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Nosferatu and Ballet (class essay)

In 1922, F. W. Murnau made his silent classic Nosferatu, the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Exactly 80 years later, avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin made a new silent adaptation of Dracula. To say the films could not be more different would be exaggerating things. Maddin’s film often echoes Murnau’s, with its experimental use of black & white, monochrome tints, and intertitles. But Maddin’s film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, was not a straightforward dramatization, like Murnau’s film. Guy Maddin made a proudly experimental film of Mark Godden’s Dracula ballet. His cast is the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. What is more, a comparison of the two films reflects enormous changes in the popular vampire paradigm.

Both F. W. Murnau and Guy Maddin’s films took liberties with the Bram Stoker novel. In fact, neither film preserves the novel’s ending. Basically, each man who adapted the novel – Nosferatu‘s script writer, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary‘s choreographer – took the aspects of the novel he liked and revised the story to fit his own purposes and reflect his own concerns. Henrik Galeen’s screenplay for Nosferatu turned Dracula into a metaphorical story about the horror of World War I. Mark Godden’s late-nineties ballet turned Dracula into a story of premarital sex, infidelity, even venereal disease. Nosferatu was a work of gothic horror, emphasizing the chilling, macabre aspects of the story. Dracula: Pages emphasized the story’s sexual aspects in a way Murnau’s film would never have dared, nor even have wanted to.

The two films reflect a change in the popular model of Dracula himself. Nosferatu presented a vampire count who bore a great resemblance to the one in the book. Not all of the details are preserved, but Nosferatu (the new name for Dracula: see below) was kept a man with a frightening countenance. Nosferatu has large, pointed ears; long, claw-like fingers; fang teeth in the very front of his mouth; sparse hair above his ears; large eyebrows; and an altogether pale, macabre, even sickly appearance. Actor Max Schrek’s portrayal of Nosferatu is one of the most iconic images of silent cinema. Of course, 1931’s Dracula with Bela Lugosi happened, and has become for most of the world the definitive Dracula film, with the definitive Count Dracula. The paradigm of Dracula shifted from a ghastly, frightening man to a charismatic nobleman. Subsequently, Ann Rice happened. The paradigm changed further toward a handsome Dracula. Gothic horror gave way to eroticism. Dracula: Pages took this new paradigm to extremes. Dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang played perhaps the most beautiful Dracula of all time. His Asian ethnicity was already a radical departure from the Transylvanian (perhaps Turkish) original, but the real difference is in his smooth skin, his full head of curly hair, his healthy physique. Certainly, beautiful is the only word to describe this Dracula. (In this critic’s opinion, beauty of this level is wrong for Dracula. A Max Schreck or Klaus Kinski is far more appropriate. A Bela Lugosi is also acceptable.)

Additionally, while the two films are rooted in Dracula, the stories they tell are radically different. Even the cast of characters is radically different from one film to the next. Nosferatu eliminated the entire Lucy subplot from the novel and confined its scope to the story of Jonathan Harker, Mina, Renfield, and Dracula. Except Nosferatu was adapted from the Dracula without acquiring the rights (subsequent legal action by Stoker’s widow lead to several early-generation film materials being destroyed.) So all of the novel’s characters were renamed: Jonathan Harker became Hutter; Mina became Ellen; Renfield became Knock; Dracula became Nosferatu, with a second name of Count Orlok; and Dr. Van Helsing became Dr. Bulwer. Dracula: Pages was far truer to the original work. It retained all of the novel’s major characters, which gives the film an enormous cast.

In Nosferatu, a joyful, naïve young man named Hutter leaves his idyllic life at home with his fiancée to negotiate a real estate sale with the eccentric Count Orlok in Romania. While in Stoker’s book, a man named Peter Hawkins was Harker’s employer and Renfield was a strange patient in an asylum, here Knock is Hutter’s is the mysterious, possibly insane business man who sends Hutter to Count Orlok and is later imprisoned in the asylum. Knock tells Hutter of the promise of money, and cryptically states that the trip may cost him a little blood. Hutter, young and naïve as he is, is not afraid. His fiancée, Ellen, is afraid for Hutter’s life. And so the man who was once Harker becomes a metaphor for every young lad who went to fight in World War I with dreams of glory. As Hutter travels closer and closer to Orlok’s castle, the people he meets are increasingly fearful of Orlok. Yet Hutter refuses to be scared by their stories. And so the former Count Dracula becomes a metaphor for the war (oorloog is the Dutch word for war, further cementing the metaphor.) When Hutter has been at Orlok’s castle for a few days, he learns that the Count is really the vampire Nosferatu. When the Count comes to Hutter’s room to drink his blood, Hutter experiences the terror that the war meant to so many young soldiers. After Hutter escapes to a hospital, he spends several days in a feverish, delusional state, traumatized by what he has seen.

But Hutter is not Nosferatu’s only victim. The vampire travels the sea on board a ship. Every time the ship stops at a port, it brings death with it. Perhaps the vampire’s appetite is truly so ravenous that he can decimate the populations of major cities. Or perhaps the rats that accompany him are carrying the black plague, as the newspapers in the film believe. If there is indeed a plague, it lives as an extension of Nosferatu. The vampire and the plague are both extensions of the war. As with World War I, the death toll is enormous. And when Hutter returns to his home, so Nosferatu arrives in Hutter’s home town of Wisborg. Perhaps Hutter has brought the war home, as did so many traumatized soldiers who returned from combat shell shocked. And appropriately, the power to end the mass death lies with Hutter’s fiancée, Ellen.

Nosferatu‘s climax is the film’s own invention. In Stoker’s novel, a combined group of the novel’s heroes, including men who have no counterpart in Nosferatu, overtake Dracula in his coffin as a band of gypsies carry it back to Transylvania. While the Count is defenseless in his catatonic sleep, the heroes stab him in the heart, and he crumbles to dust. Nosferatu has a completely different ending. A book of vampire lore reveals that Nosferatu can be defeated if a maiden will offer her neck to the him so that he will feast on her blood, lose track of time, and be destroyed by the rising sun. So Ellen gives herself to Nosferatu in this way, and he does forget the time and stay with her until dawn. When he tries to leave, the sun catches him, and he disappears into nothing. And so Ellen becomes the metaphor for the young girlfriends, fiancées, and wives of the soldiers who return from war. To heal their boyfriends, fiancés, husbands, they must give of themselves. Do they give themselves to the war? Perhaps they give themselves to the war inside their men. Perhaps they really give themselves to their men, emotionally, perhaps bodily, in order to heal them.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is a far more sexual film than Nosferatu would ever have dared to be. In fact, the makers of Nosferatu would not at that time have even been interested in making such a sexual interpretation of Dracula. To them, the story was a work of horror. It remained a work of horror for decades until, degree by degree, people came to view it with more and more sensuousness. How did public tastes change so drastically? Many factors likely came into play. The increasingly sensuous vampire novels of author Anne Rice played a large role. Relaxed censorship restrictions both in films and TV helped the public to build an appetite for eroticism. Films like Interview with the Vampire, adapted from Anne Rice’s novel, helped solidify the new image of vampires. These and other factors led to the kind of boldly sensual film that Dracula: Pages was. Depending on one’s disposition, the film is either a stimulating re-imagining of Bram Stoker’s novel or the nadir of the sensuous vampire fad (I have seen the film from both perspectives.)

Dracula: Pages begins with the story of Lucy, who was completely absent from Nosferatu. Lucy receives marriage proposals from three different men on the same day. An innocent, like Hutter in Nosferatu, her most troubling concern in life is that she cannot say yes to all three men. She does say yes to one man, and so she is engaged to be married. Then Dracula appears with startling quickness, bites her neck, and gives her a scarf to wear to hide the mark. He changes everything. Dracula now comes to represent premarital sex and infidelity. The formerly innocent Lucy becomes sexualized. She throws herself at her suitors. She even dances sensually with her maids. Dr. Van Helsing comes to see her and declares, “She’s filled herself with polluted blood.” So now Dracula also represents venereal disease.

Lucy’s suitors and Dr. Van Helsing try to save her with blood transfusions – with love – and with copious amounts of garlic. But despite their efforts, Dracula still steals into her room and drinks her blood, undoing all the work they did to save her. Lucy appears to die, but this is not the end of her story. Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire – his newest bride – and the newspapers report that a “Bloofer Lady” (beautiful lady,) a “Woman in White,” has been killing men and leaving their dead bodies in bushes. Van Helsing deduces what is happening, and so he and the three suitors visit Lucy’s grave to put an end to her murderous spree. They stab her with a steak through the heart and cut her head off with a shovel. Does this action serve as a metaphor for euthanasia? Or does it suggest that Dracula’s seduction was powerful enough to turn Lucy into a murderer? How precisely this portion of the film may fit into the larger sexual metaphor is hard to divine.

Only 40 minutes (to the second) into the film do we finally see Jonathan Harker, who was the central character (albeit with a different name) in Nosferatu. He is at a convent, recovering from his escape from Castle Dracula. Amazingly, Harker’s stay at Castle Dracula, which was such an important part of Nosferatu, is here reduced to a sped-up, quick-cut montage with intertitles to comment on the highlights of Harker’s experience in the castle. Although this episode goes by so quickly, it does include the Brides of Dracula, who were omitted from Nosferatu. Also of worthwhile note, the double doors of Castle Dracula bear carved shapes that look like a vagina. And while convents of the day had doorways with pointed tops, the doorways in this convent look exceedingly vaginal. So the vagina has a dual nature: a door which you enter to be destroyed, or to be healed.

Harker’s experience in Castle Dracula has left him sexually traumatized. His fiancée, Mina, comes to visit him in the convent and finds him a changed man. He is happy to see her, and to dance with her, but he refuses her sexual advances. She runs her hand down his chest toward his crotch; he stops her before she can touch it. She offers her breasts to him; he begins to touch them, but then backs away. She unbuttons his pants and starts to pull them down, clearly intending to give him oral sex; he makes her stop and runs away. Now that Harker has left Mina in a confused state, Dracula moves in. He takes Mina to his castle and seduces her with charisma, charm, and a chest full of money. His spell complete, Dracula bites Mina’s neck. Now Mina, too, has been drawn into infidelity.

Dracula: Pages has another brand new ending. Van Helsing, Lucy’s suitors, and Harker storm Dracula’s castle and kill the Brides of Dracula, as per the novel. When Harker impales one of the brides with a long spike, an intertitle reads, “Cuckold’s counterblow!” reinforcing the metaphor of the vampire’s bite and carnal infidelity. Harker finds Mina and sees that she has bite marks on her neck, yet he forgives her. Moments thereafter comes the new ending. The heroes do not slay a catatonic Dracula, as in the novel. Instead, they encounter a fully awake and potently dangerous Dracula, and they have a climactic final battle. The suitors and Harker try to subdue Dracula with their spikes, but Dracula is too strong. He nimbly fights them off. Van Helsing breaks open a window to destroy Dracula with sunlight. His strategy nearly works, but Dracula holds Mina at knife point and forces Van Helsing to cover up the window.

Once again, Mina has the power to defeat the vampire. With the window now covered, Dracula attacks Harker with a spike and seems about to kill him. But Mina intervenes. She offers herself to Dracula. She makes herself appear ready to accept his seduction and become his bride. Now it is Mina who seduces the vampire. Dracula cuts a large gash across his chest and presses Mina against it so she may drink his blood and become a vampire. But Mina breaks away from him, grabs a cross, rushes to the window, and uncovers it. The sunlight pours in. The combination of the gash across his chest and the sunlight deal a decisive blow to Dracula. Now that he is weakened, the five men surround him and point their spikes at him. Dracula cannot escape, and Van Helsing runs a spike through his back. The men then lift Dracula and mount his body in the sunlight, impaled on the spike. A suitable end for a man who in life, as the novel suggests, may have been Vlad the Impaler. Also fitting is the fact that Dracula’s fangs and the heroes’ spikes are both instruments of penetration, and the evil instrument has been defeated by the good one.

Neither Nosferatu nor Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary presents a truly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Nosferatu omits several plot threads and characters. Dracula: Pages keeps the large cast but reduces some plot threads almost to footnotes. Nosferatu changes the names of all the characters. Dracula: Pages replaces the novel’s gothic horror with sensuousness. Both films give the story an entirely new ending. Dracula: Pages is more faithful to the novel in terms of the story, but Nosferatu is more faithful in terms of tone.

Again, the men who adapted the story for each film used Dracula as a starting point and then wrote the kind of story that interested them. One was a war allegory, and one was a sexual allegory (and a ballet.) And each man wrote the kind of story that was popular in his day. Germany in 1922 was a world scarred by war that sought understanding and catharsis through movies that dealt with World War I metaphorically. Canada and America in 2002 had some interest in addressing certain recent events (September 11th) through film, but they were also deeply into exploring the Vampire as a sensuous creature, and this was the tradition that gave rise to the ballet film. Tastes changed drastically in 80 years, and so did the world.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Dracula Ballet | BALLET DANCE

    • Ok. Not sure what you were telling me with this comment.

      September 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm

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