“[Nosferatu] is not a political figure, not even in the allegorical way in which the diabolical Dr. Caligari can be seen to represent oppressive political authority. Rather, he is both the agent and the icon of death, the natural cause and the supernatural symbol, metonymy combined with metaphor, at once elemental and unearthly.”
– Gilberto Perez, The Deadly Space Between
All due deference to Gilberto Perez, a Professor of Film Studies whose confidence in cinematic criticism dwarves mine, but I can’t agree with the assertion made above – an excerpt from the essay included with the Masters of Cinema release of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. I wouldn’t quibble with his assertion of Count Orlok/Nosferatu (Max Schreck) – a thinly-veiled plagiarism of Dracula – stands as an “agent” and “icon of death,” but this milestone of horror cinema is far from apolitical. In fact, Nosferatu is the first film to reveal – somewhat belatedly – the sinister racial and political undertones within Dracula’s iconography.
The grotesquely hooked nose, the plague of rats, the Eastern-European origin, even ominous purchases of uninhabited German property through an affluent intermediary (Georg H. Schnell): the symbolism of Dracula/Nosferatu as a Jewish caricature, an avatar of anti-Semite insecurity is readily apparent. This is no groundbreaking observation on my part – Google “nosferatu anti-semite” and you’ll find countless articles on the subject – but it does complicate the appreciation of a seminal motion picture, particularly given its historical context (produced in post-World War I, pre-World War II Germany).
It’s clear, upon reflection, that while the anti-Semitic overtones of post-Dracula vampirism have largely faded from the social consciousness, many of the lingering properties of vampire fiction are motivated by the same racially-driven prejudices that powered Nosferatu (and, many have argued, Bram Stoker’s original novel). The vampire’s malevolent sexuality, the commingled fear of and desire for “the other” is found in almost every historical manifestation of racism (whoever “they” are, they’re always coming for “our” women).
Similarly the vampire as a vector for infectious disease (emphasised more strongly in Murnau’s film than transgressive desire – the story contains a plague of rats, a plague of vampirism and references the Plague itself – Black Death – found in the “accursed earth” that fills Nosferatu’s coffin). This myth is inextricably linked to the pre-war German depiction of Jews as vermin (hence, rats), carriers of pestilence and vice. That link is more often associated with venereal disease in modern interpretations of vampirism, with any Jewish associations dismissed entirely, but the connotations are impossible to ignore in this film.
Uncomfortable political associations – particularly ones tied to Nazism – make it difficult to appreciate a film in the abstract (This is not to say that ideologically reprehensible films can’t be important art or anything – see: Triumph of the Will). Recognising the anti-Semitic allegories within Nosferatu is one thing; concluding that the film itself is anti-Semitic another. Murnau was certainly no friend of the Nazis. Openly gay, he left Germany only a few years after Nosferatu’s production for Hollywood, and his films were regarded as “degenerate art” by the Nazi regime. Even within the text itself, the presentation of the Nosferatu as a Jewish caricature is thornier than unambiguous villainy.
I’m not suggesting that the titular vampire is presented sympathetically; unlike subsequent cinematic representations of Dracula, there’s little reason to regard Orlok as a sympathetic figure. His gnarled form is arguably phallic, but he’s certainly not sexy in the way we might regard Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman (or, say, Robert Pattinson). Most Dracula adaptations make an effort to provide some sliver of insight into the Count’s perspective – whether it’s Mina as a doppelgänger for his lost love, or something similar – but Murnau deigns to give us little more than a leering compliment regarding Ellen’s (Greta Schröder’s) neck.
But while Henrik Galeen’s screenplay lacks a nuanced portrait of its central villain, it compensates with a considered take on the social response to the threat posed by Nosferatu. Act 5 of the film – its final act, and far and away its strongest – centres on the arrival of the vampire in Wisborg, where his systematic slaughter of the town’s population is misdiagnosed as the onset of the plague. The grief of the townspeople transforms into vengeful anger, realised as a mob hunts down Jewish real estate agent – and Orlok’s servant – Harding. There’s a thesis worth of analysis to be written on this scene, as the mob tears after a deranged – but essentially innocent – culprit, only to lose him, eventually uprooting a scarecrow (a literal straw man). Scenes like this certainly suggest that Murnau was thinking critically about the anti-Semitic imagery within his film, along with the anti-Semitic rhetoric emerging within his society.
I described Act 5 as the Nosferatu’s strongest, and that’s as much a consequence of such rich presentation of social themes as its visual panache. There are powerful images to be found in the subsequent acts, certainly, but nothing that can match the Expressionistic power of Orlok’s shadow encroaching about Ellen’s stricken form, or a redolent shot of coffins solemnly marched down Wisborg’s cobbleston-laden streets. It’s not so much a flaw of the film that its final act is its most powerful as a consequence of its structure and pacing; there’s funereal sense of despair that suffuses the picture as we march inexorably, inevitably, towards Orlok’s supremacy within Germany. Whether he stands as an incarnation of death, disease, war or racial anxieties, it’s wholly appropriate that Nosferatu builds from borderline banality into such a horrifying conclusion.