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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nosferatu at 90: The Jew as Vampire

It's a perplexing issue. One of the most revered--and effective--horror films of all time though F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu may be, it is also tainted for many by the shadow of one of history's most persistent prejudices.

The notion that Nosferatu contains anti-semitic overtones is certainly not a new one. Critics and historians have debated the matter for decades. I submit that although the basis for the story and the characters does indeed come from Bram Stoker's 1897 English novel, the particular direction and slant its first cinematic adaptation chose to take was motivated at least in part by the time and place in which it was made: Weimar Germany between the World Wars.

Do I believe Murnau and his crew were necessarily virulent anti-semites and so chose to make a film to specifically carry a message of ethnic hatred? No. I believe that Nosferatu is, first and foremost, an adaptation (albeit a copyright infringing one) of Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, it is also foolish and naive to believe that it was not influenced implicitly by the cultural milieu of its time.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany's leader
during World War I.
Germany after the First World War was a place of great bitterness and national impotence. Soundly defeated and humiliated, the country was reeling after the fall of the Kaiser, before the Third Reich arose to give the nation a sense of vindication and purpose once again. The Reich came to power in part by playing off a rampant ethnic bias that had become more virulent than ever.

Contempt for Jews was certainly nothing new in Christian Europe. But by the 1920s, it had reached a modern high in Germany, where many blamed the Jews for sabotaging the war effort, even of secretly conspiring to use their supposed wealth and power to undermine Germany and hand it over to its enemies. In short, they were scapegoated, and it became more acceptable than ever to resent and mistrust them. This is the leverage that Hitler and his cronies would use to ascend to power, promising to rid the Fatherland of the vermin polluting it.

Four years after the Treaty of Versailles, and eleven years prior to Hitler's ascendancy to Chancellorship, F.W. Murnau directed Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror--the first vampire film, and arguably the pinnacle of German Expressionist cinema. The film is a masterpiece, but also a product of its time. And it can be no coincidence that this subject matter was chosen in particular, as well as the manner in which it was presented.

It is important to remember that at this time, the bulk of Germany's anti-semitism was directed at Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to their country in recent decades. There was a broad xenophobia at work--a fear of the other, of foreign menaces coming to weaken and dilute. It was in this environment that Murnau chose to adapt a novel in which a monstrous bloodsucker travels from the wilds of Eastern Europe and heads west to cause mayhem and destruction. Except in Murnau's version it would not be England that he targeted... but Germany.

As many have pointed out, Murnau’s version of “Dracula”, a.k.a. the repulsive Count Orlok, possesses many physical features commonly found in stereotypical caricatures of Jews at the time: A long hooked nose, long claw-like fingernails, bushy eyebrows, a large forehead with bald head, and a general feminization of his appearance which was also common. His appearance is not only comparable to anti-semitic imagery, but he is also made to look something like a rat, in accordance with the disgusting rodents he brings with him. This, in turn, ties back into the Jewish stereotype, as Jews were often equated with rats as well.

Orlok brings filth and plague with him—not unlike prevalent fears regarding Eastern European immigrants. It’s worth noting that this attitude was not just a German one, but could be found in many Western nations, including the United States. He is an outsider, traveling West to literally infect and suck the country dry.

Medieval woodcut depicting the ritualized murder by bleeding of a
Christian child at the hands of Jews.
The parallels between vampirism and European anti-semitism go back much further than Nosferatu, and were in fact part of the continental zeitgeist for centuries. Jews—as well as gypsies, another popular scapegoat target of post-World War I Germany—were often depicted as bloodsuckers, and some have even traced the vampire’s aversion to Christian imagery to this parallel. There was also a popular myth that circulated for centuries regarding the alleged Jewish practice of drinking the blood of Christian children.

Compared to the native German Jew, the Eastern European Jew was seen as more of an alien influence, dissimilar in dress, language and appearance. Like Nosferatu—and notably unlike later cinematic vampires—they stood out blatantly from the rest of the populace. They were obviously, visually “other”. And the indigenous populace responded with paranoia over being overrun, of their nation being transformed or infected, as by a disease. They were seen as parasites.

Taking all this into account, it is reasonable to assume that Murnau knew very well that his audience would understand the symbolism and underlying message implicit in the Dracula story that informed Nosferatu. I do not by any means descry Nosferatu as a piece of pre-Hitlerian anti-semitic propaganda; however, I do find it obvious that there is an element of that way of thinking which informs the film throughout. It is not the entire message or point of the work, but it is a component.

Anti-semitism had been popular in Germany throughout the 19th century, and was magnified to the tenth degree under the influence of the Nazi party. Bridging the gap between those two eras was the time during which Nosferatu was made. It was a time during which commonly held prejudices were being congealed and codified into something far more sinister and institutionalized, and the influence of that time period on a film like Nosferatu is undeniable. It is a work of its time, designed in part to play on the fears of its target audience.

It was these festering fears, which boiled over during the Weimar years, which allowed Hitler and his ilk to get the populace on board with their plans for a return to German dominance, and to cleansing their Fatherland of the alien influence which had, they insisted, weakened it and brought it low. The Jew—along with the gypsy, the homosexual and any other element deemed a threat to the purity of the Aryan race—would be routed out in a Final Solution more horrifying than anything Murnau, Stoker or any other purveyor of fiction could have imagined.

While far from a work of pre-Nazi propaganda, and I would never characterize it as such, I can see the influence of these nascent strains of thought on the picture, both as a Jungian product of social subconscious and also, it must be said, through conscious intent. Yet these tropes inform much of early vampire literature and film, and I cannot discount their merit or their power as works of art on that basis. There is nothing wrong with enjoying Nosferatu—it is certainly a landmark film worth cherishing. But there’s also nothing wrong with remaining open to understanding the culture and social mindset from which it came.


Bob the Caretaker said...

Thought-provoking stuff. You're making some valid points here, and with a refreshing sense of perspective too (from a horror blog, who'd have thought it?...). Personally, I tend to see Nosferatu as tapping into a general fear of destructive outside forces, which, post-WW1, could equally mean the Jews, the French, the Slavic peoples, or even (a bit like 'Caligari') the tyrant Kaiser himself, who had just dragged Germany through the whole bitter conflict. Such is the symbolic potency of the vampire!

I'll be poking around Count Orlock's casket myself over at The Devil's Manor in a week or two - meanwhile, can I heartily recommend Howard Waldrop's Nosferatu-themed short story "Der Untergang Des Abendslandesmenschen"? You won't be sorry. Don't worry, it's in English.


B-Sol said...

Very well put, Bob. The vampire has long seemed to stand for the "other" in so many ways, and post WWI Germany was just a place rife with fear over the "other", whatever form it may take. With that much paranoia, it's no wonder they produced so much classic horror during this period! I can certainly see how their multi-faceted fears helped inform Nosferatu, however it's always been the very stereotypically Semitic appearance of Orlok that clinches it for me as being aimed at Jews more than other groups. Just as with the Holocaust itself, many groups were targeted, but the Jews made up the lion's share.

John W. Morehead said...

A great piece, Brian. I'm glad to see the horror blogosphere engage in some thought provoking commentary, and in connection with a classic silent film.

Anthony Hogg said...

The essentialness of the 'Other' in vampire representations is highlighted by Thomas J. Garza in this article: 'As long as we can tap into our xenophobia, then we get into the kind of vampires that make us squeal and jump.'

B-Sol said...

Thanks, John. Your feedback means a great deal to me, and I'm glad there's still a place for intelligent commentary in the horror blogosphere as well!
Anthony, I've noted this many times as well. Vampires are all about fear of the other. And in the end, I think this is the essence of horror in general.

Doug Brunell said...

This is a great piece. Excellent insight, and thought provoking.

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Doug. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Zombie Games said...

so that's where the nosferatu name comes from lol

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