One of the most well-known films of the silent era is Nosferatu, a German horror flick that took its inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And with “took its inspiration from” I mean “copied, changed out the names, and ending of”. It’s widely believed that Nosferatu is an expressionistic film, though while we were watching it in class, I failed to notice the characteristics of expressionism in the film. The thing that did catch my eye, were the references to romanticism, making it a romantic film, rather than an expressionistic one. Well, wouldn’t you know it; we discussed the film the next course and turns out that it isn’t an expressionistic film, but a romantic one. While I already guessed it, it still seemed quite odd that when people talk about Nosferatu, there’s rarely any mention of romanticism. Even its Wikipedia page fails to address this:
“Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror; or simply Nosferatu) is a 1922 German Expressionist horror film…”
Because not a lot of people tie romanticism to Nosferatu, and because it’s Halloween I decided to write something about how the famous horror film belongs in this art movement, instead of in the one people usually associate it with.
Romanticism and Expressionism in Painting
To start things off, let’s look at the characteristics of these two art movements and how we can see them in paintings. Usually, in romantic pieces, nature is the main focal point. The painting may feature human characters, though their backs are nearly always turned towards us. They’re looking at what’s in front of them; beautiful landscapes depicting forests, seas, mountains and the many other things this planet has to offer. These paintings beg us to appreciate nature and think about it. They want to evoke human emotions with landscapes and they want to give you a sense of nostalgia. Humans may also appear very small in these paintings, showcasing how tiny and insignificant we are in this big world. Nostalgia and the Middle ages are reoccurring themes in this movement so it’s evident that there are a lot of castles and references to folklore in general. According to the Oxford dictionary, the movement is:
“A movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.”
Which again puts an emphasis on how the human individual is accentuated in these pieces. The movement arose in early 1800 as a counter-movement to classicism, much like how every art movement is the opposite of the one coming before.
After World War One, another movement rose up, called expressionism. The main idea of expressionism is to distort reality drastically to generate an emotional effect that evokes certain moods or ideas. In expressionistic paintings, we can often find clear shapes, sharp, crooked lines, bright colors, and a fake sense of depth. They’re very stylized. We can also link expressionism to romanticism, because of a certain art movement called symbolism. Symbolism is an offshoot of Romanticism, while expressionism is an offshoot of symbolism.
Romanticism and Expressionism in Film
Only very few films can be categorized as German expressionistic films. One of those films is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), which was made by Robert Wiene in 1920. In expressionistic films, the focus doesn’t lie on the actors and their performances, but the viewer’s focus is drawn to the incredible dream-like sets. They’re unrealistic, slightly absurd, and seem to be pulled right from someone’s sketches, which they basically were. Just take a look at these concept sketches made by Hermann Warm for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and then take a look at how the sets ended up looking; they’re nearly identical.
Now if we take those shots, and compare them to expressionistic paintings, you’ll notice that they’re very similar in style. This is because, in expressionistic films, they applied the same rules there were for paintings to film. It copies what’s been done before in other art forms. Shots seem to be pulled right from another painting. Notice how in these shots, the sets are a collection of deformed iterations of things we can find in real life. The set pieces look crooked, consist of very basic shapes and sharp lines so that they feel very unrealistic and unnatural. The houses look like houses, but not really, the lantern post looks like a lantern post, but not really, the roofs look like roofs, but not really, and it’s all done deliberately to give the film an unsettling feeling. They’ve adjusted reality, they’ve distorted it, and have given us their interpretation of it.
Of course, film consists out of moving images, rather than still ones, so there are a few extra characteristics added, like how actors interact with the sets. In films like these, actors become extensions to the set, they’re part of it. Their movements are very static, choreographed and stylized to generate an uneasy feeling with the viewer. Their performances are quite odd, while in Nosferatu the performances are rather realistic, except for the one of the titular character.
If we compare shots from Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1922, to shots from Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, you’ll immediately see that they’re very dissimilar. Nosferatu looks rather realistic compared to the cartoony sets of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. The contrast between the visual look of these films should already make you think that they belong to two separate movements, though this doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. Quite a lot of people still state that Nosferatu is, in fact, expressionistic and they have their fair share of arguments to back that up, but most of those arguments are pretty idiotic if you apply the basic definitions of the two art movements.
For one, I’ve heard people say that because the rooftops have edges in Nosferatu, the film must be expressionistic, which just sounds ridiculous to me. I believe that with this argument, they’re referring to how the houses and roofs look in movies like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. The difference is, though, that the sets in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari are all handcrafted and made to look fake, while in Nosferatu, they specifically went to different locations to film certain scenes. The sets we are able to witness are all very real. If we go back to the definition of expressionism, it says that the art movement wants to deform reality, which is the exact opposite of what Nosferatu accomplishes. By having the real rooftops and locations, the film does not deform reality, it merely uses what’s already been build centuries ago. Sure they look fantasy-like, but that isn’t a characteristic of expressionism, it is one of romanticism. In Romanticism, the artists tend to tell folklore stories and fairy tales, that all carry a fantasy atmosphere. It’s a throwback to the stories told in the middle ages. The retelling of these stories indicates a certain longing for the past; the sense of nostalgia that’s central in the art movement. That’s also why the film utilizes a lot of fairy tale locations in general, like Count Orlok’s castle and the seemingly haunted forest that surrounds it.
Furthermore, there are also people who say that the film is expressionistic because it was filmed on location, which is even more absurd. The few expressionistic films that exist, are all shot in a studio, because they had to deform reality. They couldn’t show any realistic attributes in the sets; the sets had to look fabricated and fake, which you wouldn’t get by going to different locations and filming there. Filming on location only gives the film a more realistic feeling, which is something expressionistic films aren’t striving for. Opposite of that, there’s Nosferatu that aims for realism. It’s as if fantasy has intruded our reality. Usually, there’s the studio that serves as a mental protection for the viewer, reminding them that what’s taking place is fake, but now they’ve brought the vampire outside of the studio and inside of your living space, that wall of defense is gone, and the film has become a whole lot scarier.
And if that isn’t enough proof, let’s compare a shot from Nosferatu to a painting of famed romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich:
They’re pretty similar. The composition is practically spot on. Instead of the three ships, there are gravestones, though the most important aspect of the art piece is the way the character is positioned and the feeling it evokes. The person in question is turned with their back towards us (characteristic of romanticism) and is looking out over the ocean, contemplating, and waiting. The shot before this one is a title frame on which we can read the following:
“Ellen went to the beach often, to spent time alone in the dunes. She longed for her beloved. Her eyes searched far across the waves”
This title card and shot are the embodiment of romanticism. Individuality? Check, she goes to the beach alone. Longing for the past? Check, she misses her husband immensely. Nature’s the centerpiece? Check, due to her having her back turned towards us, the focus is drawn to the ocean. Love? Check, she longs for her loved one. Check. Check. Check. It fulfills all of the requirement to fit into romanticism, and this is just one example of a tiny snippet out of an hour and a half long film. It’s scattered with references to romanticism. The film’s filled with shots of beautiful landscapes, castles, medieval towns, which again are all characteristics of romanticism. Even the films major themes are similar to the ones we can find in Friedrich’s paintings, like the individualism already mentioned in this scene.
The only thing that could be seen as expressionistic in this film is Max Schreck’s performance as the Count Orlok; it’s very stylized, creepy, and static, much like how the zombie was performed in for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.
Much like many other German films from the 1920’s, Nosferatu is not a German expressionistic film. It’s not that because the film has fantasy-like elements, that it belongs to that art movement, on contrary even. It is because of those fantasy-like elements that it belongs to the romantic movement. Shots look similar to art pieces from that movement and the film deals with the same themes, while it fails to pass all of the requirements to be deemed an expressionistic film. Not to say that I do not enjoy expressionistic films; I really like them, even more so than romantic films, it’s just that Nosferatu is not part of them. So yeah, that’s it. Now you know why Nosferatu isn’t an expressionistic film and now you have the privilege to hit the next person who says so.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahezf-gk8jQ&t=1389s
www.pinterest.com/pin/570760952764756032/ – Hermann Warm’s sketch (1)
https://twitter.com/41strange/status/821809538177187840 – Hermann Warm’s sketch (2)
https://www.moma.org/collection/works/66223 – Russian Landscape with Sun (1919), by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonrise_by_the_Sea – Moonrise over the Sea (1822) by Caspar David Friedrich
https://www.wassilykandinsky.net/work-291.php – Murnau Street With Women (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky
https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/schmidt-rottluff-dr-rosa-schapire-n06248 – Dr Rosa Schapire (1919) by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
https://www.moma.org/s/ge/collection_ge/object/object_objid-68668.html – Street Lantern (Die Laterne) (1918) by Lyonel Feininger
https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-calais-pier-with-french-poissards-preparing-for-sea-an-english-packet-arriving-tw0513 – Calais Pier, with French Poissards Preparing for Sea: an English Packet arriving (1803) by Joseph Mallord William Turner
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich
https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-times-of-day-the-evening-caspar-david-friedrich.html – The Evening (1821) by Caspar David Friedrich