Olivia Sentelle

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Olivia Sentelle

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Term Paper


WordPress URL: http://www.nosferatupaper.wordpress.com




            German director Friedrich Wilhelm “F.W.” Murnau created the well-known, and highly influential silent film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror). The film was based on the novel Dracula, written by the Irish novelist Bram Stoker in 1897.  Nosferatu originally premiered in 1922 in black and white, and “was the first definitive, feature-length vampire film” (Roth, 309). It has inspired remakes of the original, such as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) by German director Werner Herzog, as well as successful copies of the film in the United States ( Dracula [1931]) as well as in Britain (Horror of Dracula [1958]). There are also many different versions of Nosferatu that feature the original footage, with added soundtracks or coloring. A recent example of this would be the Nosferatu: The Gothic Industrial Mix, where the soundtrack is used to add another layer to the film’s darker feel, or mise-en-scene. The reason for Nosferatu’s appeal and major influence in horror film, and film in general is it’s style in terms of its mise en scene, intertitles, and sound used during live showings of the film in theaters.

Murnau’s Nosferatu displays a very distinct and influential mise en scene, through its lighting, spatial depth of scenes, camera usage, and through the acting of the characters in the film. The film also relies on German expressionism, which influenced all of the stylistic aspects of Nosferatu, as well as mise en scenes in other films by Murnau and different German directors during the era of the silent film. Nosferatu was produced in 1921-1922, a time when Germany was forced to deal with their loss in World War I, and the socio-political anger and discontent that came along with that loss. As a result of this, the German people turned to what was considered to be fantasy and non-reality, as an escape from the “dilemma between fighting for change and submitting to authority” (Roth, 310). It was this turn to non-reality that inspired the artistic movement of German expressionism, described as “essentially a movement to get away from actuality and to satisfy the desire to probe seemingly fundamental truths of human nature and society by presenting them through fantasy and dramatized mysticism” (Roth, 311).

It is this “dramatized mysticism” that seems to have the most influence on the entire style of the film. The lighting throughout Nosferatu is best described as very dramatic, as it is dark and haunting, and shows a very heavy contrast of black and whites that focus on a manipulation of shadows to enhance the viewer’s fear of the unknown, and mystical elements of the creature that is Nosferatu. The exterior scenes in Nosferatu are very well lit due to natural lighting (example A), however the interior scenes have very little lighting, in that the only objects with light on them are the actors (example B). During close-ups, actors faces are visible, and are sometimes the only thing lit up in the frame. The rest of the background would be black, making the shot even more dramatic. Corners of rooms are usually left black as well, especially during scenes that are taking place at night.

Some of the most recognizable scenes of the film deal with the use of shadows, which add an extra dimension, and fantasy element to the mise en scene of the film.  Shadows are used in the film as a way to highlight the mystery surrounding Nosferatu’s powers as a vampire. These shadows are used mostly when he approaches his victims (example C and D), or when Nosferatu appears to be in hypnotized state (example E). In example C, the shadows also serve as a way to provide detail to the physical appearance of Nosferatu. These shadows present a high contrast between black and white in the film, which is representative of the good vs. evil mood in Nosferatu.  In example D especially, the female victim is heavily lit, and is the only thing that is white in the scene, representative of her pure nature. While in stark contrast to her, there is the shadow of Nosferatu’s hand, clutching at her heart, signifying that he is tainting or taking away her purity and bourgeois status.

While the black and whites in Nosferatu are essential to its dark tone and theme, it is clear that the film was intended to be done in color. Because of the legend of the vampire being that the creature can only be active at night, and will die by sunlight means that the film was “conceived as a day-to-night film. At the beginning of the film every change in the time of day is announced by a title, followed by a twilight image—a mountain view, clouds or seas-scapes, always without people (Patalas, 29). In the French version and distribution of the film, there are minor changes to the original color scheme. During night exterior scenes, the film was tinted blue, and was tinted green for interior night scenes (Patalas, 29).

The space of scenes in the film varies, but relies heavily on experimentations with depth and the proportions of objects. Murnau’s shots that highlight the depth of the setting are used for both interior and exterior shots.  In example F and G, two multiple areas are displayed in one shot. In example F, it is an interior shot, showing the two areas located inside of a professor’s home. Example G is an exterior shot, showing three different areas: the ship and dock behind Nosferatu, the archway under which Nosferatu is standing, and the entire area in front of him. These shots help to expand the setting without having to move the camera.

The different camera and filming techniques used in the film are also great examples of its mysterious and dark mise en scene. In perhaps one of the most intriguing scenes, Hutter observes Nosferatu preparing to leave the castle, seeing him place his coffin down and get inside of it before being taken away. The scene is filmed as a time lapse of Nosferatu preparing to leave (example L). The film also uses stop motion in one scene, creating a suspenseful moment as two large doors open to reveal Nosferatu before he makes his way to Nina. These techniques are used to create drama and suspense, and excite the film’s audience. Suspense in this way adds to the fantasy element of Nosferatu’s character.

 The acting in Nosferatu is another essential aspect of its mise en scene. All of the actors’ movements and expressions are very specific and exaggerated in order to convey a specific feeling to the audience that needed to be understood without the use of sound. Actors Great Schroder who plays Nina, and Gustav von Wangenheim who plays Hutter in the film both rely on very dramatic and over the top facial expressions to deliver the emotion of the scene. In both example M and N, Wagenheim and Schroder use their hands and body language to express despair upon being mentally tormented and confused by Nosferatu’s presence. As for Max Schreck who plays Nosferatu, his acting is not as over the top. His performance does not feature different facial expressions, or very big movements (example E). He also moves very slowly in contrast to the frantic movements of characters such as Hutter and Nina. This is another way that the mise en scene represents the differences between reality and non-reality in Nosferatu; the difference in acting reinforces the theme that Nosferatu is a monster, and something that is so foreign to human society.

In addition to the film’s mise en scene, Nosferatu relies on intertitles placed carefully within different scenes in order to relay information to the film’s audience and to narrate the action of the characters. Intertitles were used in all silent films that dealt with a plot, or more story-like elements. Author Enno Patalas describes intertitles as being “like shot set-ups within the film proper and fade in and out. Pages are turned” (Patalas, 27).

Murnau used 116 intertitles for Nosferatu (Patalas, 27). These intertitles showed text that was dialogue between characters, a narration of the story developments, as well as what provided the audience with information about the mysteries behind Nosferatu. Example K shows a piece of dialogue between Nosferatu and the protagonist, Hutter. This intertitle was placed in between the action of the two characters, and allowed for the audience to understand what was being discussed. Example H shows how the intertitles could be used for narration. This intertitle was placed in between two of the same shots of Nina looking out towards the ocean waiting for her husband to return. Because of its placement, the audience is able to piece together what the character Nina was thinking about, and doing in that particular moment, therefore moving the story a long. Example I does something similar for the audience, as an intertitle showing Hutter’s letter inform Nina that he is on his way back home to her. Intertitles such as example I provide information as well as a sense of dialogue, and is another way for Murnau to provide information to his audience that might have been unclear because there was no sound.  Example J acts as another form of narrator. By showing intertitles of the book Hutter reads titled The Book of Vampires, the audience learns more information about the legend of the vampire, while also getting an idea of what is to come in the plot of the film. The use of books in Nosferatu adds an omniscient narrator to the story, tying it further to being an expressionist work that relies on the fantastical. The use of books as narrators during this era of film was highly prevalent in many of the greatest works of German cinema. These films “almost without exception make reference to ‘author-less’ literary genres, traditional or modern: to anonymous testimonies and traditions, to folk tales, legends, books of magic, chronicles, crime novels and science fiction, but almost never to the work of well-known writers” (Patalas, 26).

While Nosferatu is a silent film, when it was first being shown in silent film theaters, it would be presented with live musical accompaniments.  F.W. Murnau and composer Gottfried Huppertz Erdmann discussed how the soundtrack should enhance the basic themes of the film. Erdmann created a score that was made up of ten pieces titled “Idyllic, Lyrical, Ghostly, Stormy, Destroyed, Strange, Grotesque, Unchained, and Distraught” (Patalas, 30) and were part of a suite titled the “Fantastisch-Romantische Suite.” The suite is best described as bittersweet; it has moments of inspiring the audience’s terror, while at other times seeming repetitive and out of place. The reason for why the music is sometimes considered to be out of place is because “musical accompaniments in the silent film era were normally and element in bringing a film to the people rather than part of the film’s artistic creation, and it took a new interest in this aspect of cinema history, a desire to look beyond auterur theory, to persuade film archives and cinematheques to start concerning themselves with the music” (29-30, Patalas). While the music and film do not have the same artistic vision or tone at all times, the music assists the film by providing an extra layer of emotion, which have the ability to foreshadow events within the story though different pieces which highlight feelings such as fear or suspense.

The mise en scene, sound, and intertitles used in Murnau’s Nosferatu are all elements that have influenced the genre of horror films internationally. Use of things such as shadows, and dramatic lighting have influenced the genre because of the intense, and suspenseful atmosphere that they create. Things such as the sound and intertitles of Nosferatu prove that the film allowed for many different interpretations. Intertitles provided several different layers for the film, allowing the audience to have multiple different perspectives of the story: the perspective of an omniscient narrator, and all of the characters. These intertitles would be changed depending on the language the movie had to be shown in, and therefore the film was able to constantly morph through different artistic styles in terms of calligraphy, and illustrations. Different soundtracks that have been added to the original film have enhanced the film’s themes of mystery and the escape from reality. It is the combination of the film’s plot and its versatility that Nosferatu has become a classic horror and silent film that is so influential and recognizable.

Exterior vs. Interior Lighting

Example A


Example B



Example C


Example D


Example E


nos-depth 2.tiff

Example F


Example G


Example H


Example I


Example J


Example K

Camera Work

Example L


Example M


Example N

Works Cited

Nosferatu. Dir. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Perf. Max Schreck, Ruth Landshoff. Delta Expedition, 1922. DVD.

*all examples mentioned in this paper are screenshots from DVD
Patalas, Enno. "On the Way to 'Nosferatu.'" Film History 14.1 (2002): 25-31.
     JSTOR. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. .
Roth, Lane. "Dracula Meets the Zeitgeist: Nosferatu (1922) as Film Adaption ."
     Literature Film Quarterly 7.3 (1979): 309-313. Academic Search Premier.
     Web. 27 Nov. 2011. .
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