My post for today concerns two of my favorite horror films – the German Expressionist masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. After showing both movies innumerable times in Intro to Film classes, I’ve come to believe that the awesome power of each ultimately lies in their shared sense of a wacked-out story structure: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau didn’t just make films about the supernatural, they made films supernaturally.
One of the hallmarks of the German Expressionist cinema is a keen interest in the supernatural. Incorporating techniques borrowed from Expressionist artists in other mediums (painting, theater, architecture, etc.) the major German Expressionist film directors sought to create a new, more personal form of expression that favored the unknown to the known, the power of the human imagination to knowledge acquired only through sensory experience and a cinematographic style that consciously rebelled against the “invisible” techniques of Hollywood narrative continuity filmmaking. The arrival of Expressionism in movies is usually credited with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a low-budget but revolutionary film written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene at the Decla-Bioscop studio. Two years later, F.W. Murnau directed the landmark Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for a small outfit named Prana Film (it would be their only release). These two works, which share a startling, little commented upon framing device, provided a shining example, in both form and content, for many other filmmakers to follow.
One of the key ingredients to the success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its narrative structure. Wiene employs a framing device so that the chief action of his film is a story being told within a story. This structure provides a wealth of stylistic and thematic possibilities that allow Wiene to bring out the haunting, mysterious nature of his tale to maximum effect. The movie begins with the protagonist, Franzis, telling his story to an old man on a park bench. These shots (and a few rhyming shots at the film’s conclusion) are the only exterior shots to actually be filmed outdoors by Wiene and his crew. The bulk of the narrative is comprised of Franzis’ story, about the sinister goings-on at a carnival, which Wiene presents as a lengthy flashback sequence. All of the exterior scenes inside of Franzis’ story (and there are many) were clearly shot on interior sets in the Decla-Bioscop studio and have a highly artificial, theatrical appearance. The discrepancy between authentic and artificial exteriors is the first subtle clue as to the fact that Franzis is an “unreliable narrator.”
There are several reasons why the framing device is effectively suited to movies involving fantastic and otherworldly elements. First, it provides the director with an ironic juxtaposition of tone and setting. This is immediately apparent in the opening of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The first several shots of the film are title cards, the first of which reads: “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg anno Domini 1838.” The second warns against speaking the word Nosferatu aloud lest “. . . haunting dreams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.” The third title card is the most curious as it introduces the mysterious narrator: “I have reflected at length on the origin and passing of the Great Death in my hometown of Wisborg. Here is its story: Once in Wisborg lived a man named Hutter and his young wife Ellen.” Incredibly, it is never made clear who the narrator is, or even if he appears physically within the movie, although several more title cards crop up that indicate what we are seeing represents a first person perspective.
The first shots of Nosferatu (following the opening title cards) depict a scene of domestic contentment between Hutter and Ellen in their small-town bourgeois home. Hutter is excitedly getting dressed in front of a bedroom mirror, preparing to go to work for the day. Nearby, Ellen is laughing and playing with a cat and a ball of yarn in front of an open window. The counterpoint of the spectral opening titles – with their gothic font and multiple evocations of the “Great Death” – against this backdrop of newly wedded bliss allows Murnau to establish a mood of foreboding; a feeling of uneasiness has permeated the setting that will soon explode into horror once the narrative proper begins.
Another function of the framing device is to allow for multiple narrators. The first narrator of Caligari is Wiene himself – omniscient, God-like, paring his fingernails. He is the rational narrator who provides the “frame” for the fantastical portrait of the second narrator, Franzis. Wiene takes care to show the mesmeric effect of Franzis’ story on his listener (the old man) in the hopes that we, the viewer, will become hypnotized too. (The theme of hypnotism next raises its head in this same scene when Jane, the female lead, walks past the two men in a zombie-like trance. This theme will recur throughout the film.) Wiene will not however return to the framing story until the very end of the movie, a device that makes many first-time viewers forget that there even is a framing story. Nosferatu, on the other hand, only has one narrator, the “I” who mysteriously appears in title cards on a semi-regular basis throughout the movie. This suggests that what we are seeing is perhaps the illustration of someone’s diary and, unlike Caligari, we can never be certain whether any of what we see in Nosferatu is “real.”
After Nosferatu‘s opening titles, the narrator’s presence doesn’t crop up again until almost twenty-two minutes into the film, when Hutter has traveled to the Carpathian mountains in hopes of making a real estate sale to the mysterious Count Orlok. After a memorable shot of Hutter crossing a bridge, the following intertitle appears: “As soon as Hutter crossed the bridge he was seized by the eerie visions he so often told me of . . .” At the 38 minute mark, Ellen, at home in bed, is also seized by eerie visions (of her husband in Orlok’s clutches). After a doctor visits her, this intertitle appears: “The doctor described Ellen’s anxiety to me as some sort of unknown illness. But I know that on that night her soul heard the call of the deathbird.” Later, when Count Orlok departs for Wisborg, we see this intertitle: “Nosferatu was coming. Danger was on its way to Wisborg. Professor Bulwer, a Paracelsian who was then investigating the secrets of nature and its unifying principles, told me about it: Caskets filled with dirt were loaded onto the double-masted schooner, Empusa.” What these crucial title cards establish is that, although there may only be one narrator, what we are seeing has been passed through several subjective filters (the narrator’s as well as Hutter’s, Ellen’s, the doctor’s and Professor Bulwer’s).
As in Citizen Kane, what we think of as the “truth” of the events depicted onscreen in Nosferatu is really just the sum total of a bunch of stories that many different people have told to the narrator. The chief difference, therefore, between Murnau’s approach to constructing narrative and that of Wiene lies in Murnau’s self-consciousness in regards to form. While the narrative strategies of the two filmmakers work on the viewer in a similar, almost-subliminal fashion, the repeated intrusions of the unseen narrator in Nosferatu make the construction of narrative itself the subject of Murnau’s film as much as the mass death that Orlok causes to sweep across the German countryside like the plague.
Finally, the most important function of the framing device, at least in relation to supernatural subject matter, is the distancing effect it has on the viewer. When filmmakers set their narratives in the distant past or in faraway lands (as Wiene and Murnau both do), they are, somewhat paradoxically, lending credence to otherwise fantastical tales in the mind’s eye of the viewer. This technique is still common in campfire ghost stories and urban legends today where “Something once happened to a friend of a friend of mine . . .” Because most of us do not experience supernatural phenomena in our daily lives, we are more ready to accept such phenomena when it is packaged in a story taking place outside the realm of our concrete experience. Hence the evocation of “exotic” settings in both of these films: Romania and the mid-19th century in Nosferatu, Italy and the early 18th century in Caligari.
In Caligari, the most obvious narrative function of the framing device is that it allows Wiene to set up his famous “trick ending” (the story Franzis tells turns out to be no more than the ravings of a madman). As disturbing as this conceit is on the surface, it provides the audience on a deeper level with a sense of relief (i.e., it explains why the rest of the film looks so bizarre, it allows us to feel that Caligari’s counterpart, the asylum director, may be able to cure Franzis, etc.). If Nosferatu remains the more unnerving film today, it’s partially because its ending offers the viewer no comparable sense of relief. Towards the end of Nosferatu the narrator informs us, “I have wondered for a long time why it was said that Nosferatu took his coffins with him filled with dirt. I have surmised that vampires can only draw their shadowy strength from the cursed earth in which they were buried.” In other words, Murnau’s narrator is just as clueless as the viewer, merely speculating as to the causes of the horror to which we have born witness. When the vampire is finally vanquished (through the self-sacrifice of Ellen), the abiding tone is one of bleakness and despair. For a country that had just lived through and lost an unpopular war (for which Nosferatu can be seen as an allegory), the end of the “Great Death” was no cause for celebration.
Few movies have proved to be as enduringly popular as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu; Shutter Island and most of Tim Burton would be unthinkable without the former and many key elements of vampire mythology were first introduced in the latter – such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight. As to the reasons for this popularity, some would credit the masterful use of atmospheric lighting, the brilliantly innovative set design, the unforgettable monster make-up or the legendary performances of the villains played by Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck. Personally, I think both films still resonate today because Murnau and Wiene both illustrated that form is the most direct route to emotion.
The most complete versions of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available on DVD from Kino Video. The most essential critical writing on the German Expressionist movement is Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen.