things that go bump in the night

I’ve realized recently that sometimes the value of watching so-called “canonical” films has less to do with watching a great film than the exhilaration of witnessing seeds be planted that will only fully flower in later, sometimes much better films. Or at least that was how I felt while watching both Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920) and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922) in quick succession, neither which are particularly great shakes as modern movie experiences. But both were and continue to remain important films simply because in them one sees some of the great, enduring images and myths of cinema tentatively but decisively taking shape as the flickering, soundless images of each film unspools. Of the two I would probably call Caligari the “better” film, if only for the angular, now-iconic labyrinth of German Expressionism the film’s creaky plot loses itself in, and also because I was shocked to find how the unexpected “twist” ending managed to throw this supposedly “sophisticated” modern viewer for a complete loop, forcing an immediate reevaluation of what I had written off as a largely inconsequential plot. Murnau’s shameless and wholesale appropriation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula unfortunately and rather unfairly suffered severely in comparison to Dreyer’s Vampyr which I fell in love with last year—Murnau’s reputation had led me to expect more poetry, and alas there was very little to be found among the extremely broad characterizations and rather perfunctory ticking-off of the plot (there are a few dazzling moments however—the macabre beauty of the procession of coffins being slowly carried through the street of the plagued city sent a shiver down my spine). But what is great, what is still so very important about both of these films is of course its “monsters,” the horrible, the pitiful Cesare and Nosferatu respectively. Young Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, all long, lithe lines of the male body clad in black and shadows, who despite being in a somnambulistic state stalks his victims with a breathtaking, ballet-like grace, is revealed to be less a monster than a victim in sad-clown makeup; despite the misshapen, practically mummified body that seems to render him staid and encumbered, I was shocked how the stasis of Max Shreck’s Nosferatu made him shockingly elegant, his sinuous claws slowly unfurling with the languid grace of a sea anemone in water.  Today neither of these iconic screen phantoms are frightening per se, but ensconced in their silent, flickery cinematic states, they remain deeply, almost indescribably eerie, even uncanny, their influence undeniably continues to drip quietly, unceasingly into the modern consciousness…


6 thoughts on “things that go bump in the night

  1. I think I may need to see these two films again in the future. I saw them about ten years ago, and they made me feel very sleepy. Maybe I was not ready for silent films at that time. But I just watched DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER (1922, Fritz Lang) and fell in love with it, so I think now I may be ready to watch or re-watch silent films.

    Judging from my feelings now, I much prefer NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979, Werner Herzog) to Murnau’s version. So I totally agree with your sentence– “I’ve realized recently that sometimes the value of watching so-called “canonical” films has less to do with watching a great film than the exhilaration of witnessing seeds be planted that will only fully flower in later, sometimes much better films.”

    Some trivia: If I understand it correctly, the seeds planted by Murnau’s NOSFERATU may also flower in at least two experimental films—THE HIERONYMUS – DEATH DANCE 6 (1989, Michael Brynntrup, Germany) and MUSPILLI (2004, Stefan Popescu, Australia). I guess these two films may be influenced by Murnau’s NOSFERATU.

  2. I have more or less the same relationship with these two films, even though I’ve been living with them for a lot longer. I don’t think either of them is entirely successful when it comes to implementing their ideas. Watching The Last Laugh a couple of months ago gave me cause to marvel at the speed with which Murnau transformed from promising novice to complete master. It’s something to see. Even so, I would be foolish to dismiss either film, especially Caligari, which might be one of the three or four most influential films ever made.

    It’s fun watching you discover these films, by the way.

    Take care.

  3. I’ve just seen Nosferatu a few days ago for film class, and it was one of the best silent films that I’ve seen. After reading your article, I’ll have to check out Dr. Caligari.
    Nosferatu Review–

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