01/25/2001

Mise-en-scene in Nosferatu

          Nosferatu is one of the rare movies that make me feel the "evil". I do not think it is horrifying in today's standards, but it haunts me more than many "more horrifying" films. I think the reason is the concept of evil that is spread all through the film. I think the best thing in the film and the reason why it still creates the suspense in the audience even today is the rhythmic use of editing. The mise-en-scene is wonderfully used to express the evil and its contrast to peacefulness.

          Murnau's style is obviously expressionist. What is striking though is the naturalness of his style. He does not achieve expressionism by the use of huge decors or costumes but with the lighting, the framing or the angle of the camera. Even the expressionist decors he uses seem almost real. For example, Nosferatu's castle and the deserted house opposite to Hutter's home are frightening but also believable. The over-use of shadows, which is very common in expressionist cinema, is only seen in some scenes that I will discuss later. Therefore, we have a "realistic" impression of what is happening on the screen. That makes me feel that the story is somehow "plausible" and makes me believe in it. In general, the vampire itself is the only "obviously" expressionistic element in Nosferatu but everything in mise-en-scene helps Murnau create the effect. For example, the fact that Nosferatu often have a low-angle shot makes him seem bigger and more dominant.

          The indoors in the movie represent very contrasting concepts. All the houses in the village, especially Hutter's house, seem peaceful. They are just like the "ideal family houses": Nice furniture, nice curtains, and full of light. We are invited to believe that no evil can harm the happiness there. "The plague is here! Stay in your houses!" says one of the inter-titles. The opening scene, in which Hutters show their love to each other, is a perfect example. On the other hand, Nosferatu's almost gothic castle is exactly the opposite. The moving doors, the high chairs, the clocks, the arches (which I will discuss later) and the dark are expressionistic and they haunt us.

          The nature too can represent very contrasting feelings in Nosferatu. During Hutter's first journey it is calm and beautiful. However, during his travel back home, it becomes chaotic and disturbing. Murnau only shows the instances when the nature prevents Hutter from moving further: the river is filled with rocks, which makes it difficult for him to pass; the trees seem very chaotic, the wind is always coming towards him, etc. Interestingly, there is a scene of Ellen while she is in the seashore. The sea seems wild and angry; and it is coming towards her. We also know that it will bring Nosferatu to her too. The nature is helpful only when Nosferatu is around. The sea always seems calm when the ship he is in is sailing. There are also some "scientific" scenes where some creatures and some plants are shown as "ghosts" or "blood-suckers". Does that mean the nature is evil? In this movie the answer is: Yes.

          "Wait, young man. You can't escape your destiny by running away..." is probably one of the best inter-titles to describe the movie. From the beginning, we know that Nosferatu exists (some inter-titles talk about him) and that he is a vampire. Even though Hutter, who is the most identifiable person in the film for the audience, does not believe in it, we know "something" is going to happen. That means his destiny is already written. The mise-en-scene beautifully underlines this in the movie. During his journey, most of the time, the camera is already placed and he enters the frame, as if he comes to somewhere that was already predestined. Also, when he is in the frame, he seldom can escape from it. He often is stuck in there, between the frames as he is surrounded in the story by the evil. The arches, which become a motif in the film, reinforce this idea. The characters (even Nosferatu) are often framed by the arches as if they were trapped.

          I also noticed that he colored some of the shots to blue, red or green. I think the use of the color was not really functional and not united in the movie. For example, the blue was both used to represent the cold or the horror. In my interpretation of the movie, the cold has nothing to do with the "evil". I can also say similar things for the use of other colors too. I think, at least for now, this is one of the mistakes of the movie. Murnau did not need at all the colors or the negatives to create the effect he already easily achieved in black and white. (Thanks to Casey McKittrick who corrected me on this. According to him the blue signifies the night, and the red the daylight. I haven't seen the film since then.)

          The ending scene is probably the most complex one in the movie. As we saw Ellen, in an earlier scene, reading the book about Nosferatu, we assume that she sacrifices herself for the sake of the town. However, if we watch the scene attentively it does not really seem so. It seems like she "offers" her body to him. For example, when we see the shadow of Nosferatu's hand on her, her movements show she wants it. Or maybe even desires it. That also suggests an erotic interpretation of the scene, which would be out of our subject (I only want to underline that she sends her husband away from home too.). However, one important thing to note is that the lighting is especially powerful in this scene. Ellen's body is clearly brighter than her surroundings, which also reinforces the eroticism of her movements. Also, Nosferatu's shadow is bigger than it is in any other scene. That makes me feel that at that moment "evil" is the strongest, and the most powerful. Maybe also because he is successful in making her desire him. Does she know what she is doing? Does she sacrifice herself consciously? Or does she only "desire" Nosferatu?

          The next day of my first watching of Nosferatu, I noticed that I forgot everything about the story, the characters, and even Nosferatu. The only thing that was still in my mind was the concept of "evil" that was spread all through the movie. The indoors, the outdoors, the nature, the people, the lighting and Nosferatu itself were the reasons for that feeling. That shows how much the mise-en-scene in Nosferatu is successful, at least in my point of view.



 

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