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Wisbourg, Germany based estate agent Knock dispatches his associate, Hutter, to Count Orlok's castle in Transylvania as the Count wants to purchase a isolated house in Wisbourg. They plan on selling him the one across the way from Hutter's own home. Hutter leaves his innocent wife, Ellen, with some friends while he is away. Hutter's trek is an unusual one, with many locals not wanting to take him near the castle where strange events have been occurring. Once at the castle, Hutter does manage to sell the Count the house, but he also notices and feels unusual occurrences, primarily feeling like there is a dark shadow hanging over him, even in the daytime when the Count is unusually asleep. Hutter eventually sees the Count's sleeping chamber in a crypt, and based on a book he has recently read, believes the Count is really a vampire or Nosferatu. While Hutter is trapped in the castle, the Count, hiding in a shipment of coffins, makes his way to Wisbourg, causing death along his way, ... Written by
One of the great celebrations/critiques of cinema.
'Nosferatu' opens with a man looking at his reflection in a mirror. Besides its symbolic significance, this is a perfect distillation of his character, that of a vain, narcissistic, absurdly self-confident to the point of machismo, married man largely indifferent to a wife he abruptly leaves to make the fortune worthy of a man of his merits. He ain't afraid of no ghosts, nor robbers. So, the image he sees in that mirror is one of wholeness, perfection - I am Hutter, I command all I see, my unity of identity is linked to my power in body.
To the viewer, however, the effect is the precise opposite. The framing of the scene is fragmented, with the outer frame, the window and the mirror; Hutter himself is doubled - the 'real' Hutter and his reflection, or shadow. All the assumptions smilingly embodied in Hutter will thus be destroyed in conventional horror terms.
His whole identity will be destroyed - the Count will suck his blood and in effect become him, if we believe the man who claims 'blood is life'. Hutter's body will first become passive, feminised as he is violated by the Count; after, he will no longer be a body, but a shadow, bloodless - literally, he shadows the Count as the latter comes to England; and symbolically, in that two men now claim possession of Hutter's wife, and both have equal claim, both being Hutter.
Murnau is careful to give his horror story a genuine patina as an 'objective' story: no horror film has come as close to capturing the visual essence of all those stories that have circulated in Europe for centuries, the twisting medieval towns, the arcane religious symbolism, the plagues and mass hysteria, the crumbling castles and storm-tossed ships, the creak of wood - the look of the film feels like a crumpling manuscript setting out the story.
But the film is also the portrait of a marriage. The opening sequence chillingly reveals the sterility of a marriage before anyone has even heard of the Count - Hutter wrapped up in himself; Ellen, hypersensitive, morbid, dressed as if in mourning; the union childless; the couple, above all, separate, each completely misunderstanding the other.
The image of the mirror is repeated throughout the film, connecting Hutter to the Count - the scene in Knock's office where Hutter looks at the map of Transylvania just as he did his mirror; the Count's house directly opposite Hutter's, a decaying edifice that looks like a melting, anguished face.
But Ellen is linked to the Count too, her somnolent rising mirroring his. This isn't a conventional opposition between bourgeois and bestial urges, even though the Count is given the most grotesque (anti-Semitic?) animal features, and even though Murnau never lets us forget the Conut as emanation of the Hutters' dreams, desires and fears - Hutter reads that he will shadow his dreams; Ellen spends most of the film sleepwalking.
All three elements of this triangle, which symbolises the one relationship, is linked to death - the Count, the undead, living in coffins of dead earth; Hutter, narcissistic, onanistic, his lifeblood siphoned from him; Ellen, the Venus fly-trap, self-abnegating destroyer of the destroying force. Hutter ends the film as he began, alone, his lust for money and status destroying the union that crowned it. The contrivance of society and respectability is swept away by the malaise of nature, those gendered forests, tides and moons, as if the Count and Ellen are part of the one female nature Hutter cannot accomodate.
Such Freudiana is undermined in the film in two ways - in the disarming comedy of the piece, the Count often seeming to have strayed from a silent comedy, running around London with his coffin; and by a self-reflexive examination of film, that sees the warning about vampires in the book Hutter reads linked to bestiality and the eye that is so important in the film; the turning of the film stock into negative as Hutter enters the Count's realm; the trickery, such as time lapse and fast motion, that shows the Count's mastery of time and space, but, more importantly, Murnau's mastery over the storytelling, already indicated by an unseen, but constantly intruding narrator; even Ellen's couch, which, my husband suggests , seems patterned as strips of film. In a movie where human sexuality is impossible, the characters seem content to be voyeurs, like the film audience, staving off the death, the loss of identity, or at least its fragmentation, that contact with another person entails.
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