Monday, November 15, 2010

Nosferatu in 2010

(This is a short intro I gave on November 4 to a screening at BU of F.W. Murnau's film Nosferatu (1922), with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra:)

Well, here we are, in the Year of the Vampire, looking back 90 years (or, OK, 88) to 1922, the year in which Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau made Nosferatu. I recently checked on a favorite website of mine -- -- to find, a little to my surprise, that Nosferatu was far and away the most often downloaded film in the archive, with 305,000+ downloads exceeding the next movie, a Charlie Chaplin short, by 110,000 downloads. So here's a principle I'd like to work with: When one historical moment finds interest in another, or in a particular figure or theme or trope, one can surmise there's a reason. In this case, I think there are many. The short way to put this is to suggest that Germans in 1922 were worried about quite a few of the same things we're worried about today, and that our obsession with vampires reflects some common anxieties; mutatis mutandis, of course, with differences, but still. So what were they preoccupied with, those interwar Germans, in 1922? Let me see...

• first, a galloping inflation, which would soon turn to hyperinflation, the kind you've possibly heard of, where people would rush after work to spend their paycheck because it would be worth much less in the morning, a loaf of bread cost a wheelbarrow full of bills, and it was cheaper to wallpaper rooms with currency than with wallpaper;

• second, an abiding political insecurity following Germany's defeat in the First World War, accompanied by a pronounced lack of faith in the liberal government of the postwar Weimar Republic -- a lack of faith on both the right and the left that left the Republic without support when the Nazis mounted their challenge against it;

• next, a marked descent of large segments of the white-collar middle class into relative penury, partly but not only on account of the great inflation -- an impoverishment that in effect proletarianized them, while at the same time the general culture encouraged a lifestyle they could afford less and less;

• then, a reorganization of gender roles in the wake of mobilization, which drew men from the factories and women into them, accompanied by a culturally widespread feeling of emasculation provoked not only by defeat in the war, but also by the reduction to absurdity of traditional notions of heroism by the new realities of mechanized war;

• and then: new explorations of sexual life in the cities -- hetero, homo, paid, unpaid, sado-maso-vanilla-and-other, with drugs and without, in public and private, in life and art; which earned Berlin, especially, the nickname "Capital City of Sin" (plus a lot of interest, often critical, also prurient, in the press), and led to a thematic oppositions, in film and elsewhere, of wholesome country life versus urban decadence; all this accompanied by an angry and highly politicized debate around the legalization of homosexuality;

• and, finally, a tendency toward scapegoating and mass psychosis, which hangs together with all the above.

(Does any of this sound familiar?)

For the people of Germany felt that their blood was being sucked dry: that their strength -- their financial, political, social, and sexual strength was being drained, by forces beyond their control and their understanding. They felt that they were victims, and what do people do when they feel that they're victims? They look for culprits to blame. But when the forces are faceless -- as they normally are, with such complex things as a world economy or modern politics -- people look to put a face on them, and then try to burn it at the stake. It's no accident that nearly half the films I show in my course on Weimar cinema include scenes of mass psychosis and scapegoating: Caligari in 1920, Nosferatu in 1922, Murnau's The Last Laugh in 1924, Fritz Lang's Metropolis in 1926 and his M in 1931... and there are others. In Nosferatu, we have one answer to the question: Who is doing this to us?

Now, we all know who was burned at the stake, back then. Who has come incognito from a foreign land & bought real estate across the street & set up shop in our cities & sucked our blood (and the blood of our women) & brought disease, epidemic (another dominant trope of the times, Murnau's and ours), and caused terror in the land? For the enemy is among us... and he's invisible, and he's a vampire, and he's killing us silently, and he controls everything, and he's like an epidemic, and he's like rats and spiders. He's also sexually perverse, as you will see clearly if you look at whose blood Nosferatu drinks, if you carefully read body language, and if you think just a little about the sex life of the protagonists, Hutter and Ellen. A threat best killed. Not coincidentally, these are all images we find attached to, yes, Jews, in Fritz Hippler's film The Eternal Jew, a really awful piece of Nazi propaganda from 1940, which I will spare you tonight.

I won't spin this out any longer; I think you can do that yourselves. I just want to add that if this is all in the film, it's not as an argument: I don't think that Murnau has axes to grind; with few exceptions, axe-grinding art is boring, it doesn't last. What he's done is tap a coherent symbolic vocabulary, invented in 1897 by one Bram Stoker, to show us an image of certain recurrent fears of the modern age. And frankly, I think they're still scary. The fears themselves, not so much the things we're afraid of. --

I'd like quickly to add one note on the Alloy Orchestra, who will be playing the music tonight. It's rare enough that one sees silent films these days, unless maybe you're me. It's rarer still to see them accompanied by live music -- which is, after all, how all of them used to be shown. There's a small coterie of makers of music for silent film, who I imagine all know each other and meet at obscure silent-film music conferences to hash out the intelligent things they say in the liner notes of their DVDs. In my opinion, the Alloy Orchestra is among the very most special of these special people. I will confess that I have watched Dziga Vertov's film The Man With the Movie Camera at least fifteen times with their soundtrack, and heard them do it once live; it still gives me goosebumps at all the right moments; it's a work of genius. I expect that tonight the goosebumps will be even higher. Let's welcome the Alloy Orchestra, and enter the vampire...