A Look to Murnau’s NOSFERATU, German Expressionism and Its After Effects

When it comes to Nosferatu and German Expressionism in general, and how it affected other genres, there are many things to talk about. There are lectures given on this topic specifically and it deserves the attention it gets from people, scholars, and movie lovers. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror) is one of the most important movies in the entire cinema history. It is directed by renowned F. W. Murnau, who later immigrated to Hollywood and directed three movies there. Nosferatu is an adaptation from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and it means “the disease bearer” (nosophoros) in Greek. Before explaining this, we must examine how people’s fears and experiences shaped the history of literature and cinema. If we think about it, we can see that all horror figures in literature and cinema represented something very real and tangible for human beings. When people are afraid of something collectively, they tend to reflect it in an art form. If they cannot change the situation, they somehow try to express fear, hopelessness, and sadness.

Greta Schröder

Vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein, zombies… They are all created by human beings who somehow felt the urge to create such characters. When there is an upheaval, we see it in every art form and this is not only about surreal monsters. There is a cold war, we see paranoia, “red scare” and fear of the nuclear energy in the American movies; there is despair on German streets, we see characters who try to find love but fail to sustain it in a judgmental, depressed German society in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies. These are only examples but I’m sure that we will be seeing the collectivistic trauma that we’ve been through, which is COVID-19, in the following years or months, or maybe we even started to see it. Tough life conditions, overly authoritative rulers, epidemics, and many deaths: these are what we see when we look at the old days. So, it’s not a surprise to see blood-sucking, disease-bearing, murderous beings and creatures in the books of those times.

It’s striking to see the resemblance between this carnivorous plant and Nosferatu. They all approach their prey with maximum caution.

Nosferatu, in our case, is a wealthy man and he is sucking the life out of common people. He is also very frightening. This may be the real depiction of the authorities of those days. This depiction is combined with an amazing visual expression of German Expressionism -hence the name- and we got Murnau’s Nosferatu. We see overwhelming shadows, extreme make-up styles and overly expressive facial expressions in German Expressionism. Since movie producers didn’t have enough money to create décors, they usually tried to paint the décor to show certain objects or buildings. Nosferatu is also a silent movie, which means the director, the actors and the actresses had to make sure that they were able to express everything only with their faces and the use of body language. Without words, they had to give the fear, anxiety and greed to the audience via their facial expressions. 

Weimar’s Germany and the Characteristics of Expressionist Cinema

When it comes to the stylistics of German Expressionism, we see sharp images and oblique angles a lot. Oblique angles tend to express an image that is unstable, uncanny, and dangerous. In German expressionist films, the streets are far from being safe and there are criminals or super-natural beings that bring death and misery to society. These criminals or supernatural beings are usually deceitful and take advantage of innocent people, which explains the restless and fearful feelings of those days’ people. Those movies display a deterministic nature: characters don’t have free will and they are governed by external forces. In Nosferatu, the vampire has an irresistible allure.

Max Schreck and Gustav von Wangenheim

The other characters are enchanted by his magic, and they become his servants “willingly”. There is a sense of “fate”, and no one could act against it. This represents those days’ political environment. Weimar Republic (1918-1933) is known for its forceful nature. There were instability, violence, extremism, and fear in the society, and we exactly see this in those days’ movies. World War I had already torn German society apart, following instability and economic problems made German people even more paranoid and hopeless. The instability was so great that it, unfortunately, paved the way for Adolf Hitler and his ruling. The need for stability and peace has pulled over the eyes of the society and many people followed Hitler, which again led to many destructions for the German society. 

After introducing those days’ Germany, we can go back to Nosferatu specifically. Graf Orlok (Max Schreck) is the vampire that brings death in the movie. Schreck’s make-up is one of a kind, especially for those days. Make-up had to be especially convincing because they didn’t have the technology we have today. So, they weren’t able to create monsters or creatures out of nowhere. In addition, since the movies were black and white, the make-up had to be recognizable so that they could have been seen on the screen properly.

Shreck, who plays the role of Nosferatu. It’s impossible to recognize him in this role.

Schreck in the role of Graf Orlok is very convincing and still horrifying after all those years. In terms of the plot, there is this happy couple Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Ellen (Greta Schröder). They are madly in love but of course, doom must be nearby. Graf Orlok sees the picture of Ellen and falls in love with her in his own vampire way. He buys a house just to get near Ellen and tries to capture her. In the meantime, he spreads the disease to the whole town and Ellen is the only one who could save herself, her husband, and the town as the “pure woman”.  Although it seems like the movie has ended in a positive tone -Nosferatu vanishes and Ellen manages to save her husband-, let’s remember that many people died because of Graf Orlok’s bloodlust. In addition, Ellen is dead too.

Greta Schröder

The town was in complete devastation and the terror wasn’t easily subsided. Nosferatu’s power and existence were so horrifying that people had no option but to obey or die. It is also amazing to see how German Expressionism affected Film Noir, the great Hollywood movies, and it’s also worthy of noting that the stylistic expressions remained the same although Film Noir movies weren’t silent. They added dialogues but stylistically they carried German Expressionism customs and luckily this brought us many golden movies. The themes of crime, love and passion, chiaroscuro lighting, sharp objects, buildings or shadows, darkness and fear are inherited from expressionism but still we see some TV series or movies that use those techniques. Let’s end this analysis stating that without Nosferatu being one of the greatest legends of film history, we wouldn’t have those golden Film Noir movies and many more. 

Ece Mercan Yüksel


  • Click here for Ece Mercan Yüksel’s article (in Turkish) on Robert Wiene’s Caligari with photos from the 2020 Caligari Exposition in Berlin.
  • Click here to read (in Turkish) H. Necmi Öztürk’s article on Murnau’s Faust.
  • Burcu Meltem Tohum’un kaleme aldığı Nosferatu (Türkçe) incelemesi için tıklayın.

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