A Devil Sick of Sin: Images of Death and Disease in Murnau's "Nosferatu"

Seminar Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Inside, Outside

3 Death and Disease

4 Invisibility

5 Ubiquity

6 Paralysis

7 Conclusion

8 Sources

1 Introduction

In adapting Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau has made quite a few changes to the ori­ginal plot. Some of them were made due to economic and practical reasons, such as moving the setting and locations to Germany, some of them in order to avoid charges of copyright infringement, such as changing the characters’ names, as Murnau was not authorised to make an adaptation.

However, Murnau doesn’t simply copy Dracula. Stoker’s novel about the in­tru­sion of an alien evil into English society is transformed into a story mirroring the fears that prevailed in Germany in the late 1910’s. Screenwriter Henrik Galeen and di­rector Murnau were obviously influenced by the impressions that both World War I and the influenza pandemic had left. The war had left large areas in Central Europe in ruins and had triggered many political changes. Often, the new-founded Weimar Republic was seen as weak and incapable of acting. Moreover, the out­break of the Spanish Flu in 1918 proved no less devastating, ranking “with the plague of Justinian and the Black Death as one of the three most destruc­tive hu­man epidemics.”[1] Assisted by large troop movements and disastrous hy­gienic con­ditions after the armistice, the disease spread across the globe within less than three months. Physicians and scientist were helpless. There was no im­munization available: the influenza virus could not be isolated and positively iden­tified as the pathogene until 1932. In fact, even today there are no means of pre­ven­ting another influenza epidemic[2].

Murnau begins with a caption that presents the movie as a record of an epi­demic: “Aufzeichnung über das große Sterben in Wisborg.” The vampire is not the party animal that Lugosi impersonated; instead, Murnau draws on a tradition that associates vampires with unexpected or inexplicable death.[3] His creature feeds on a society which is defenseless against him, either because its members are too weakened or too terrified to take action. Thus, though set almost one hundred years in the past, Nosferatu presents an actualisation of Dracula.

I would like to point out a few evident parallels between the composition of Nosferatu and the situation of the time the film was made, as it presents itself his­torically. I will concentrate on a few striking themes of the movie, namely the em­phasis on an omni­present threat of untimely death and the sense of helpless­ness, paralysis, and decay connected with it.

2 Inside, Outside

In order to give an outline of the peculiar character of Count Orlok, I will show some of the differences to Stoker’s conception of the vampire. When Todd Browning’s vampire appears at the concert to introduce himself to his new neighbors, he is given a warm reception. Lucy, especially, is intrigued by his suave elegance. Obviously, Dracula can move in England’s high society with ease. Even his antagonist, Dr. Van Helsing, needs quite some time and combinational skill to find out about the Count’s true nature.

Count Orlok’s presence, however, would not be acceptable at any matinée. From his first appearance on, when he emerges out of a dark archway, he is characterised by repulsive otherness. Hutter shies away from the vampire’s gaunt figure when he encounters him, but his greed and ambition win over any caution.

Whereas Browning generates a sense of dramatic irony by presenting a vampire who can assimilate into society and be welcomed as ‘one of us,’ Murnau shows a blood-sucker who is equally appalling to both film characters and au­di­ence. Count Orlok’s appearance, with his elongated incisors and pointed ears, re­sembles a rat. His mask-like, empty stare and stiff motions add to the disgusting impression. Moreover, he hardly communicates with anybody. Much unlike Browning’s Dracula who is quite talkative, Orlok speaks strikingly little, even for a figure in a silent movie. His gestures are equally rudimentary, limited to a few stiff moves such as the abrupt bow when he greets Hutter. Murnau thus makes a point of depicting the Count as an outsider, as something completely inhuman.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Also different from Stoker’s creature, the vampire’s threat is not tied as closely to its person. His arrival in Wisborg shows symptomatically in the epi­demic and the death of the townspeople, however, we never see him attack anybody ex­cept Ellen. It seems that his pure presence and the fact that he has been invited into the city is the cause of the people’s death. This, in turn, suggests that the vampire is not just a singular evil, that he represents something else, an abstract concept.

3 Death and Disease

The vampire’s journey by ship is given a remarkable amount of screen time. The con­notation with colonization in reverse it has in Dracula is lost when the story is translated from an English to a German setting. In Nosferatu, instead, it parallels the history of the Plague, which in medieval times hit sea ports first (among others Con­stan­ti­no­ple in 1347, Venice and Marseilles in 1348[4] ).

In both Stoker’s and Murnau’s version, the vampire kills the crew and arrives on a ghost ship. The connection to the Plague im­plied there might have been a mi­nor aspect in the original. In Murnau’s time, how­­ever, it gains an alarming actuality: the influenza pandemic, too, spread along ship­ping lines to North America, Africa, East Asia, and Australia. In Central Europe it star­­ted from Brest, one of France’s main ports[5]. Nosferatu can turn himself into a mass of rats to avoid detection[6]. Also, rats follow him out of the hatch when he arrives in Wisborg. The rodents used to be carriers of the Indian rat flea, which, in turn, trans­mit­s the bacterium Yersinia pestis, respon­sible for the bubonic plague during the 14th century[7]. Also, Hutter is given a book that links Orlok to the “Black Death.” The caption says that the vam­pire needs contaminated soil in order to exist.[8]


[1] Potter, C.W. “A history of influenza”. Journal of Applied Microbiology 31. 2001: 575.

[2] cf. ibid., 572.

[3] cf. Becker, Markus. “Echte Vampire trinken kein Blut”. Spiegel Online. <http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/0,1518,273835,00.html>.

[4] cf. Bugl, Paul. “History of Endemics and Plagues”. <http://uhavax.hartford.edu/bugl/histepi.htm#plague>.

[5] cf. Potter, C.W. “A history of influenza”. Journal of Applied Microbiology 31. 2001: 576.

[6] cf. the scene where the Romanian customs officer demands that the boxes be opened and finds a flock of rats instead of the vampire.

[7] cf. Bugl.

[8] „Särge so gefüllet mit gottverfluchter Erde von den Äckern des schwarzen Todes.“

Excerpt out of 14 pages


A Devil Sick of Sin: Images of Death and Disease in Murnau's "Nosferatu"
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Cinema and Society, Kino und Gesellschaft
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ISBN (Book)
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F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu", the first vampire flick ever, is not simply an adaptation of Stoker's "Dracula." Taking into consideration aspects of narratology and cinematography, this paper investigates the images of disease, paralysis, and death in "Nosferatu" and shows how they reflect the experience of the war and the Spanish Flu epidemic. This paper contains images from the film and has been proofread.
Devil, Sick, Images, Death, Disease, Murnau, Nosferatu, Cinema, Society, Kino, Gesellschaft
Quote paper
Jens Rymes (Author), 2004, A Devil Sick of Sin: Images of Death and Disease in Murnau's "Nosferatu", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/45796


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