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The Twinned Evils of ‘Nosferatu’

The great film and social document illuminates a primal fear—that of foreign contagion

J. Hoberman
May 19, 2020
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Noteworthy as the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (albeit unkosher for being unauthorized), the great German filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror masterpiece Nosferatu is an unquestionably brilliant piece of filmmaking. A singular example of plein-air cinema, achieving many eerie effects through the evocative use of location as well as camera placement, it largely restricts the use of shadows to those cast by the Transylvanian vampire, called here Count Orlok.

Actually, one needn’t see Nosferatu projected on screen to be spooked by it. An image of Orlok’s dead-eyed, ratlike visage alone could suffice. That the creature is played, most convincingly, by an actor named Max Shrek is almost too good to be true. Although “Shrek” (fright in German and Yiddish) was the actor’s real name, many insist it must have been a pseudonym. The avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage believed it was Murnau himself; in Shadow of the Vampire, E. Elias Merhige’s 2001 fantasy about the making of Nosferatu, Shrek is an actual vampire.

Thanks to Dracula, Murnau, and Shrek, Nosferatu would seem to be the only silent that remains something of a cult film. Indeed, there is reason to believe that Nosferatu was designed to inspire a cult. The movie’s moving force was not Murnau, but the graphic artist and architect Albin Grau, a serious occultist, who not only produced but designed the film—including Orlok. Grau intended Nosferatu to inaugurate a series of supernatural dramas with a bang. His short-lived production company Prana (Sanskrit for “life force”) spent as much on the movie’s lavish premiere, March 4, 1922, at Berlin’s largest cinema, the Zoo-Palast, as on the movie itself.

The mad costume party that followed the screening gave Nosferatu an underground camp reputation that it still maintains. One might see it as a precursor to Kenneth Anger’s early-’50s Halloween party, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. (Anger, like Grau, was a fan of the British magus Aleister Crowley.) Many of those involved in Nosferatu, including Murnau, Shrek, and the screenwriter Henrik Galeen, were associated with the hypertheatrical director Max Reinhardt; Murnau himself was gay.

In film history, Nosferatu can be twinned with Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler which opened at the Zoo-Palast a month later. Mabuse too was a supervillain, a secretive master manipulator of stock markets, currency, and disguise, obsessed with power and possessing the hypnotic ability to cloud men’s mind. Mabuse has no distinguishing physical characteristics, although one of his many get-ups is that of an elderly East European Jewish peddler and another is as a practitioner of the so-called Jewish science, psychoanalysis. Still, such was the temper of the times, however, that one Munich critic described the criminal genius as “the image of the Eternal Jew.”

Mostly, however, Mabuse was promoted as and taken for a portrait of contemporary Weimar Germany—politically unstable, beset with hyperinflation, rife with conspiracy, reeling from military defeat and the influenza pandemic, with mutilated war veterans a commonplace sight. Nosferatu, largely seen as morbid fantasy, tapped into an equally topical yet more ahistorical fear. Wars are made by men. What about plagues? In blaming the plague on a Transylvanian vampire, Nosferatu addressed a particular social need.

Initially, Nosferatu was seen as a reflection of the Great War. Albin Grau said as much, comparing the conflict to “a cosmic vampire, drinking the blood of millions.” But, as noted by Freud’s British colleague Ernest Jones in his psychoanalytic study of nightmares, vampire legends proliferate in periods of mass contagion. So does xenophobia.

The movie received mixed reviews—evidently leftist critics saw it as an attempt to stupefy the masses with “supernatural fog”—but would achieve another sort of notoriety as a cause célèbre when Florence Stoker took legal action against this unlicensed adaptation of her late husband’s most enduring work. In 1925, a German court ordered all copies destroyed but, like the vampire, Nosferatu traveled to other countries and enjoyed a sort of twilight phantom existence. A print surfaced in a London film society in late 1928 and New York art cinema six months later—its cult stature burnished by its forbidden existence. (Years later, the same 8th Street movie house would be an early home for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

So who or what is Nosferatu’s ancient, tremendously powerful creature, a sort of humanoid rodent given an imposing hooked nose, who communicates with his minions in a mysterious code, which includes several Hebrew letters as well as the Star of David, and, contaminating every space he occupies, arrives out of the East with a swarm of plague-bearing rats to feast on the blood of naïve Aryans until destroyed through an act of Christian sacrifice by a virtuous woman? The vampire recalls two monstrous slanders against European Jews, evoking both the blood libel and the accusation of poisoning wells to spread disease that resulted in widespread pogroms and the near-extermination of Jews throughout the Rhineland in the mid-14th century.

With the German economy bled dry by rampant inflation, the season of Nosferatu (and Mabuse) also saw the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau by right-wing terrorists who considered him as the leading Jewish “wire-puller” behind the Weimar epublic. Moreover, in addition to the Spanish flu pandemic, the aftermath of the Great War brought tens of thousands of Ostjuden to Berlin.

Although the vampire’s “Jewishness” now seems as obvious as the outsized nose on its face, it’s striking that neither of the two leading commentators on Weimar film, Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, noted this fact. (Both were Jews.) Then too, Nosferatu’s script was written by a Jew, Henrik Galeen (a specialist in the uncanny whose previous screenplays included The Golem) and the cast included several Jewish actors, most notably Alexander Granach who plays the vampire’s henchman and was the foremost Jewish actor in Berlin. Generally supportive of Jewish culture, Galeen was involved with the Vilna Troupe’s 1922 Berlin production of The Dybbuk. There is no suggestion that Murnau or Grau, who weren’t Jewish, were anti-Semitic. Indeed, the love of Murnau’s life, poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, killed in the war, was the son of a Jewish banker.

Of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was already saturated with anti-Semitism, being a thrilling scare story about a blood-sucking parasite and predatory rapist who, associated with rats and bats and terrified of the crucifix, comes to London from deepest Eastern Europe, carrying his “homeland” with him in a coffin. By some accounts, Stoker based Dracula on Shylock as the character was performed by his friend the actor Sir Henry Irving.

Nor is there any evidence that Hitler liked or even saw Nosferatu—and yet, Mein Kampf, published in 1925, makes multiple references to Jews as vampires, bloodsuckers, and parasites as well as “that race which shuns the sunlight.” These and similar metaphors were picked up by followers like the Nazi ideologue Albert Rosenberg who repeatedly used quasi-biological terms to characterize Jews as a vampire bacillus infecting their German host. Once war broke out the tone grew ever more shrill as in the 1943 Nazi pamphlet, The Jewish Vampire Brings Chaos to the World.

The vilest of Nazi propaganda films, The Eternal Jew, released in 1940, specifically compared East European Jews to a plague of rats and ended with a blood-draining sequence of ritual slaughter for kosher meat. In his analysis of the most lavish example of Nazi anti-Semitism, Jew Suss (1941), the scholar Eric Rentschler persuasively argues that Suss combined aspects of Mabuse and Nosferatu; the great villain of Nazi cinema was “a specter from Weimar cinema refracted through a Nazi prism.” Yet, even as their imagery was employed by Nazi propagandists, neither Mabuse nor Nosferatu were canonical Nazi films. On the contrary. Grau was forced to leave Germany, not as a Jew but as an occultist. In 1942, one Nazi screenwriter argued for the need to protect the public from Weimar “supernaturalism,” citing Nosferatu in particular.

What does this fear of contamination tell us? A few weeks ago I participated in an online discussion of Nosferatu organized by the Los Angeles group Yiddishkayt. One of the last questions put to the panel concerned Nosferatu’s use-value today. Begging the question as to whether art must be useful, one need only have eyes to see Nosferatu as great filmmaking and an interest in 20th-century history to recognize it as a revealing social document. But more than a prime example of the Weimar imaginary, Nosferatu illuminates a primal fear—that of foreign contagion.

This fear is neither restricted to Nazis nor solely fixated on Jews. Hitler came to power in 1933. The same year brought The Bride of Fu Manchu, one of a popular series of pulp novels, founded on Anglo-Saxon racial terror of the so-called Yellow Peril, in which the evil Chinese mastermind infects the south of France with a plague virus. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that, years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s chief adviser on immigration, Stephen Miller, persistently linked foreign migrants with diseases, including influenza and the mumps, in an attempt to have immigration declared a health emergency. Back in March, the New York office of the FBI issued an alert that white supremacist groups had concocted a plan to spread COVID-19 among Jews, presumably so that Jews would be blamed for infecting the general population. The plot was lunatic but also logical.

Otto Fenichel, who joined the Psychoanalytic Institute of Berlin the same year as Nosferatu’s release, later wrote that xenophobia and anti-Semitism were a form of projection. The hatred and fear of foreigners can be expressed in a single sentence: “One’s own unconscious is also foreign.” The frightening power of Nosferatu is that it dramatizes one plague and embodies another.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.

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