NOSFERATU today: A brief discussion of FW Murnau’s horror masterpiece with Dr Cristina Massaccesi

Author of the Devil’s Advocates monograph on FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors (2015), Dr. Cristina Massacessi answered a few questions about the film’s restoration history and its place in cinema history, ahead of the forthcoming Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies lecture by Mark Rance on April 18th. Tickets available on the event page HERE >>

 Where do you think it sits as a film of the German Expressionist era? Is it expressionist or more closely linked to Romanticism?

CM: In terms of Expressionist conventions, Nosferatu is a very unusual film. Quite a lot of it is shot on location and there are really no examples of the reconstructed stages that are such a landmark in Expressionist cinema. For instance, Hutter’s arrival in Transylvania is marked by a majestic panoramic night shot of the mountains and forests of the Carpathians and this shot is important because it underlines a series of major points about Murnau’s approach to cinematography. First of all, we have the director’s predilection for location shooting that, as we said, marks his distance from Expressionism’s obsession on the employment of sets reconstructed in studios. Through the eyes of Murnau natural and urban locations and landscapes go through a poetic treatment and take on deep spiritual and immensely frightening resonances that in Expressionist cinema are normally conveyed through the carefully built-up sets. Furthermore, this panoramic view with its strong painterly feeling creates a bridge between Murnau’s work and the Romantic tradition of landscape painting.

Can you talk a little bit about the intertitles and how they work in the film?

The reconstruction and restoration into the film of the original intertitles was a difficult and lenghty process. Nosferatu was never really a lost film and there were always various copies appearing and disappearing around Europe and the United States. For example, Henri Langlois, the director of the French Cinémathèque in Paris, preserved a copy of the second version of the film dated 1926 or 1927. A print from this version – that was in black and white and without the original tones and tints – travelled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947 where its intertitles were translated into English and the names of the characters were changed to those in the novel. This was also the version that returned to Europe and was circulated in the 1960s as a prime example of Weimar cinema that was going through a phase of rediscovery. According to the necessities of the various screenings, the film’s intertitles were translated from language to language and with each new copy the deterioration in the image quality became consistent. To further add to the confusion, in 1930, a ‘second’ Nosferatu also appeared on the market: it was called Die zwölfte Stunde (The Twelfth Hour) and was advertised as an ‘artistic adaptation’ of the story. The film was intended to be released with the accompaniment of sound recorded on a grammophone record and contained additions, shortened sections, extra characters, sequences moved around the film and even a happy ending. It is entirely thanks to Lotte Eisner’s efforts if today we can watch the film as it was intended to be. In the 1950s she managed to obtain the original script of the film from Murnau’s brother. The script presented a series of alterations to Henrik Galeen’s original text which were handwritten by the director himself and it was used as a blueprint against the copy held at the Cinémathèque Française and other versions of the film.

Is tinting necessary to the effect of the film or do you think it works okay without it?

I think that a film so powerful as Nosferatu will always have an impact on the audience, even in its B&W version. It’s undeniable, though, that the tinted version does add another layer of meaning to it. First of all, it does clarify certain narrative points, such as Orlok’s own death at dawn right at the end of the film that simply doesn’t make any real sense in black and white. Furthermore, the tints employed in the 1920s had very specific time connotations and their removal for many years ultimately constituted a betrayal of the film’s original form and of the filmmakers’ intentions. The restoration of the tones and tints revealed by the surviving nitrate copy of the film finally gave the viewers the chance to truly appreciate the various narrative phases and nuances in the story that get inevitably lost in those purely black and white versions of the film. In silent cinema, tints and colours were determined by a set of clear colour-codes; thus, for instance, night scenes that have no other visible source of light apart from the moon are tinted in blue whilst interior sequences set during the day are tinted in an amber shade.

In the most recent restoration, the narrative is structured into Acts, like a play. Why did Murnau use such a device? 

The narrative structure of Nosferatu is very intriguing in its classical simplicity and it’s possible to interpret it in various ways. In 1990, for instance, Noel Carroll identified a generic narrative template structured around four phases that although often subjected to variations, could be employed as a blueprint in the reading and analysis of horror films. This template, known as the ‘complex discovery plot’, is usually composed of an onset, a discovery, a confirmation, and a confrontation stage and could be easily superimposed on Nosferatu. The four stages discussed by Carroll correspond roughly to the film’s division into acts – although in Nosferatu we have a total of five acts and there’s some degree of overlapping between the four moments and also some of the stages are more developed than others. In general, the division into acts also reflects the classical structure of setup-confrontation-resolution, although the confrontation and resolution moments in Nosferatu are rather interestingly concentrated in the last few minutes of the film and exclusively left to Ellen’s understanding and initiative. Another intriguing aspect of the division into acts is its impact on the overall tone of the film – there’s a sense of tragic inevitability to the film’s story and to the way its conflict is first built up and then resolved.


Mark Rance of Watchmaker Films gives a talk on his restoration of Murnau’s NOSFERATU on May 18th at Miskatonic London.