save Ellen. This begins the section of the film which utilises a ticking clock plot. It will be a race against time for Hutter to beat Orlock to his wife. There are barriers for Hutter; principally that he needs to escape from the castle. However, he injures himself in the process and this creates another barrier. Enigma is raised for the audience. Will he make it? Orlock sails down a river.
Hutter is revealed to be in a hospital, his injuries were not severe. However, he has been weakened by loss of blood. It is unclear how long he has been there, but as soon as he regains his senses; he stresses his need to get home.
We see the boxes of dirt on a dockside. Sailors open them and rats pour out. The rats are significant, because they are not only part of the conventional iconography of the horror genre; they also connote disease. One of the key themes of the moment is fear of invasion and fear of disease. The rats represent the threat of both. Additionally, they also give us more narrative mythology for the vampire; the ability to shape shift. This idea was later used by the films in the Universal horror cycle when Dracula is shown to shape-shift into a bat.
The next scene seems a bit adrift in the rest of the narrative. A new character, Professor Bulwer is shown demonstrating to students predators in different spheres of the natural world. His character is the substitution for the Van Helsing character from the original novel, but in this version his role is less important to the narrative.
The key idea portrayed in this scene is that of the ways in which predators, which seem to possess almost supernatural abilities capture their prey. The meaning for the audience is, then, that the vampire is more part of the natural world that we would conventionally think. We are shown images of venus fly traps, spiders and polyps. These images also reflect a time when scientific discovery was helping us understand the natural world, and that scientific advancements such as the development of microscopes, were helping reveal the previously unseen natural world. Of course, the image of the spider in its web also becomes part of the iconography of the horror film.
Knock is revealed to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown and is now institutionalised. Again, one of the key themes of the movement is that of madness. We see him in the cell (a set which is much more realist that the one in Caligari) acting in a way that suggests his mental breakdown and also associates him with Orlock. We understand that Orlock is the cause of Knock’s mental state. Interestingly, the physical representation of both Knock and Orlock are similar, again reinforcing the connection between both characters.
We cut to Ellen, sat on a bench at the beach, looking out to sea. She is dressed in black, which reflects her sadness at her husband’s absence and the disequilibrium that Orlock’s psychic connection with her has brought. The act of looking out across the sea has a polysemic reading for the audience. Narratively, we can explain it by reasoning that it reflects her anticipation and longing for Hutter’s return, or perhaps a subconscious waiting for Orlock’s arrival. Symbolically, though water can represent loss, journey, transition, death, the unconscious mind and sexuality. All of these associations can be useful in here when thinking about the narrative, it’s themes and the relationships between Ellen, Hutter and Orlock. In the foreground, we see crosses in the ground. The audience understand these are signifiers of death, and that they are also part of the iconography of horror. Christian symbols are an intrinsic part of the iconography of Western horror as, according to Tudor, horror reflects the conflict of paired oppositions. We can almost universally distil these oppositions down to a battle between good and evil. In Christian cultures, the most potent icons of good and evil are God and The Devil. Including Christian iconography in Western horror films reflects this most potent of spiritual conflicts.
Later, we see Harding’s sister deliver Hutter’s letter to Ellen. These women are constructed to contrast with one another. Harding’s sister is an undeveloped character (she isn’t even named) but she is always shown wearing lighter colours suggesting her innocence and how unburdened she is by the negative emotions that Ellen experiences through the narrative.
We then cut to a shot of the ship, now at sea. This is an impressive shot that reflects both explicitly and implicitly the budget of the film. This large vessel would have needed to be hired for the film, along with the skilled hands to crew it. The camera seems to glide across the waves towards the ship. This suggests that Murnau actually hired two ships and two crews to achieve these shots. The effect is that the journey that Orlock undertakes is epic. We cut between Orlock’s progress across the
sea and Hutter’s progress across the land. Hutter is on horseback, and his journey is shown to be difficult, as he has obstacles to negotiate, e.g. rocks and rivers. In juxtaposition, Orlock’s journey is easy and swift. This raises the tension for the audience. We anticipate the horror that his arrival in Wisborg will bring.
On the ship, Orlock preys on the crew, who like others in this narrative misinterpret the threat to be something natural and that can be explained scientifically. In one scene, a crew member who has become sick and is hallucinating because of blood loss, sees Orlock, ghost-like in the hold. This ghostly effect is created through the use of a doubly exposed shot.
We get further evidence of the impact that Orlock’s arrival will have through the use of intra-diegetic intertitles, a newspaper article, which relate the outbreak of a plague like illness in the port towns where we understand the ship will have likely docked for supplies. This creates dramatic irony for the audience, as we know the cause of the deaths.
As Orlock devastates the crew, the last two crew members try to uncover the threat. One starts to empty out all of the boxes, and prompts Orlock to rise from his sleep. This iconic moment has been much copied, and again is a physical effect achieved through the use of a rig constructed in the coffin to raise the actor up in a way that again suggests his unnatural abilities. Orlock is shown on the deck in a shot taken from below deck to emphasise his power. Orlock then kills off the two remaining crew, and the intertitles relate that the boat is now ‘the ship of the dead’. We see the ship, silhouetted against the sun as a visual metaphor for its dark passenger.
The audience is told through the mythological exposition (the book) that vampires cannot go out during the day. However, we are shown repeated shots of Orlock in daylight. There is a production reason for this. At the time, the film stock needed a lot of light to expose the film. This meant that shooting at night on location was impossible. Getting additional lighting sources into the external world at night was just impractical. This means that the audience are asked by the film to willing suspend their disbelief and accept that all scenes that involve Orlock moving around in the outside world are actually set at night.
Ellen is shown again in her bedroom, in her nightgown, emphasising her purity and her femininity. Unlike most of the rest of the film, this scene was filmed in a studio. This is why the night sky outside her window is so utterly black. The studio shooting allows for a greater contrast between light and dark that this scene requires. Ellen sleepwalks again; the wind gusting through the open windows that moves the curtains suggests the supernatural disturbance to the audience. She is shown to be in a trance. We cut between Ellen, Knock (whose madness is more evident as he attacks the orderly) and the ship arriving in the port at Wisborg. This is done to increase the tension. The audience’s anticipation is rising for Orlock’s arrival. Stop motion animation is used again to suggest Orlock’s control over the physical world as he emerges onto the deck of the ship.
We cut to Hutter’s arrival in Wisborg. This cutting on parallel action suggests that the two events happen simultaneously. The audience again is asked to willingly suspend their disbelief. The arrival of both is timed to increase the tension. Hutter makes it back to Ellen, and they are reunited, although Ellen seems weaker, more distant. We now question whether Hutter will be able to protect her at all. Enigma is created.
Orlock makes his way to his newly acquired property; an abandoned factory. This setting is also iconographic of the genre. He enters it by vanishing before the door. Again, this effect would have been created through the use of double exposures.
The town officials board the abandoned ship and discover the remaining corpse of the captain. From the use of intra-diegetic intertitles of the ship’s log, further narrative information is conveyed about the sequence of events on the ship. This device also draws inspiration from the original novels, where part of the story is told through the captain’s diary entries. On further investigation, the officials misinterpret the deaths as a plague, and issue warnings to the townspeople. This warning is delivered by a messenger on
the main street. Shots of people (mostly children and the elderly) appear at their windows to hear the message. The emphasis on the children and old people reinforces the threat by highlighting their vulnerability.
A doctor is shown leaving a house. He marks a cross in chalk on the front door. This use of Christian iconography connotes the death that has occurred within. He then proceeds down a line of terraced houses to check on the occupants, or to mark doors with more chalk crosses. The meaning for the audience is implicit; the vampire is preying on the people of Wisborg. A Dutch angle is used to imply the disequilibrium as the camera pans to follow the movement of the doctor.
In the next scene, we are told that Hutter is psychologically scarred by the events in Transylvania and warns Ellen that she should not look at the book that speaks of the vampire threat. Ellen cannot resist, though. This is a conventional negative female representation suggesting that her will is weaker than her husband’s (obviously we can make links between Ellen here and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Bible, the forbidden fruit actually represents knowledge, as the book does here). However, in looking at the book, Ellen discovers an important piece of information; a narrative plant for the audience; the vampire can be defeated if he drinks from a maiden who gives herself willingly to him. If he hasn’t stopped feeding by the first crow of the cock, then he will be destroyed.
Ellen and Hutter’s bedroom is actually a studio set; this was necessary so that the silhouette of the property owned by Orlock is seen clearly from the window.
The night-time arrives. Similarly to Caligari, this is signaled through the use of a shot which shows the gas street lamps being lit. This was also a studio set, although one with more authenticity than that shown in Caligari. We cut to Harding’s sister, who clearly has become a victim. She is dressed in white to connote her innocence, and again, the use of the wind moving the curtains suggests the supernatural threat is near.
The next day, Ellen watches the procession of coffins down the main street from her window; the procession moves towards her, foreshadowing her fate. The performance of the actress suggests Ellen’s psychological torment.
We discover that Knock has escaped from his imprisonment. A conversation between some of the townsfolk reveals that they hold him responsible for the deaths. A mob forms and they chase him through the town and out into the surrounding countryside. This chase sequence is shown in a greater variety of shots that the equivalent scene in Caligari. We have low angle shots of Knock and high angle shots of the mob. This is somewhat unexpected, but can be understood by comprehending that Knock is serving his master by diverting suspicion and leading the mob away from the most vulnerable in the town. The comparisons with the chases sequence of Cesare in Caligari are more than just formal. In both cases, the mob chases a person who is being scapegoated as the cause of the disequilibrium. Perhaps this is a comment on the stupidity of the mob.
We are shown a wide shot of the sunset to clearly signpost the transition from day to night; thus increasing the tension for the audience. Ellen is shown to be asleep in bed. This shot is juxtaposed with Orlock framed in his window. He stares towards the camera, which given the spatial continuity that has been established in previous scenes, we imagine that he is looking towards Ellen. The editing cuts between the two, further reinforcing this relationship. She wakes. The performances of both actors together with the editing illustrate the idea that he is the manipulator and she is the manipulated. She opens the window, symbolically letting him have access to her. Hutter is shown to be asleep in a chair. He is oblivious and unable to protector. Ellen wakes him. She instructs him to fetch Bulwer. He leaves her alone. The audience may interpret this as a wilful act to remove Hutter from the scene, but enigma is created as to why. Is she completely under Orlock’s spell, or is something else going on?
Orlock’s shadow is shown ascending the stairs towards Ellen. This iconic moment is powerful because it suggests the utter darkness that this character possesses, and in empowering his shadow, the character becomes more threatening. Inside the chamber, Ellen clutches at her heart. This is an expressionist gesture that has a dual effect; firstly it connotes the impact that Orlock’s presence has on her soul. Secondly, it draws attention to her sexuality and her femininity. This concept is important as vampires are often connected with ideas about feminine sexuality and the gender split is conventionally male vampire and female victim.
We cut back outside the room. Orlock is now at the door. His shadowy arm, distorted and elongated by the light reaches towards the door. This cutting between the two characters heightens the tension for the audience. We are anticipating their first encounter.
We see Ellen again. She reacts to something in the off-screen space. His presence is implied. Slowly, the shadow creepy across her body. The silhouette is in the form of Orlock, with emphasis on the attacking, claw-like hands. She recoils. The shadow of his hand crosses her chest and stops over her heart. The hand closes, as if connoting his possession of her soul. Ellen reacts as if she has been physically hurt.
We cut away from these two to Hutter and Bulwer. As usual, this cut on parallel action is an attempt to heighten the tension. We cut back to Orlock engaged in feeding on Ellen. This is a wide shot, and from this angle, Orlock is low in the frame; he is small. We don’t notice him immediately. We cut away again, this time to Harding; more tension is created. We learn that Knock has been recaptured. This information foreshadows Orlock’s imminent defeat.
We cut back to Orlock, still feeding. The next shot is of a rooster, large in the frame. This contrasts with the size of Orlock in his shot, suggesting the impact that the rooster will have on him. The rooster crows. The light behind the bird suggests the dawn. Then there is a cut into a medium close up of Orlock as he raises his head in response to the sound. The shot length allows us to properly see his rodent-like extended front teeth. We see the rooster again crowing, emphasising its significance. Cut to Knock in his cell; his reaction expresses the psychic connection between him and his master. Knock knows something is wrong. We cut back to the bedroom. Slowly, Orlock rises and passes in front of the open window. The studio setting allows control of the levels of light in the background, again used to suggest the morning light. Orlock reacts, again with the hand-clutching-at-heart gesture. He vanishes into a puff of smoke; another early special effect. The antagonist has been defeated, but not by the protagonist, but by Ellen. We could see Ellen, then, as being an early incarnation of what Carol Clover later described as ‘The Final Girl’; a weak, but virtuous young woman who gains strength to defeat the antagonist in the horror narrative, or, at least, is the last to die.
Ellen’s call out to Hutter suggests that her love for him has been fully restored. Hutter arrives in time to embrace her before she dies. This has been an act of self-sacrifice on her part. The antagonist has been defeated but there is no happy ending.
Bulwer, through the doorway, with the camera, witnesses the grief of Hutter at the loss of his wife. Bulwer looks towards the camera – this a extra-diegetic address to camera. He breaks the fourth wall. We cut to the final intra-diegetic intertitles, similar to those shown at the start. The audience may suspect that Bulwer has been our unknown narrator.