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100 years of 'Nosferatu': The timeless power of images

'Nosferatu' - F.W. Murnau

It is no secret that modern horror fans are almost entirely desensitised, having been bombarded with meaningless jump scares, deafening screams and ghastly creatures for decades now. That was certainly not the case a hundred years ago when the cinematic art form was slowly finding its identity as the seventh art. Nosferatu was born in that period of transition, a silent gem from 1922 which still manages to unsettle us more than most contemporary horror flicks.

Produced by the occultist Albin Grau in order to further his own beliefs about the supernatural, Grau’s studio had to shut down due to the lawsuit filed by Bram Stoker’s estate. The film’s immensely talented director – F.W. Murnau – wanted to create a direct adaptation of the famous novel but all the issues with copyrights forced him to re-conceptualise the story of Dracula in a radically different way, based on a poetic script by Henrik Galeen.

Like many classics of the silent era, most of Nosferatu’s narrative power lies in its endlessly enigmatic subtext. Set in 1838, the film follows the misadventures of Thomas Hutter (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) who is asked to visit a potential client in the Carpathian mountains. Leaving his wife behind with some friends, Hutter embarks on a truly strange journey that takes him into the heart of a bizarre realm ruled by Count Orlok.

The image of Max Schreck as the looming, mysterious, grotesque Count has been immortalised due to its iconic nature. Audiences at the time must have been terrified by his physical appearance, which consisted of extremely long and sharp fingernails, a bald head, wide eyes and a hooked nose. Many commentators have also claimed that this specific anti-Semitic image was produced in Murnau’s subconscious, based on Jewish caricatures that were popular at the time even though Murnau did not have any explicit prejudices against them.

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One of the first films to induce a sense of horror within the minds of audiences through atmospheric settings, gothic elements and the frameworks of German Expressionism, Nosferatu is often referred to as the godfather of all horror films. While previous works such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had also used the frameworks of the horror genre in very effective ways, Nosferatu has remained a more well-known part of popular culture due to Murnau’s ability to create unforgettable images.

A century later, younger generations of audiences are watching Nosferatu on their smartphones while controlling the images they see with their fingers – transforming them into memes or pausing the film to check their Instagram notifications. For a long time, people did not have the luxury to have such a controlled cinematic experience, which is why Nosferatu was a more effective horror film back then. The images on screen had all the power over us rather than the other way round.

Despite the inevitability of the changing media consumption habits of modern audiences, Nosferatu still holds its own. Murnau creates a world of magic through the skilful editing, superimpositions and the ominous dance of shadows. In fact, one of the most memorable scenes in all of film history is the one where Count Orlok advances upon Hutter’s wife and the shadow of his claws lay claim on her beating heart. Very few moments in cinema can boast of such visual power, bristling with sexual and religious energy.

The animalistic presence of Count Orlok in Nosferatu would influence horror filmmakers and actors for years to come. Nosferatu’s commentary on human mortality, disease and decay (through the recurring imagery of rats) is relevant once again. After the pandemic, watching the empty streets in the fictional town of Wisborg after the announcement of the plague and reading the government notification which asked sick people to stay in their own houses instead of going to the hospital is bound to make you wonder about the cyclical nature of human history.

Nosferatu’s seemingly irrelevant scenes – the ones with the carnivorous plant and the incursion into the quasi-micro world through images of a squirming “polyp with tentacles” – are effective enough to remain embedded in your mind, even if you can’t make sense of them. Ranging from SpongeBob and Despicable Me to Freddy Krueger, the influence of Nosferatu is simply inescapable. If there ever was a film that proves some images are resilient to cultural entropy, it is this one.

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