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Austrian Expressionism

Video Links The primary films referenced in this material are available to view within the article:. In her extensive biography of Murnau, Lotte Eisner includes a number of interviews with his family members and friends, which shed some light on his early life and some of the influences that show up prominently in his work.

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Although he studied art history and literature at University, Murnau was also passionate about the theatre, and even constructed his own theatre as a boy to stage plays with his brothers. His love for the stage led him to join a new theatre school founded by Max Reinhardt. She goes on to claim that not only are general Romantic ideals and precepts traceable in his work, but that almost any Murnau film can be narratively and symbolically linked to a specific opera by Wagner.

The German Expressionism exhibit at MoMA

A curious and adventurous individual, Murnau traveled extensively, learning from other cultures and interacting with the international film community. These experiences enhanced his films both aesthetically and technically. He goes on to note that when Murnau filmed the phantom forest sequence in Nosferatu , he was inspired by the creative usage of negative film in the Swedish horror film The Phantom Carriage.

Although he did not actually write his screenplays himself, he was evidently drawn primarily to projects taken from literary material. It should be as mobile as possible to catch every passing mood, and it is important that the mechanics of the cinema should not be interposed between the spectator and the picture.

Eschewing the artificial conventions developed in early silent films, and the exaggerated, stylized acting associated with the Expressionist movement, he encouraged a more naturalistic acting style. Jannings insisted on a more exaggerated interpretation of a dramatic scene, while Murnau called for more subtlety. He created characters who came to life and were not mere stereotypes. By endowing his characters with personal emotions and urges, Murnau frequently places them outside the acceptable bounds of their respective communities. While praising his emotional depth, however, she also criticizes him for his idealized, asexual image of women.

These three films have the benefit of being complete and obtainable in a convenient and restored format, allowing for a fuller experience and analysis without the difficulties of dealing with faulty prints, distortion, graininess, and missing scenes. His appreciation for subtlety and method acting shines through even when his actor is concealed by layers of complex makeup that leaves him barely human.

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However exaggerated his pointy ears and rodent-like teeth may be, Nosferatu never seems to cross over into comedy or grotesqueness. However, his body language is surprisingly subdued and at the same time eloquent. Throughout most of the film his tall, thin frame is cautiously hunched over his folded hands and claw-like nails, making him seem like a furtive wild animal, ready to pounce but wary of the human world that rejects and fears him.

Every unusual movement he makes is carefully choreographed and structured, meant to create a very specific shape within the frame or to throw a particular shadow.

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He is frequently placed in windows, doorways, and arches that surround his figure with oppressively structured negative space that seems to both imprison him in the coffin-lie confines of his immortality and showcase his unnaturalness to the other characters. He fills the confined space of the window luring her to her inevitable demise, but just as he takes over the frame, he is also crushed by it and almost seems to be trying to claw his way out in desperation.

Throughout the film, his movements are so slow and measured that they gain a special significance and monumentality. In the famous low-angle shot aboard the ship taking him to Germany, he slowly crosses the frame, his long nails unfolded, his dark silhouette isolated and emphasized by the light background of the sky.


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It is not the animalistic makeup that makes him frightening and inhuman, but the subtle, visceral quality of his body language, a charged timidity that melts almost imperceptibly into lethal menace. He is unable to elicit sympathy or attraction from anyone and he expects none. He is both an ethereal symbol of evil and a tragic figure, so distorted and embittered by his essence that he can only be saved through suffering and sacrifice. Murnau makes excellent use of shadows and silhouettes in Nosferatu to create the aura of a creature belonging to another world and convey a paranoid sense of evil omnipresence.

As in all his films, Murnau was deeply involved in every step of the process beginning with the screenplay. Eisner notes that the scene could not have been spontaneously improvised as it required a new set. Although Eisner does not mention this, it must also have required extensive planning and choreography of the lighting to make sure all the shadows fell where and how they were supposed to.

As none of this is in the script, it must have been a last-minute decision by Murnau, who felt that the scene as written was not strong enough. His appearance before Ellen is made more frightening, because the audience is still denied the sight of his physical form as he appears only through the terrified gaze of Ellen, as his supernaturally large shadow engulfs her, the darkness obliterating her innocent white figure.

Is she an asexual, self-sacrificing Madonna, or a liberated woman seeking her own path? It seems Murnau was somewhat conflicted himself. At the same time, she is shown at the start of the film as an innocent child playing with kittens, and mourning dead flowers.

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Ellen realizes that to destroy Dracula, she must lure him to her bedside and keep him with her till dawn by allowing him to drink her blood. In the original screenplay, Dracula attempts to leave before sunrise and Ellen takes the initiative, embracing him and pulling him back. Interestingly, the scene is deleted by Murnau and does not figure in the script. By not allowing Ellen to make the final gesture Murnau re-asserts her position as victim. The very real, monumental feeling of the landscape, shown in long, brooding takes, conveys a different kind of expressionism from the one achieved by artistically distorted sets in a studio.

An interesting contrast to Nosferatu, Faust does not actually feature natural environments. Shooting on a studio set, Murnau made sure to employ all of his theatrical experience to bring the sets as close to natural landscapes as possible, still not wanting to resort to evident artifice. Consequently, one of the main characters of the film is light.


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The smoky feel of the light, and the dark shadows on the wings make the demoniac figure seem as if he were materializing out of a cloud of dark mist. The print depicts a figure of Satan with black, outstretched wings, emerging out of darkness. Very heavy set, which will require additional shipping charges.

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