Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More Top Films: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Nosferatu is a classic for many reasons. It was the first horror film featuring a vampire. It is a great example of German expressionism. It was also ordered destroyed and we are fortunate to even be able to see it today. Beyond all those reasons, however, is the fact that it is simply a well crafted and meaningful piece of art.

The story is basically an abbreviated and slightly adapted version of Stoker’s Dracula. A vampire from the east purchases property in the modern west, and then moves in to wreak havoc. Murnau changed the names and locations, but kept the basic plot points. He did change a couple of big things, though. In this story the vampire brings the plague with him—causing many more deaths and generally having a larger impact on modern society at large than Dracula was permitted. He also changed the way that the vampire dies. In the novel Dracula is not particularly bothered by the sun. In Nosferatu (and most versions of vampire legend since) it kills him.

There are several notable elements that carry a lot of meaning in this film. This was the first cinematic take on the vampire legend that had been around for centuries. This time around, the vampire is presented as an ugly evil. Most subsequent takes on the legend would prefer the Bela Lugosi version—seductive and attractive. That take has its own valid message, but here we get to see evil for what it is. It is also interesting the way this story ties the plague and death to evil. The vampire represents the way evil impacts our world without delving into the whys and hows. It simply arrives and kills. The men of science and modern society are helpless in the face of evil because they attempt to understand it. The wife in the story represents the correct approach to evil. She understands the threat and accepts that the only way to defeat the evil is to destroy it, even when that will require sacrifice on her part.

You could view this whole story as a critique of modern philosophy with its attempts to understand and classify everything. It is an ironic critique in that it proposes a faith answer, a pre-modern answer to Modernity’s failure. The future takes on this particular story would go in different directions…

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