Sunday, August 9, 2020


"Nosferatu," a German horror film directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1921, may now only receive a "PG" rating from the British Board of Film Classification, but I still problems watching it. Count Orlok's unnatural features and movement, the shadows, and the sense of foreboding may now only be advised as "mild threat" by the BBFC, but their cumulative effects beat the jump scares of a flash of red, a spray of blood, or a hunk of flesh.

Meanwhile, auteur theory, centralising a film’s director as the prime creative force in its making, is just as pervasive in film culture as horror movie tropes, making artists out of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and even its proponents, like Jean-Luc Godard. The critic Pauline Kael saw through it, preferring to look at each film individually, through the collective effort of everyone that made it: “The auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence, that period when masculinity looked so great and important.”

I only mention auteur theory because I can only assume this is why F.W. Murnau’s skull is still missing from his grave. It remains unknown who broke into it in July 2015, but wax found at the site suggest candles were used in some sort of ritual. I assume the grave has now been sealed by the cemetery, as this was being considered due to previous break-ins – Murnau’s brothers, buried in the same plot, were untouched. The prevalence of auteur theory in how people discuss film still does not mean that Murnau, still revered for “Der Leitze Mann” and “Sunrise,” is entirely responsible for “Nosferatu” as we know it - it’s a bit like saying Wes Craven made “A Nightmare on Elm Street” because he was a psychopath.

"Nosferatu" was deliberately designed to be an occult, supernatural film by its producer and distributor, not the director. Prana Film planned many similar films, had an occult mail order catalogue as a side business. Its co-founder, Albin Grau, a German version of Aleister Crowley, was also the production designer, filling props and backgrounds with occult symbols. Prana Film went into bankruptcy after the release of "Nosferatu," infamously an unauthorised adaptation of “Dracula,” in order to avoid the copyright infringement lawsuits from Bram Stoker's estate.

Before “Nosferatu,” Murnau had already directed one film about a fractured personality, that was also an unauthorised adaptation of a British novel - "Der Janus-Kopf" (1920), starring Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi, was based on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson. This film is now lost, but we know the it formed part of the wave of German Expressionist films trying to examine the forces that German society found in itself following the First World War, leading to films like Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Paul Wegener & Carl Boese’s “The Golem: How He Came Into The World” and Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” and “Metropolis.”

However, no-one used the power of German Expressionist cinema to disrupt the graves of those directors, or that of Albin Grau.  

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