Horror is not an inherent element of any cultural construct, product or object – film, music, drama, novel. What constitutes the horrific is entirely subjective, varying from person to person; from culture to culture and from age to age, and with every subdivision inside each of these main distinctions. Horror requires intent.
For me, I feel or experience no sensation of ‘horror’ when watching Murnau’s Nosferatu. I find pleasure in his craft. Perhaps, I am simply immune, for whatever personal reason (unknown to me), to the horror that some might feel when watching this movie. Perhaps contemporary constructions of horror now render Murnau’s work mute, ineffectual but nonetheless, curious.
This film is not horrific to me because I have seen worse or more shocking films: it is no longer horrific because I no longer fear what its
makers wanted me to fear, and I no longer need to express in communal public spaces (cinemas) the pleasure of shared revolution at its contents. I/we no longer need to demonstrate our conformity to the high notion of the ‘human’ by expressing revulsion around the film’s central themes in a highly visible and public manner.
The horrific is perhaps a construct that works with notions of the transgression of local [and recent] taboos that are understood and common in the culture of the viewer: with abjection, with deviancy and above all with the same power of spontaneity that makes such notions appear to be beyond human culture, innate and timeless in nature (confirming the transcendence of the human over the inhuman). In public spaces we demonstrate our innate humanity through seemingly spontaneous acts of repulsion – screaming, hiding the eyes, leaving.
Murnau’s monster – Count Orlok – is human. Orlok’s horror comes from how he is human, and perhaps from the fact that he is human but undead. He is made to be both physically and mentally repulsive; with supernatural powers but with a flaw that will be his undoing. For the makers of Nosferatu, Orlok’s physical repulsiveness centres on the stereotype physical features of Jews, and Jews were to their oppressors a pestilence that would over-run and destroy Europe, if allowed.
Orlok, unlike Dracula, does not procreate through vampirism. His victims either survive in tact or die as humans. We do not know if he has any other means of procreation, if he has children, if he is in any normal way a human sexual being. We do not know of whom and of what nature were his parents. If he is undead, how did he die? What process resulted in his current being? All we know is that he is, and that his (after) life is devoted to the fulfilment of a self-seeking and destructive path.
Horror is just one theatre in which the notion of the human is established and reaffirmed, and in which the inhuman is likewise defined and reaffirmed, and the come into being together at the same moment.
In Nosferatu, now, perhaps our horror could extend to the anti-Semitic nature of the film?
In fumbling into this territory of philosophical consideration, I find that I take my role as pianist way beyond the normal role for a musician in silent movies. I find myself wanting to interrogate the film maker, to explore oppositions to his notions rather than to confirm superficial moods.
We know that Orlok’s Castle is in the western Carpathian region, a region that was home to settled and integrated communities of Jews.
This history is not innocent of problems, but of all the localities Murnau could of chosen as the home of his monster, this was one of the most pointed and disruptive of choices. In the estate agent’s office, early in the film, our young traveller examines and points at this region on the office map and his face displays dismay. We are being asked to confer with his sentiments, this our noble hero is one we can trust – he is, after all, human, pure.
I have explored the music of this region in an attempt to find some suitable reference points for the development of thematic materials
for the film accompaniment, and have picked up on two strands. Firstly, the music of the Hutsul and, secondly, the ceremonies and rituals of death and burial in the western Carpathian region, especially with interest to the use of long horn fanfares and the tuning of church bells. These materials will be present in the first performance on 29th October. Of special interest is the relationship between Hutsul and Klezmer music in the Carpathians in the early parts of the last century. One noted scholar of this music (Dumneazu) charts the overlapping of these styles in bands in the north and west Carpathia. I bring this music to the film almost as a note of defiance against the makers of the film and their anti-Semitism.
But what of mood, if the Hutusl exploration is a source of some materials do I join in this suspense? Yes, I like emphasising the mood and adding to the sense of suspense, and maybe thorugh that great forgotten tool at the musicians disposal – silence. And yes, I guess I’ve now moved toward a largely composed response to this film.