Nigel Watson

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Werner Herzog's Nosferatu made in 1979 is not a straightforward adaptation of Fredrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu - A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens). Equally both of them are only loosely based on Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula novel. All three put a different emphasis on the role and importance of the characters and their relationship with the world and each other. (1) 

Max Schreck as
                  Nosferatu.In Stoker's novel we are made aware of Dracula's presence through information provided by journals. diaries, letters, and even phonograph records, which give different viewpoints of the same situation. But it is only through hypnotism that the full story is brought out into the open. This highlights the importance of unconscious forces that are normally kept repressed. 

Freud formulated such concepts at about the same time as the publication of the novel. He saw human mental life as a constant battle between the energy of the id's instinctual life and death (Eros and Thanatos) impulses and the superego which represents the internalised values of society. The ego tries to keep both forces in balance with reality through repression, denial, sublimination, delayed gratification, etc. 

The novel clearly portrays a battle between the forces of rational, civilised, good, embodied in the character of Dr Van Helsing in combat with the instinctual, irrational, evil, Dracula. Three female vampires also seek to make Jonathan Harker their victim, which indicates the fear of becoming overwhelmed by the forces of nature which are associated with femininity and sexuality. In the end the men kill the vampire and save Jonathan's wife Mina. She bears him a son and life continues as if nothing ever happened. As Judith Mayne states, 

The object of struggle, the woman's body, returns to its 'normal' functions of marriage and child-bearing, while the husband Jonathan implicitly assumes the patriarchal role of Van Helsing...(2) 

In Freudian terms this is a struggle between the forces of the id and superego. For the maintenance of order in a patriarchal society the superego must triumph, and in this case it does. 

In Murnau's film things are not so clear-cut. This time the men are shown as ineffectual, impotent or crazy When Jonathon is attacked in the castle he passively submits to Nosferatu, it is his wife (Nina) in far off Bremen who actually reacts with a mixture of fear and madness to the attack. It is left open to speculation whether Nina's 'nightmare' is induced by the power of love and empathy with her husband or whether it is caused by the power of Nosferatu's evil lust that is beyond human understanding. Certainly the later seems to be true when she wakes in the night and says, "He is coming! I must go to meet him!" This is immediately followed by a shot of Nosferatu's ship and not of Jonathon who is returning to Bremen on horseback. Knowledge of the vampire in the natural world is supplied by Van Helsing in a short lecture. Then there is a cut to Renfield in his cell watching a spider. This gives the impression that there are similarities between the scientist and the madman. 

Jonathon denies his wife access to knowledge about vampires, but her curiosity conquers her fear and she reads The Book of Vampires. In this she learns how to kill the monster and decides to do something about it herself. Unlike Jonathon who had dismissed the superstitious pleas of the peasants who lived near Nosferatu's castle, and had ignored the contents of the vampire book, Nina believes it and acts upon its information. Science, literally man's mastery over nature, is blinkered and as a consequence cannot cope with anything beyond its own narrow scope. This is revealed by the newspaper report read by Renfield of the new plague that baffles the scientists and by the fact that Helsing has no part in the destruction of Nosferatu. Indeed, Nina's illness after her 'nightmare' is diagnosed as a fever and the medical staff at the hospital do not know what ails Jonathon after his escape from the castle. In addition, Jonathon is tended by a nun wearing a large wooden cross and in the background can be seen a picture of Christ. This implies that he needs spiritual, rather than physical help. 

Jonathon and Nina are touched by Nosferatu's evil whilst Renfield is overwhelmed by it and is an insane servant of this master. Nosferatu's fellow passengers on the ship to Bremen are rats who are thought to be the carriers of the plague that sweeps the city. Despite the evidence in front of their eyes (e.g. the bite marks on the dead captain’s neck) they prefer to accept predetermined concepts that are psychologically easy to grasp. Like Jonathon's response to Nosferatu’s attack the townspeople hide in their homes in the hope that the plague will ignore them. This fatalistic approach to death is not accepted by Nina. To fight death she sends her husband to Van Helsing so that she can lure and kill Nosferatu on her own. This; 

suggests that the forces of science, reason, and civilisation can no longer successfully wage battles against the Draculas of the world. (3) 

What Murnau shows is that there is no clear distinction between light and dark, good and evil. In the normal world science, religion, culture and society helps maintain a sense of order and disguises the existential fact that we are all going to die and that we have no real evidence that we shall. exist beyond our years on Earth. The repression of these facts allows us to deal with impersonal random death by giving it some convenient explanatory label (e.g. the plague). Yet Nosferatu becomes a more specific image of our doom at the hands of; 

A kind of abstract thing of evil, he has no nobility, nor does he inhabit the dark world of majestic villains. Instead, he is a lower kind of evil, an obscene and loathsome creature that dwells amid decay and slime and crawling rats (the very antithesis of light)...There is no Byronic romanticizing of him... (4) 

If we are to tackle these aspects of nature we must acknowledge them and face them in the same way as Nina. Her love for life with all its implications leads to her martyr-like sacrifice in order that the rest of humanity can continue to live (albeit in its own blind manner). This led Kracauer to observe that this implies that, 

inner metamorphosis counts more than any transformation of 
the outer world. (5) 

Such a view ignores the fact that her inner metamorphosis does have an effect on the outer world; it causes the defeat of the pestilent tyrant and no one dies of 'plague' afterwards. The film itself shows that if we acknowledge the contradictions and ambiguities within us rather than rely on external artifice we will learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. Whereas Stoker's novel sanctions the use of patriarchal, superego, science to repress our natural feelings and situation, Murnau's film shows what Wood calls, 

the basic Freudian quandary - the necessity for repression, yet the appalling cost of repression - with a much more suggestive complexity. (6) 

Nosferatu's castle is the last image shown in the film, which suggests that the problems dealt with by Murnau have not totally gone away but just need a new master to bring them out into the open again. 

Herzog's vision is even more bleak. He emphasises that Capitalist bourgeois society allows Nosferatu to carry out his actions unimpeded. Jonathan is happy to leave the town that has canals that turn upon themselves. The artifice of bourgeois society is oppressive yet he accepts the journey to Transylvania in order to provide his wife, Lucy, with a better house. Money is no object to Nosferatu and he can pay any price to buy a house in the city. The ship, a vehicle of commerce on which the wealth of the city is based is used by Nosferatu. Using Marxist terms he can be seen as the feudal lord returning to seek his revenge on the bourgeoisie who have, 

pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'. (7) 

This lust for material acquisition and capital brings about the conditions that are likely to destroy human society, and the sense of order that is restored in Murnau's film is shown by Herzog as being even more flimsy and insubstantial. 

Herzog emphasises that Nosferatu is an Anti-Christ figure (8). When Renfield meets Nosferatu his hands are clasped together in prayer and when he is given instructions he says "Thy will be done" in mockery of the Lord's Prayer. Since Nosferatu knocks Renfield on the side of the head in a disdainful manner we can read it that he does not want or welcome worshippers, and that if people do his bidding he will not treat them any differently than his victims or enemies. When the city is full of plague a praying monk bent over a coffin is contrasted with a nearby group of dancing people. The former could be seen as an introverted acceptance of death and the latter as an extrovert attempt at denying the truth of the situation, either way the matter in hand is avoided. 

As Lucy walks around these scenes of chaos a Last Supper is re-enacted amongst the farm animals. The people await a new Christ to save them, the last human resource is faith even as the rats takeover. Now Lucy takes action, she protects her husband from evil by sprinkling crumbs of the consecrated host around his chair. The host that represented Christ's body, and the wine that represented his blood that was consumed at the biblical Last Supper, have now come to represent Lucy's body and blood. She gives her body and blood to Nosferatu to save her husband and humanity. When the cock crows Nosferatu exposed to the light of day dies. 

Christ was betrayed at the crow of the cock for the sake of silver. Here Nosferatu is betrayed by his lust for self-gratification and Lucy is betrayed by the bourgeois attitude to life that denies instinct and feelings. The servant-master relationship created by this society allows Jonathan to escape from the prison of the host after Nosferatu's spirit enters his body. And the old adherence to law and order calls for Van Helsing's imprisonment for the murder of Nosferatu. The moral being that if the scientist does not overtly serve Capitalism (its idea of the proper time and sequence) he is dismissed as mad and unfit to carry on his role. 

Herzog also plays on our own knowledge of vampire films. 'the most conscious play on these expectations is made at the end of the film when without any explanation Van Helsing rushes off to put a stake through Nosferatu's heart. In a Monty Python fashion he is arrested with his blood smeared stake. The theatrical bound from the crumbs of the host by Jonathan supplies an additional nod at the comical machinations of the characters in Hammer horror films. The behaviour of Helsing seems to negate the value of Lucy's sacrifice since it seems that he finally kills Nosferatu. Allowing for speculation on this point, Nosferatu does live-on within Jonathan. Neither instinct or bourgeois science triumphs over the power of death personified by Nosferatu. Just as the chickens (victims of operant conditioning) dance-on at the end of Stroszek humanity will survive to become victims or martyrs in a never-ending cycle of ignorance manipulated by forces beyond our grasp. Even the agents of  this manipulation are overwhelmed by the futility of it all. Nosferatu is isolated and alone, he tells Lucy that he suffers from, "the abject pain of the lack of love,” He wants to feel the love that Lucy and Jonathan have shared, but as Lucy says not even God can change their love for each other. Despite immortality Nosferatu cannot share the pleasures of life. 

The two directors use different techniques to put across the story. Murnau makes the world itself act as a theatre where horror might invade at anytime. This is done by using real locations that are very plain and simple. The trick photography he employs (e.g. the vampire coach ride, the loading of the coffins onto a wagon, the automatic opening of ship hatches and doors for Nosferatu, and his death) are unrealistic and contrived. The use of shadows leaves our imagination to dwell on the brooding power of the vampire that stands over Nina. His shadow-hand is seen grasping her heart. This makes the vampire ghost-like and insubstantial but no less a threat. Such techniques are borrowed from Expressionist theatre and film which used stylistic settings, designs, acting and lighting, 

to probe seemingly fundamental truths of human nature and society. (9)

However, Murnau also locates the labyrinthine shadowland of Nosferatu’s castle within the natural world. The exterior shots of Bremen at the beginning shows it as full of trees and flowers and is almost a part of the natural world, yet when the plague takes hold its streets enclose and imprison people. The town-crier in the street shown from a high angle is later replaced by lines of coffins. When a man carefully marks the doors of the plague victims with a cross the houses literally become temporary tombs. The neat home of Harker’s, which contains flowers and playful domesticated kittens is contrasted with Nosferatu’s new residence in the virtually derelict house across the road. This warns that the structures (both physical and psychological) carefully constructed by man are easily swept aside and that tamed nature can easily return to the wild. It is significant that Nosferatu is seen dissolving into a door and that Renfield escapes into the fields which denote them as being a part of the natural environment that we can never come to terms with. 

Murnau's film can be seen as reflecting the concerns of that period. After the horrors of the First World War, Germany was caught between the influence of American Capitalism and the ideals of the U.S.S.R. which had only recently gone through the painful upheaval of a revolution. The old feudal past and the power of the Prussian aristocracy had been irrevocably destroyed by the war, yet there was no obvious direction or goal for Germany and its people. Shunned and punished by the winners of the war, the Expressionist movement wallowed in self-torture and the contemplation of tragedy and evil. Rather than face these problems directly it was easier to stick with plots taken from literature and to use them to symbolical]y articulate the underlying concerns of society and individuals. 

These same concerns came into being after the Second World War. Germany became physically divided between East and West. As a refuge from the horrors of this war it was easy for the West German film industry to seek foreign or historical settings for stories based on already well-known texts. In the 1960s the New German Cinema arose. The main themes of these new directors were; 

conformity in the affluent society and the consequences of the Economic Miracle, conflicts between the young and an older generation still marked by the Nazi era, consumption- orientated ideas of happiness, marital problems, and woman's emancipation. (10) 

As a member of the second generation of directors of the New German Cinema Herzog was able to use Murnau's film to articulate these concerns and to put them into a fresh light. Whereas Murnau's Nosferatu can be seen as a personification of the feudal landlord or monster from the id, Herzog's vampire can be regarded as a personification of Hitler. This is spelt-out by the use of Wilheim Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) on the sound track. In this a hideous dwarf is lit by sunrays and told by three Rhine-Maidens that if he renounces love he will be given mastery of the world. In Herzog's film the seduction of Capitalist values allows Jonathan to deal with Nosferatu, and as a consequence Lucy has to give-up her pure heart. In one sense they can be regarded as victims but there is a seductive 
charm to Nosferatu's evil lust that is lacking in Murnau's film. In the scene where Lucy encounters Nosferatu in her bedroom she is at first frightened and repelled by him but she submits to his examination of her underclothes and his bloodsucking. The slow motion shots of a bat indicate her entry into Nosferatu's twilight world. This could be read as the German people's fatal following of Hitler which led to the death of millions. The opening sequence of mummified bodies caught in the moment of death linked with the sound of heartbeats adds credence to such a view and Jonathan's comment that it was just a nightmare highlights how Germans, now, cannot regard the horrors of the past as real. The use of Das Rheingold is linked with boiling clouds, mountains, and sunlight pouring down towards Jonathan. So the film harks back to great German art and ideology, indeed; 

For Adolf (Hitler) nothing could compete with the great and mystical world that the Master (Wagner) conjured up... (11) 
Herzog denies having any great knowledge of Das Rheingold and only used it "because this particular piece of music fits extremely well." (12) In the film itself there is also a sense of distance from the action. When Lucy roams across the city square the camera follows her, but in a pan from left to right across the Last Supper table Lucy is shown walking into frame moving from right to left. In the scene when Jonathan is returned home the action is shot from inside the horse-carriage, thus the camera's and our point of view is independent of the characters. Murnau does this by using wide angle shots and editing whereas Herzog's camera tends to move within the space of the action and to isolate detail (this might also be the outcome of more mobile film equipment in the 1970s rather than purely due to personal preference). 

To conclude, the 1979 Nosferatu is not merely the 1922 film with sound and colour. Instead it tries to bring out and emphasise aspects of Murnau's film in order to bring light onto current concerns and worries. Herzog claimed that; 'My challenge in doing a new version of Nosferatu is to link the great epoch of Expressionist film-making with this renaissance (the New German Cinema -N.W.) create a bridge over this historical gap." (13) 


1. Copies of Murnau's Nosferatu were destroyed in July 1925 after being found to have infringed copyright laws. Two different versions of the film (both lacking the original colour tinting) came into circulation. The one that is closest to Henrik Galeen’s script is referred to in this text. 

2. Mayne, Judith, ''Dracula in the Twilight: Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)' in German Film & Literature, edited by Eric Rentschler, Methuen, New York and London, 1986, p. 27. 

3. ibid, p. 30. 

4. Murphy, Michael J., The Celluloid Vampire, Pierian Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1979, p. 6. 

5. Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1974, p. 108. 

6. Wood, Robin, 'Nosferatu' in The Macmillan Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume 1, edited by C. Lyon, Macmillan, London, 1984, pp. 326-327.

7. Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto in Karl Marx: Selected Writings edited by David McLellan, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, p. 223. 

8. In the German version of Nosferatu Deutsch Film Produktion added scenes with a priest, choir, and Mass for the dead, which were all censored on religious grounds in 1930. So if Murnau had been inclined to make Nosferatu more of an Anti-Christ it is probable that it would have been subject to such censorship. 

9. Manvell, Roger and Fraenkel, Heinrich, The German Cinema, J. M. Dent, London, 1971, p. 13. 

10. Pflaum, Hans Gunther and Prinzler, Hans Helmut, Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany, Inter Nationes, Bonn, 1983, p. 7. 

11. Quoted by Herzstein, Robert Edwin in 'The Wagnerian Ethos' in German History 1848-1933, University Microfilms Inc.. Ann Arbour. Michigan, 1966, p. 346. 

12. O’Toole, Lawrence, 'That Close Center of Things' in Film Comment, Vol. 15 No. 6, Nov-Dec. 1979, p. 42. 

13. Walker, Beverly, 'Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu' in Sight and Sound. Vol. 47 No. 4, Autumn 1978, pp. 204-205. 

Other References. 

Cleere, Elizabeth, 'Three Films by Werner Herzog : Seen in the Light of the Grotesque' in Wide Angle, Vol. 3 No. 4, 1980. 

Eisner, Lotte H., The Haunted Screen, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969. 

Eisner, Lotte H., Murnau, Secker & Warburg, London, 1973. 

Gow, Gordon, 'Incarnation' in Films & Filming July 1979. 

Guillermo, Gilberto Perez, 'F.W.Murnau' in Film Comment, Summer 1971. 

Guillermo, Gilberto Perez, 'Shadow and Substance' in Sight and Sound, Summer 1967.

Mandor, Raymond & Mitchenson, Joe, The Wagner Companion, W.H. Allen, London, 1977. 

Marcuse, Herbert, Eros and Civilization, Allen Lane, London, 1970. 

Milne, Tom, 'Nosferatu:Eine Symphonie des Grauens' in Monthly Film Bulletin, Feb. 1974, pp. 3'7-38.

Milne, Tom, 'Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht' in Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1979, p. 151. 

O’Toole, Lawrence, 'The Great Ecstacy of Filmmaker Herzog' in Film Comment, Vol. 15 No. 6, Nov-Dec. 1979. 

Pirie, David, The Vampire Cinema, Galley Press, Leicester, 1977. 

Riley, Brooks, "I am like the jungle of creation" - Klaus Kinski in Film Comment Vol. 15 No. 6, Nov-Dec. 1979. 

Soren, David, The Rise and Fall of the Horror Film, Lucas Bros, Columbia, Missouri, 1977.

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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson