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What dark secrets can vampires reveal to us about German Romanticism? Behind the rows of screaming teenagers sits Scott O’Reilly, with a bag of popcorn and the collected works of Friedrich Schelling.
Cinema, the American film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, is not a particularly good medium for expressing philosophical ideas. As much as I admire Mr Ebert’s many insightful reviews I would have to disagree with him on this point. Take, for instance, F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horror (1922), the first cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. This is a film that is heavily indebted to the tradition of German Romanticism, particularly as it was espoused by philosophers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Friedrich Schiller. German Romanticism was a movement typified by artists, writers and thinkers who viewed nature and man as part of an undivided whole. They saw both nature and man as the unfolding of a dynamic, creative and evolving spirit – a soul of the world – that inheres in all things. Art in particular, according to Schelling, could form “an active bond between the [individual] soul and nature.” At its finest, art could be a transcendental bridge between the human being and the god of nature, and a conduit by which man achieves full consciousness. And the language the artist uses to provoke this higher sense of awareness, far more than words, is symbol, imagery and metaphor.
The silent film, relying as it does on image, is an ideal medium for the artist steeped in the German Romantic tradition to express himself. And Murnau deliberately curtailed the use of inter-title cards – those frames containing dialogue between the characters – in favor of creating particular moods visually. Hence, the extraordinarily hypnotic, dreamlike quality the film possesses. To be sure, there is a narrative story here, after all the film is based loosely on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. But the plot – no doubt it is of great psychological import – seems a mere skeleton in comparison to the evocative tableaux of images Murnau weaves throughout the film. Many of these images – Hutter’s wife Ellen pining for her lost husband in a desolate graveyard by the sea, for instance – are either based explicitly on particular works by German Romanticist artists, or express similar themes. Murnau’s Nosferatu doesn’t advance or articulate philosophical theses,so much express a philosophical temperament and outlook. Some might object that this is art or poetry not philosophy, but to philosophers in the German Romantic tradition – particularly Schelling and Schiller – this was actually the point. Philosophy at its finest is poetry, is art. And it is through aesthetic experience alone, rather than discursive reasoning, that we intuit the true goal of philosophy – that there is a unity between man and nature, and that art is the bridge between the two, and thus a path leading to self-knowledge.
The original Nosferatu has inspired two highly-regarded remakes. The first, by the acclaimed director Werner Herzog, is entitled Nosferatu: The Vampire (1979). It is a rather faithful homage to the original – in fact it is often a shot-for-shot recreation of the original, albeit with gorgeous color cinematography, although Herzog does manage to add some creative wrinkles of his own. Most notable, perhaps, is the performance of Klaus Kinski as Dracula, which is almost certainly the most complex and haunting performance of a vampire ever committed to the screen.
More recent is E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Shadow manages one of the most ingenuous gimmicks ever attempted in a remake: it is supposed to be a film of the making of the original Nosferatu, in which the director Murnau (played here by John Malkovich) has made a Faustian bargain with a real vampire who will feign playing an actor named Max Schreck who plays the Count. But as a real vampire Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe) must constantly feed off – and hence destroy – fellow members of the cast and crew. This potentially perilous plot works thanks to a brilliantly witty script and some exceptional performances. The film manages to be a rather profound meditation on the ambiguous demands of creativity, which can be both life-sustaining and all-consuming. In the end it is the director, Murnau, who manages to confer eternal cinematic life upon the vampire Schreck and the remaining cast, but only after they have been sacrificed for the film. As the director, Murnau has fed off the cast and crew, doublecrossing them all in the pursuit of creating cinematic shadows that will outlive all concerned, images that will flicker in the dark forever.
Murnau’s original Nosferatu expressed philosophical themes found in the tradition of German Romanticism. But do the remakes express philosophical themes of their own? Perhaps not as explicitly nor as clearly. Nevertheless, the three films taken together as a trilogy do manage to correspond in an interesting way to the ideas of Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854). Schelling argued that Reality was a unity, but that it appeared in three aspects. First was the natural world – or Nature – as objectivity. That is, Schelling viewed the natural world as a kind of ‘slumbering spirit’ in and of itself. Next, at some point creatures evolved with the capacity to represent the world. But this capacity entailed subjectivity; each creature viewed itself as a subject and the world as an object, and thus believed that the subjective self and the objective world were separate realities. But Schelling believed this was a false view. The slumbering natural world has awoken through us. We are the eyes and ears of the world. The split between self and nonself, between subject and object, between an isolated [Cartesian] ego and a independent world, is an illusion – arising, ironically, through our capacity for self-reflection. Schelling felt that if Man could but hone and refine his capacity for self-reflection – cultivating an aesthetic sense – he would realize his fundamental identity with the world.
This pattern or theme coincides to a remarkable extent with the relationship and development of the three Nosferatu films. First, of course, is the original Nosferatu by Murnau. As the first screen adaptation of Dracula it is – at least as a film – relatively unselfconscious. Its dreamlike imagery, and the paucity of the verbal content, is reminiscent of Schelling’s view that primordial nature is a slumbering spirit. Next is Herzog’s Nosferatu,a virtually shotby- shot recreation – or representation – of the original film. Notably, this re-presentation of the film is in color, suggesting perhaps that a richer sense of self-awareness or selfconsciousness is at work. Finally, Shadows is a film that is deliberately both referential and self-referential – the film refers not just to the original film, but to the process of filmmaking, and to itself as a film of a film. This is like the way consciousness twists back upon itself, considering not just the world, but itself. Further, Shadows contains: (1) actual sequences from the original Nosferatu, and (2) recreations that represent scenes from the original, as well as (3) entirely new footage that purports to explain how the original Nosferatu was created. Yet these different levels, so to speak, are inextricably and seamlessly part of a whole – just as the different levels of objectivity and subjectivity, though seemingly separate, actually contain one another and are ultimately aspects of an inseparable unity. This unity could only be discovered by progressing from: Nature as Objectivity, Man as Subjectivity, to Nature/Man as an Inter- Subjective unity. And it is art and aesthetic experiences (including the trilogy of films discussed) that can provide the means to realizing that the objective and the subjective are ultimately subsumed in one another, a realization which constitutes a true expansion of our self-knowledge.
I doubt whether any of the filmmakers in question were aiming to express such esoteric philosophical notions. Some might argue that I am projecting complex ideas like Schelling’s back onto these films. But even if I am, that doesn’t mean we can’t use these film as a good way of explaining Schelling’s ideas. Reason enough, I think, to suggest that philosophy and film are well suited to one another.
© Scott D. O’Reilly 2002
Scott O’Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He is completing work on Socrates in Cyberspace, a book which examines traditional conceptions of the soul in the light of modern neuroscientific findings.