GERM 365: Modernity and the Moving Image
Professor Michael Cowan
12th December 2011
Through the Filmic Maze Blindfolded: Navigating the Spaces between Science and Superstition
The vampire, in Nosferatu, can be seen as a shadowy index to a world beyond the immediately legible. It posits the existence of an ontologically vague dimension of knowledge not graspable by the human mind. Murnau’s film, through frequent cuts between scientific footage and the supernatural events in the plot, draws a link between scientific knowledge and premodern folk beliefs. The scientist figure, in Nosferatu, is not a pseudo-God attempting to master the world with his gaze through a totalizing system of classification. Rather, he is a sage-like figure who speaks in arcane riddles, dispensing sacred truths about the “secrets of nature” to a secular audience within the scientific lecture hall. Murnau, by collapsing the seemingly disparate realms of science and superstition within the same unfolding diegesis, suggests a monastic vision of the world in which the inexplicable lies under every facet of reality.
By enforcing a dualistic view of the world, Murnau suggests, one oversimplifies reality's complexity, bringing about a 'plague' in the form of a returning repressed consciousness- Nosferatu's Count Orlok, who constantly walks between binaries. The film, ultimately, theorizes a mode of knowing the universe beyond epistemologies and schemas. Instead, it suggests a rhizomatic world in which all elements on every level of existence has an equal ability to affect and influence each other. Count Orlok, in this light, can be seen as a potentially integrative figure who arrives at a "metaphoric crossroads, as the embodiment of a certain cultural moment... incorporat(ing) fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy... (and) giving them life and an uncanny independence" (Cohen 3). He is the “third term that problematizes the clash of extremes” that connects science and superstition, as well as the natural and the preternatural, reminding society of its unescapable primal roots. In Nosferatu, characters have to relearn the premodern mode of ‘knowing’- knowledge they obtain by interpreting the Book of Vampires correctly
- in order to dispel this newly arisen monster of the past.
Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny”, imagines a progressive linear ontology of the mind, in which mankind develops from an “infantile psychology” (145) characterized by “the narcissistic overrating of one’s own mental processes… by the attribution of carefully graded magical powers (mana) to alien persons and things” into an age of rationality. The tools of reason promised to make explicable all natural phenomenon. Under an Enlightenment schema, folk knowledge is reminiscent of a type of primitive magical thinking. However, a tension remains between past and present forms of knowing. Science’s seemingly all-encompassing system failed to conquer the ancient cosmic terror Bakhtin identified as the “fear of that which is materially huge and cannot be overcome by force” (335). The invention of the microscope and the telescope- new technologies for seeing- aggravated this by opening up a new visual dialectic of uncertainty. The ability to master new realms (exemplified by the single ‘eye’ of the microscope’s eyepiece) was always countered by the opening of a new dimension that continually evaded the scope of human vision.
In Nosferatu, Murnau introduces these newly emerged conflicts by crosscutting between scenes of natural phenomena (the rats on the ship, a waterfall, the wild dogs), science shots (the polyp, the carnivorous plant), and the supernatural plot (Nosferatu’s arrival, Ellen’s sleepwalking episodes, Knock’s asylum). From the start, science’s grip on reality is questioned by the continual occurrence of seemingly inexplicable events. The use of montage editing, here, makes it seem as if a third element- Chance (in actuality the filmmaker’s hand
)- has penetrated the binary between the logical and the illogical. Coincidence seems to be the mastering force that draws these supposedly disconnected themes of science and magic together, suggesting a continuity between supernatural events and natural phenomena. This theme is alluded to early in the film. Before Hutter prepares to leave the village, Bulwer delivers a warning to him, stating that, “you can’t escape destiny by running away”. Bulwer suggests that Fate- the ultimate principle of uncertainty- has the power to unravel all attempts at mastering its superseding structure. As such, he advises Hutter that he must accept his position of epistemological vulnerability, as to do otherwise would be futile.
The various spaces within the film also draw metaphorical lines between the known and the unknown, as well as the man-made and the natural. Examples of the former include the lab, the crowded pub, and the domestic interiors of the house. The latter is populated by Nature and beasts, and thus naturally hostile to the presence of humans. Often, these spaces are in close proximity. Bulwer’s laboratory- a space where Nature is mastered- is surrounded by a garden, which can be seen as a liminal space between wilderness and civilization where Man only has limited control. Maps and word-of-mouth stabilize reality by acknowledging the existence of spaces that man has not mastered, such as the night populated by spirits and the Count’s country. Hutter, in the film, crosses a symbolic boundary between the secure lamp-lit ‘daylight’ of the pub and the night where “the evil spirits” are “all-powerful”. By entering the Count’s carriage, he leaves the secure space of the known, traveling into the shadowy valley of the unknown, exemplified by Count Orlok’s castle and its surrounding regions.
Bulwer, in the film, acts as the viewer’s guide between these spaces of increasing uncertainty. He initiates us into the realm of science by bringing us into the secure, known space of his lab. In this realm, scientific equations and diagrams explain natural phenomena. Here, the scientist has secured a position of mastery over the natural world via classification and collection. From this wholly explicable station, Bulwer tells us that the mysteries of nature have “strange correspondences to human life”. He acknowledges that the security the lab offers is easily undermined by the entrance of the third element- that of Chance. Causality, Bulwer suggests, is not always co-relative to logic; there is always an element of uncertainty that governs all of life.
Bulwer acts as both sage and scientist, teaching us a right mode of seeing. This occurs during Bulwer’s lecture scenes. The face of Nature that Bulwer reveals is intrinsically vampiric. Halfway through the film, Bulwer introduces his students to the “vampire of the vegetable kingdom”, the insect-eating Venus Flytrap and the “vampire-like polyp” which consumes its prey with its winding tentacles. Predation, Murnau suggests, occurs on all levels of reality, penetrating even to the macro-worlds of the unseen. Nature is governed by a principle that does not necessarily hold the human interest at heart: the will to live leads each organism to consume at the expense of others. The vampire, thus, has a natural root- its spirit incarnates upon every facet of the universe from the ‘vegetable kingdom’, to the micro-worlds of microorganisms. As such, Nosferatu's predation upon humans is not peculiar in-of-itself, as it can be read as the human incarnation of this overarching principle. Nosferatu’s entrance into the film, likewise, is marked by a slew of natural metaphors: his arrival brings a plague to the town; he has to travel in “earth-filled coffins” taken from “unhallowed ground”; he brings with him a plague of rats
, and himself resembles a rat. Nosferatu's world may seem inexplicable like the “mysterious ways of Nature”, but it is overall natural.
Furthermore, the shot of the polyp has a phantom-like quality to it. The microscope abstracts the polyp so it seems to be floating within a realm displaced from any spatial coordinates. The microscope, here, opens up a dimension of seeing that continuously evades efforts at mastering the image. Like the microscopic shot of the polyp, the establishing shot of Nosferatu below the arches has no familiarity- he is an imposing silhouette swallowed by a mass of white space. Nosferatu emerges from an unknown world: this abstracted, foreign space outside the map’s grids. His castle is suspended above the scenery surrounding it under a blank sky, emphasizing its separation from quotidian reality. The ascending pillars that totter above him in his introductory shot curve to a point, reflecting a collapsing of all binaries between the straight/crooked, day/night
, and natural/supernatural. Nosferatu’s presence as never certain; he is a shadow, a figure in-between binaries. In his very existence, he represents a type of knowledge that cannot be easily contained in categories.
The film then cuts from the scenes in Bulwer's lab to the destabilizing space of the madman's cell. The shot of the polyp consuming its prey is followed by a shot of a spider consuming a fly, and then to Knock’s grotesque figure reaching out into the air, catching flies with his claw-like fingers. An uneasy comparison is drawn between the “polyp with claws”
and the mad Knock who exhibits animalistic characteristics. Count Orlok, likewise, with his elongated neck, pointed ears and consumptive gaze condenses the animal and human within the space of his body. This unearths the root of the viewer’s feeling of unease: when we see the binary between human and beast blur, our ontological sense of personhood is undermined.
In addition, by crosscutting from the lab to the asylum, Murnau transports the viewer from a scientific, discernible space to the uncertain spatiality of the mad mind where our coordinates are suddenly destabilized. From this point, we are told that “Nosferatu held Knock under his influence from afar”. The viewer is momentarily disassociated, and unable to make sense of the connection between Knock, the polyp, the spider and the Venus flytrap. By bringing in the intertitle about Nosferatu’s immaterial ‘influence’, Murnau provides a caption that interprets these series of images for us. In his schema, the vampire’s existence is not supernatural, but preternatural. Nosferatu’s ability to affect the human psyche
stems from a deeply embedded connectivity between nature, animals and humans. The vampire, here, embodies the return to a premodern way of understanding the world, in which man is an arbitrary being, a mere element of a cosmos vastly greater than himself. In this frame, the ‘vampire’ represents how this deeply-embedded principle can express itself in a form of madness within the modern mind when repressed. The roots of the seemingly inexplicable, here, are overly natural.
In contrast to scientific knowledge, the Book of Vampires provides folk wisdom that proposes to free the town from the thrall of the vampire. It is a bridge between science and magic: folk superstition presented in a legible form as cure. It establishes the vampire as a premodern phenomenon with a distinct historical precedent. It tells us that “it was in 1443 that the first Nosferatu was born. That name rings like the cry of a bird of prey. Never speak it aloud”. Nosferatu's arrival strikes fear in us because he is our predator, thus threatening our supremacy at the top of the food chain. Nosferatu’s cry is like a ‘bird of prey’; his name has an autonomy from its body, able to instill fear the hearts of man. However, Murnau is also quick to establish Nosferatu’s natural origins. The book tells us that “Nosferatu drinks the blood of the young, the blood necessary to his own existence”. Like the vampiric forms of Nature Bulwer shows us, he is merely trying to preserve his own survival by predating on humankind.
The knowledge the book distills to Hutter promises to save him from the vampire’s spell- if only he takes its contents as fact. However, Hutter’s rational worldview prevents him from correctly interpreting the significance of the document. He laughs in glee, shaking the document with a comical intensity. His rejects the idea that folk knowledge holds any authority and, in doing so, becomes thrall to the vampire.
Ellen’s curiosity, however, drives her to open the book. She does so twice. Upon first reading it, she experiences a visceral convulsion as if struck by lightning
. The knowledge the book contains has a physical effect upon her beyond the words on the page, pointing to the magical quality of the words within it- do they signify something beyond their letters, just as Nosferatu’s name alone has the ability to strike fear into the body? On the second occasion, a look of illumination dawns upon her face as she realizes that it is she who must sacrifice her blood to Nosferatu upon daybreak. She moves past fear into knowledge, authenticating the document’s validity by accepting its authority. Ellen’s successful reading of the book- she follows its instructions- emphasizes the importance of interpreting each text the right way. She ‘breaks the spell’, saving Bremen from the specter of the shadowy past- Orlok. The magical ability of the Book of Vampire’s words to effect change outside its materiality points to a premodern understanding of language, in which words have the power to directly affect reality and the fates of men. Words, here, have effects that supersede their signified meanings. Also, Ellen’s ability to interpret the book frames the female as the guardian of this premodern, magical way of knowing. The true Other, in the film, is the woman, who- with her intuition and subconscious visions- has a direct connection to the shadowy realm of the vampire.
However, the film also posits a third type of ‘knowledge’- that which cannot be known. Knock’s manuscript full of inscrutable symbols appears to be written in the ‘language’ of alchemy. Each character seems to relate to an interior reality that cannot be accessed, whether in the human psyche, or in nature. Alchemy is a ‘science’ bridging modern science and premodern magic. It seeks an overall structure underneath all elements in the universe through the drawing of a cosmic ‘map’. The meaning of this document in the film, however, is never interpreted for the viewer. Its representation is in itself a cipher to its true meaning. It proposes that there is interiority to all texts, a privateness that cannot be penetrated. However, the document’s existence points to an ingrown need to make legible all reality using whatever tools one has, no matter how inadequate.
Knock is our interpreter to this realm, but he is also a false guide. The interpretative act is, here, contingent upon an ideology that does not take into account the ‘greater good’. He controls our understanding of the document by re-appropriating its meaning to his own ends. He delivers false advice, telling Hutter “not to be afraid if people speak of Transylvania as the land of phantoms”. He dismisses the superstitious beliefs of the common folk, while paradoxically consulting a document that points to a sacred knowledge beyond the natural. He instills in Hutter scientific skepticism, causing Hutter to falsely interpret the Book of Vampires. From the start, the viewer is warned not to trust figures who propose to deliver to us the sole meaning of a text. This points to a key issue with all acts of making meaning: in the wrong hands, the power to interpret can be used for ill.
Murnau proposes that all forms of language- filmic, written, scientific, alchemic- has a natural relation to invisible worlds. The filmic script, in a way, is the hieroglyph that has to be correctly interpreted with the adequate tools by the viewer. However, there are different modes of vision that one has to utilize for different situations. If Hutter had read the Book of Vampires as a scientific text, he would have been saved. Likewise, by being able to interpret the book correctly, Ellen saves the community from the returning preternatural knowledge the vampire represents.
However, the willingness to admit the futility of any efforts at grasping the ineffability the universe through the powers of comprehension is equally as important. Knock’s script is never decoded, just as Nosferatu’s intentions are never revealed. The scientist-figure, however, sweeps us into an alternate understanding of the world wherein the “land of phantoms” exists within the controlled environment of the laboratory. He guides us with truths that do not have any logical meaning, suggesting that the separation between natural causes and supernatural effects is at best illusionary. Rather, it is by navigating these vague, shadowy regions in-between (the spaces where meaning is made) that we arrive at any kind of truth at all.
Bakhtin, M. M.. Rabelais and his world. Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1968. Print.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster theory: reading culture. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny Trans. McLintock, D. New York: Penguin, 2001. pg. 121-162. Print.
Nosferatu (Motion picture) Nosferatu [videorecording] : a symphony of horror / Prana-Film ;
screenplay by Henrik Galeen ; directed by F.W. Murnau. Chatsworth, CA : distributed by Image Entertainment, c2002.