He was gay. He was serious. He made magic with light and lenses and the imagination.
Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe was born in Bielefeld on December 28, 1888 but the world knows him best as F.W. Murnau. He died on March 11, 1931 from a car accident on the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara, CA. Only 11 people were in attendance at his funeral near Berlin, one of whom was the great Greta Garbo who commissioned a death mask of his face she kept displayed on her desk in Hollywood, CA. He was 42 years old when he died.
We have cameras everywhere we go now. On our phones, inside parking garages, at red lights, inside retail businesses, outside our homes, inside teddy bears that spy on babysitters and house cleaners, inside schools, and pretty much anywhere there is a source of electric power to get one turned on properly. Like cars, we don’t often think much about how they work. It wasn’t until 1895 that the first moving picture was projected for a paying audience of greater than 1. It was a novel medium with many detractors who were convinced that there wasn’t a real future for motion pictures and it was artists like Murnau who would master this new technology and take it to stunning heights that would quicker our breath and jump start our pulse.
As with anyone I write about, I will once again add the caveat that I do not maintain crushes like a teenage girl. I did not maintain such practices even as a teenage girl. Rather than get obsessive about a person, I tend to get more obsessive about the products of their work. There’s a lot to obsess over in any given frame of a Murnau film.
One of Murnau’s most well known works is Nosferatu. It is vital to note that this incredible piece of German expressionist film was very nearly lost to the ages because of copyright infringement. Even in 1922 there were battles over who could own an idea and Florence Stoker and the Bram Stoker estate successfully sued and a court order called for all copies of the movie to be destroyed for their striking similarities to the novel Dracula, published in 1897. One copy of the film had already escaped into the world and what we see today has been a duplicate of that sole survivor.
For anyone with remaining doubts about the legitimacy of crafting Nosferatu out of Dracula’s influence, kindly consider the fact that Bram Stoker did not invent vampires nor vampire mythology. Unauthorized adaptation that it was, the novel rose to unprecedented success and sales after the release of the film. In 1931, Universal Pictures would release their own version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. It was without a doubt a great performance and Lugosi’s vampire still defines what we consider to be the de facto qualities of a vampire in America with a grand performance by a skilled actor with the addition of sound and dialog that appealed to the slightly campier (but still horrific) side of the imagination.
Bela Lugosi was a very theatrical actor who had donned a refined cape for a role before but it would never be the same again for him after the rampant success of Dracula. In 1931 the movies were still in their very infancy and American film studios had not yet produced a “horror” genre. Universal greenlit the film and crossed their fingers, anxious as to how audiences would react. It is rumored that blood curdling screams erupted in the audience. Lugosi was regarded as a refined walking and talking corpse with his pale face and the slowed pacing of his lines, famously recalled, “I don’t drink…wine.” Lugosi would ultimately be buried in his cape after his death at the age of 73 after his revered career and remarkable talents had only been requested for campy productions predominantly headed by Ed Wood.
It’s strange to compare these two great figures in vampire cinema lore. Nosferatu hits on some dark truths and manages to inspire both disgust and filth and offers a very different commentary on wealth, plagues, and the erotic than Dracula. It is a very different experience to watch these two films and there’s something about Orlok that manages to follow you home to disturb your thinking.
One of the major distinctions between the films is that Nosferatu is more about the blurred lines between human and wild animal, namely the animals that can spread an epidemic. It’s the notion of disease that makes Nosferatu slightly more disturbing. Although the supernatural components cannot be denied, Max Schreck’s vampire has a consistently uncanny posture, pointed teeth that look like a rat’s, shrubby hair, pointy ears, and inhuman hands. He does not come off as something that was once human and his victims all die.
Lugosi’s vampire looks pretty damn good tuxedo for the undead. Although the blurred lines between human and wild animal are present, it seems to hearken more to the notion of wild supernatural magic. Lugosi depicts a man whose hair line is as sharp as his fangs. He wasn’t a social butterfly, per se, but Dracula could at least be a little sociable at a gathering. At the very least, creeper that he may have been, if Dracula stopped by the snack table to grab some finger food (even just for show) you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable being the person in line behind him. If Orlock touched the cheese squares, you would feel inclined to throw out the whole platter and justifiably so.
This is not intended to be a comparison between the two films but it inevitably becomes one. For one, Dracula did sue Nosferartu and win. It is fitting to think that a vampire film was peresecuted and nearly killed by fire in Europe but was smuggled by pirates to America where the copyright was freer and it could propagate into our imagination.
It is in a comparison between the two that we can better identify key philosophical themes in the two vampire stories. There are key critical deviations in the Murnau Van Helsing character from the novel and film Van Helsing that create massive deviations in the plot. Let it not be said that Murnau is particularly “feminist”, for whatever that word is still worth or means or ever meant. He creates dramatically good wispy women and sacrifices them off to tell a story of the drama and failings of men at the expense of large groups of people and women. He tells these stories at the expense of women characters. This is what makes film theory so exciting. It’s like watching an ideological school of fish dodge about in an ocean of ideas.
Suffice to say, it’s still white men telling the story and it’s worth taking a moment to ground on the fact that it is this perspective and not holistic truths about life and human nature. The Murnau adaptation involves a man who leaves a wife, makes a deal with a demonic plague monster that allows him entry into his hometown, he is impotent to stop it, and it comes right into his bedroom with his wife but, pay attention gumshoes, it positively seizes and self-destructs when confronted with her sexually because it cannot stop, even as the sun rises sealing his fate and ending the plague.
It’s a relevant story. As we look through history and present day we can find a lot of intersections between business deals and plagues.
In the Dracula narrative, women are victims who have a formidable vampire attracting sexuality that must be tended to by rich, old, white, cis men. It’s a celebration of civilization against the wild, a long defense of compulsory whale boned corsetry. Murnau’s film seems to attack the notion of the white businessman ignoring his hysterical wife, ignoring the poor rural Romanians, ignoring what he’s seeing, then ignoring what he’s feeling, and signing a contract that codifies official entry by something he knows is bad and realizing then that’s it’s beyond his control. Thing of it is, he’s a jovial and lovable character the whole way through with nothing but a sincere smile for everyone. He never raises a fist, never says an unfriendly word, is not an outward jerk in any sense of the word but he values his objective and his paradigm beyond all other evidence and opinion and in doing so invokes a plague.
Dracula splays out the flirtatious Lucy on the autopsy table then penetrates her again as the undead and beheads her. Dracula “feeds” on Jonathon Harker’s wife Mina a few times creating an emotional bond that allows him to control her. (Could you get hit on the head with innuendo any harder?) But not to worry! Van Helsing knows how to hypnotize a lady and can identify the location of the monster and kill it. Then the lovely couple gets to have a perfectly heteronormative and procreative life. This Van Helsing is endowed with a balanced notion of science and mythology, a wise and calm counsel in a time of supernatural crisis. Never fear, the patriarchy is here. Be suspicious of weirdos and sexy, hysterical women.
I have to go with Nosferatu every time. I say this with incredible love for the film Dracula and especially for Bela Lugosi. For one, I am on the cusp of frantic masturbation at the mastery of light and shadows in a Murnau film. German expressionism is an absolute feast for the eyes. It’s tense and dramatic, dirty and sexual, very stylized, richly flamboyant in black and white. It is macabre and it is very beautiful. They used hyenas for wolves and it looks creepier for it.
The shadow of the vampire creeping up the sleeping Nina’s body is a chilling visual and remarkable piece of film work. The pacing and the saturation are impeccable. Critics and theorists have gravitated to it. Every time I watch it, it is punctuated by the thought that we might have missed it were it not for silent film pirates. Without copyright law, they would have been archivists. To a film lover like me, to have saved something from a literal fire was a noble act.
Still, there is so very much to be loved about Dracula and it really is centered in the wardrobe and cadence of Bela Lugosi. You can see the family line of Munsters, Lost Boys, Abbot and Costello, Twilight, Anne Rice, Buffy, exploitation flicks, drive in hits, and more American vampiric lore. Americans hunger for a dark sensual villain. We hooked onto the metaphor of the neck bite and ran with it. Vampires have been a sexual outlet like most of our horror figures because they emerge from the same imagination and in America they are also a huge industry. We went from grassroots campfire story telling before feverish masturbation to prime time slots and fan fictional. It’s still very inter-generational and always around something glowing. Imagine that.
Nosferatu as a character is deliberately uncanny in his motions, a work of both editing and acting and direction. It’s meant to be startling to watch. It is actually grotesque and well crafted. The experience of fear is what makes it erotic rather than a compelling figure to gaze upon as an erotic object. Terror is your lover rather than the acute figure on the screen. It’s the difference between what you want coming to get you rather than what you don’t want coming to get you. The moments when the tension builds in the cinema and you pop and jump up are like terrorgasms. Some films are more like “trantric terror” that keep squeezing and squeezing and building and building until it feels excruciating.
Nosferatu has had an influence as well. Murnau is often hailed as one of the greatest directors of all time. At his peak, he could harness and articulate a wild imagination. Nosferatu is our minor key. He made the way for our Freddies, Jasons, Michaels, and other grotesque hulking beasts that crave both blood and pussy and are almost always undone by the latter. Whenever we fixate on the pussy, however, we forget how much blood the monster consumes to get to it. Nosferatu the monster clears out an entire ship staffed solely by men. Then he brings a plague through the town that seems to wipe out folks in an even path of destruction. He has a psychotic bug gobbling slave. Still, we fixate when his shadowy hands climb from her thighs.
This is because the monster itself is not sexy. We experience the sexiness in the shadow and in the effect.
Faust on Netflix (a MUST see)
My blog entry about Mail Nurmi AKA Vampira
I will be speaking at the Good Vibes Sex Summit in San Francisco, CA on October 27. I’ll be speaking on a panel about censorship and that’s a topic near and dear to my heart since being deemed “sacrilegious” over photographs of rosaries in my vagina. There are lots of awesome speakers and ideas about sex to be discussed and you can catch The Quickies on the Friday night before the summit. These are zany, introspective sexy, and just plain WEIRD erotic short films and it’s really awesome to see what indie film makers are putting on film.
I’ll be a part of the Godless Perverts Story Hour on November 17th in San Francisco. It’s a great lineup of people braving the territory of being the antithesis of good Christians quite publicly. To quote:
With fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and performances from Maggie Mayhem, Victor Harris, Greta Christina, David Fitzgerald, Chris Hall, Dana Fredsti, Anthony O’Con, and Simon Sheppard, we’ll be bringing you depictions, explorations, and celebrations of godless sexualities, as well as critical, mocking, and blasphemous views of sex and religion. The evening’s entertainment will have a range of voices — sexy and serious, passionate and funny, and all of the above — talking about how our sexualities can not only exist, but even thrive, without the supernatural.