Monday, 27 February 1
Yesterday, Nosferatu, the Vampire.2
A rather nondescript German film, but of a nondescript quality that forces one to reflect and to imagine something better. Terror, just like pity, can be excited in the mind of the spectator (at least of this spectator) only if he is not too much aware of the author’s concern to move to terror or pity; furthermore, I doubt whether the classic precept If you wish me to weep, you yourself must grieve first3 is a very good recipe.
In Nosferatu the hero’s terror checks, gets in the way of, mine. The hero, who is depicted as dashing, venturesome, and even very pleasingly bold, undergoes a dreadful change and passes from excessive joy to the expression of an excessive terror. I should myself be more frightened if I were less aware of his being afraid.
If I were to make over the film, I should depict Nosferatu—whom we know to be the vampire from the start—not as terrible and fantastic, but on the contrary in the guise of an inoffensive young man, charming and most obliging. I should like it to be only on the basis of very mild indications, in the beginning, that any anxiety should be aroused, and in the spectator’s mind before being aroused in the hero’s. Likewise, wouldn’t it be much more frightening if he were first presented to the woman in such a charming aspect? It is a kiss that is to be transformed into a bite. If he shows his teeth at the outset, it becomes nothing but a childish nightmare.
How much cleverer it would be, instead of constantly emphasizing that concern with terror, to pretend on the contrary a desire to reassure the spectator: “No, not at all, there is nothing terrible there at all, nothing that is not quite natural; at most something a bit too charming”; even though one might have to let Nosferatu be more open about it on the boat with the sailors.
Likewise for the pseudo-scientific part, presented here with a truly German heavy hand; absurd. How much cleverer it would have been, beside the fantastic explanation, to provide the spectator with a perfectly rational and plausible explanation based on this little precise fact that we all know: that a plague can be transmitted by rats!
In a well-constructed fantastic tale the mind must be able to be satisfied with the natural explanation. It must almost be able to suffice; but the narrator will go about it in such a way that the skeptic is he who does not happen to be satisfied with it. It is the materialistic and positivistic mind that must appear as naive in this case.
The wonderful thing in Goethe’s Erlkönig, for instance, is that the child is not so much terrified as charmed, that he surrenders to the mysterious blandishments the father does not see. At first all the fright is on the father’s part. I should have wished that, likewise, the young woman of Nosferatu, though conscious of her sacrifice in the beginning, had lost that consciousness, so to speak, yielding to the vampire’s charms, and that he had not been horrible in her eyes. It might be rather startling, further־ more, for the vampire to yield to the woman’s charms, to forget the hour. ... I can easily see him appearing a hideous monster to everyone, and charming only in the eyes of the young woman, a voluntary, fascinated victim; but that, fascinated in turn, he should become less and less horrible until he really becomes the delightful person whose mere appearance he only took on at first. And it is this delightful person that the cock’s crow must kill, that the spectator must see suddenly disappear with relief and, at the same time, regret.
In short, a film that was completely spoiled.
From The Journals of Andre Gide, Vol. Ill, 1928-1939, by André Gide, translated by Justin O’Brien. Copyright 1949 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Title supplied.
2.A German film adapted from Bram Stokers Dracula, directed by F. W. Murnau and featuring Max Schreck, produced by Prana-Film in 1 922.
3.Horace: Eputolae, II, iii. 102-3.