Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This past semester in my film class, I was asked to write an essay analyzing the mise-en-scene (all the elements visible in a frame) of a scene in Murnau’s 1922 silent German expressionist film, Nosferatu. Given the prompt, which insists upon a focus on visual elements (as opposed to the narrative), you’ll notice that this is a different type of writing than what appears on Film Fridays. But, not wanting to waste a good piece of writing, here are my thoughts (copied and pasted exactly as it is) on the mise-en-scene in Nosferatu’s death scene, and what exactly Murnau was hoping to say. (Watch the film here.) And for those curious, I did receive an A.
F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, a German expressionist retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, employs its mise-en-scene most effectively – creating a dark and somber tale of death and its horror. Beyond the narrative, however, Murnau uses the picture to subliminally (though also quite literally) shed light on the connection between our hidden passions and our deepest fears. Through all the elements of the mise-en scene (sets, costumes, actors, lights, etc.), the monster’s death scene (and the preceding scene in which he enters Ellen’s bedroom) presents an excellent case study for examining the filmmaker’s statement on our own human predisposition to fear the sexual desires that we both do not understand or do not wish to exist – and precisely how we should conquer them.
The sequence in question takes place principally in Ellen’s bedroom, which, in addition to being stylistically designed to portray its 19th century setting, also functions as a sort of neutral space. That is, the room is uncluttered – containing little more than a window, a chair, a table, a mirror, and (naturally) a bed. The bland uniformity of the bedroom allows the viewer to feel as if it is his/her own room. (Even the artificially rendered backdrop retains a sense of simplicity.) This is important in establishing universality with regard to Murnau’s thematic constructs; we all have bedrooms, and it is here, more than in any other room in the house, that we fantasize about (through dreams) or dramatically sate (through sexual activity) our wants and desires. So, where else but the bedroom could Ellen (and we) meet the very thing we simultaneously lust and loathe?
The costumes, while also providing the audience with a historical context for the narrative, also function in a similar way to the set – setting up a neutrality that allows the characters to figuratively stand in for us. White, worn by both Ellen and Hutter, is good and pure, a blank canvas – it is you and I. Contrast that to how black, worn by Nosferatu is evil and sultry, everything we fear – it is the unknown. Meanwhile, the overly powdery makeup, although a trope of the silent era, is used to indicate the sick mental state of our heroine, Ellen, and the otherworldliness of our monster, Nosferatu. The frighteningly pale faces heighten the meeting of desirer with desired (or fearer with feared).
Much credit for establishing the mise-en-scene must be given to the actors – who brilliantly, both in their look and in their performances, illustrate this concept of intermingling terror and seduction. Max Schenk, appearing as an eerily monstrous predator, with unmistakably humanlike features, has a slow gait that simultaneously invokes the protracted creep of our fears and the staggering glide of our own libidinous desires. From his initial stare through Ellen’s window as both caller and voyeur, to his lasciviously thirst-filled feast on her neck (an act so sexual that it bares no explanation), Schenk’s Nosferatu is scary – but also incredibly appealing. (It also bears mentioning that the actor’s lanky build is phallic in appearance, intimating that he may be entering more than just her bedroom this evening.)
Meanwhile, it is Greta Schroder’s Ellen who really brings Murnau’s concept to celluloid life. She’s called – physically and spiritually – towards Nosferatu with a dreamlike yearning that, coupled with the actresses’ heavy breathing, figuratively reeks with tantalizing lubricity. Yet, at the same time, she’s dreadfully frightened of this monster – her clandestine lust – calling, with an aggrandized terror that paralyzes her body, upon the white-bread Hutter to get the doctor and save her from this frighteningly unknown figment of unwarranted longing. When the creature, the embodiment of suppressed sexual, visits her in the bedroom, she staggers back in shock, before succumbing totally to his body. Ellen, with her pure features and blank, but likable, personality is us… and Nosferatu is our surreptitious lusts – clouded in daunting yet tempting darkness.
It is this darkness that Murnau uses to complete his sentence on human behavior. Audiences of today take for granted the use of shadows in horror films. Shadows are the dark parts of ourselves over which we only have a limited control. The lewd darkness of Nosferatu is often demonstrated in shadows, particularly in this scene, when the shadow of his erect hand extends over Ellen’s body, sending her body into an orgasmic deflation that allows the creature to begin his sup. Naturally, the only thing that can destroy Nosferatu, the physical manifestation of our nightmarish fantasies, is light. And when the monster meets the sunlight – he is no more. Murnau is telling us that the only way to conquer these exotic and unexplored desires of ours is to bring them to light. While this is literal for Nosferatu, it is figurative for us – the trick to overcoming the inherent fears regarding our innate sexual longings (however strange) is in addressing them… bringing them to metaphorical light so that they are no longer unknown – no longer the stuff of shadows.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!