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Nosferatu at 100: Berlin exhibition examines vampire classic’s enduring appeal

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It was a nightmare born out of a pandemic: a silent killer that arrived from a faraway land, quickly spreading a delirious fever throughout the home inhabitants and leaving its hosts in an anaemic stupor.

By channelling modern fears round infectious ailments within the wake of the 1918-20 influenza pandemic, the 1922 expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu based a whole style of vampire horror films and impressed claw-fingered monsters that might spook generations to come back, from Freddy Krueger to the Babadook.

100 years after its commercially ill-fated launch, a brand new exhibition in Berlin is making an attempt to unravel the enduring attraction and uncomfortable political connotations of FW Murnau’s silent movie – with free entry to these prepared to make a blood donation exterior the gallery.

Nosferatu film poster
Nosferatu movie poster. {Photograph}: State Museums in Berlin

Phantoms of the Night time: 100 Years of Nosferatu, which opens at Berlin’s Scharf-Gerstenberg Assortment on Friday, exhibits that whereas Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula served as the plain inspiration for the movie, the Austrian-born screenwriter Henrik Galeen modified his supply materials in important methods as he moved the motion from Whitby in North Yorkshire to the fictional northern German port city of Wisborg.

“If Dracula within the novel was a crafty person who sucks blood from his victims, Nosferatu within the movie turns into a service of the plague,” stated the curator Jürgen Müller, an artwork historian at Dresden’s Technical College.

Posters promoting the movie, designed by its producer Albin Grau, depicted the vampire stepping off a ship within the firm of a military of swarming rats. Because the phantom-like spectre enters Wisborg, he passes the city effectively and appears to poison it that very second. “The vampire turns into an emblem of the epidemic,” writes Müller within the Berlin present’s exhibition catalogue, which is devoted to the virologist and main coronavirus skilled Christian Drosten.

Up to date audiences would have personally skilled the “Spanish flu” that ravaged the globe between 1918 and 1920, and the flea-borne typhus fever that had killed extra folks in elements of japanese Europe in the course of the first world battle than navy motion.

All through the film, Murnau intercuts acted scenes with documentary footage of rats, hyenas and spiders. When a health care provider battling the illness likens the contagion to “a polyp with tentacles”, the movie exhibits microscopic pictures of a polyp’s tendrils devouring one other cell.

Some advertorials selling the movie depicted the monster as a cross between a blood-sucking mosquito and an ant-eater, paying homage to the fantastical creatures depicted by the expressionist artists Alfred Kubin and Franz Sedlacek that dot the present on the Scharf-Gerstenberg Assortment, a gallery specialising in surrealist artwork.

Franz Sedlacek’s Lied in der Dämmerung (1931).
Franz Sedlacek’s Lied in der Dämmerung (1931). {Photograph}: State Museums in Berlin

“Nosferatu was the least erotic vampire you possibly can think about, a far cry from the Latin lovers that might grace Dracula movies in a long time to come back,” stated Frank Schmidt, one of many exhibition’s co-curators. “In Murnau’s movie the vampire’s deadly chunk is all the time solely steered, by no means proven. Nobody would need to be bitten by this creature.”

The fears that “Nosferatu” manages to bundle into its titular monster have been at the very least partly additionally xenophobic and antisemitic in nature. The hook-nosed vampire’s arrival in Wisborg evokes previous German conspiracy theories of Jews having precipitated the unfold of the bubonic plague by intentionally poisoning wells.

Within the movie, the vampire plots his journey to Germany with the assistance of the property agent Knock, performed by the Jewish actor Alexander Granach. They impart by way of letters that includes kabbalistic symbols and a star of David. Galeen himself got here from a household of Galician Jews within the former Austrian empire, and had made his title with two movies concerning the golem legend.

“The movie performs with fears of foreigners, particularly of Jewish immigrants from japanese Europe,” stated Müller.

Nosferatu
Nosferatu is ‘the least erotic vampire you possibly can think about’, says co-curator Frank Schmidt. {Photograph}: State Museums in Berlin

Whereas Müller has beforehand written at size concerning the seminal movie’s antisemitic undertones, the exhibition skirts over the difficulty pretty calmly – stunning, maybe, given the scandal caused at this year’s Documenta arts festival by an paintings containing a vampire-like caricature of a Jewish man.

Regardless of its darkish attract, Nosferatu flopped on the field workplace. One of many first movies whose advertising and marketing finances surpassed its manufacturing prices, posters and adverts have been plastered throughout Berlin months earlier than its launch. However as a result of the omnipotent UFA manufacturing firm declined to point out the movie in its chain of cinemas, it was solely proven at smaller venues and did not recoup its traders’ cash: three months after its launch, the manufacturing firm, Prana-Movie, went bankrupt.

The corporate’s authorized successor was then dragged right into a copyright lawsuit with Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe. After seven years of authorized motion, Stoker’s aspect received the case and all copies of the movie have been ordered to be destroyed.

With a number of prints already in circulation throughout the globe at that time, nevertheless, it survived, and Nosferatu the undead would proceed to stalk the collective creativeness.

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