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“It is reasonable to argue that the German cinema is a development of German Romanticism, and that modern technique (cinematography) merely lends a visible form to Romantic fancies”, Lotte Eisner asserts. Both Romanticism (late 18th-19th Century) and Expressionism (early 20th Century) were reactions to a period of collectivist order and intellectual rigidity. Both were consoling movements that followed suppression of individualism. Romanticism favored feeling over reason, rejecting its predecessor, the Enlightenment ideal of balance and rationalism, offering the hysterical, the fantastical and the supernatural instead. Expressionism, then, was the settling dust that enveloped post-revolution German society, a frustrated desire for change that followed the rupture of World War I, and also a firm backlash to industrialization. If art were a precise representation of society’s psyche, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) could have been released with Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and not appear anachronistic – forgiving the lag in development of the film medium, of course. The film and ballad typified their respective periods, and were both a bursting out from the binds of order and logic. It is this symmetry of the film and ballad, and the embodiment of their periods, that I hope to explore.
Specifically, I will discuss how elements in both Nosferatu and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are a reflection of the characters’ inner states; how the two periods treat nature as a theme; and lastly, how Romantic sentimentality has worked its way into Nosferatu.
A distinct contribution to the Romantic movement was the Gothic romance – the latter a period that depicted mystical adventures of terrified heroes and heroines in the clutches of frightening, mysterious forces, exemplified by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the forerunner of science-fiction) and Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. These motifs, often partnered with horror, were captured in The Ancient Mariner when evil descended upon the Mariner’s ship, resulting in graphic devastation: “With throats unslaked, with black lips baked / We could nor laugh nor wail (185-186)”. These motifs are repeated in Nosferatu, where Orlok’s evil mesmerized Ellen while snuffing out life on his sojourn to meet her. The artistes of both periods looked to represent the personal and subjective; rejecting realism, logic and classical Newtonian cause and effect. This desire to bring out inner states resulted in supernatural motifs and dream-like states – often larger-than-life. The fantastic results from the expression of inner states because of “a ‘failed’ transformation… [where] the uncanniness with which the displaced and repressed elements irrupt into idyllic worlds and relationships” . It is possible to read the fantastic elements as manifestations of social concerns of their respective times. The surreal motifs function mainly as extensions of the characters’ minds in both the film and ballad.
“Coleridge employs supernatural beings not for the gratuitous effects of terror gratia terroris but in order to project symbolically states and moods of the Mariner’s inner being.” The killing of the Albatross is Coleridge’s exercise on morality. The Mariner’s moral slip left him under the weight of guilt, prompting him to seek resolution with the help of external forces. These “forces” are really not external since they are projections of his troubled psyche: “Her skin was as white as leprosy / The Nightmare Life-In-Death was she (192-193)… I watch’d the water-snakes / They moved in tracks of shining white (274-275)”. The spectral apparitions that followed the ship of doom are reflections of the Mariner’s compunctions of conscience. These elements of the ballad project the character’s inner state and are not externalities having an effect on the character. We will see this motif repeated in Nosferatu twenty years later.
Hutter escapes from the domesticity of Ellen for economic reasons, plunging into danger under a spell of greed. His reluctance to provide the love Ellen looks for is redundant once Orlok discovers the medallion with the picture of Ellen. Orlok, with his cryptic evil loom, assumes the role of the “provider” Hutter never was. Murnau portrays Hutter as castrated, ineffectual and weak. Orlok, on the other hand, possesses a potent sweeping power that mesmerizes Ellen. We may view Orlok as a latent side of Hutter, an alter-ego of the “man than he never was” but desires to be. This reading of the film is brought to life by the contrast in journeys made by Orlok and Hutter back to Ellen. Orlok is in full control of nature, traveling with ease on a ship and successfully exerting his evil powers over the vessel. Hutter, contrastingly, traverses mountains and streams, both on foot and on horse, which is a far more troublesome option compared to travel by sea. Orlok’s comfortable sojourn is Hutter’s wishful extension of a potent male alter-ego. Analyzing Orlok’s murders through his shadows brings us to draw the same conclusions. Orlok’s attempt at murdering Ellen may be an expression of Hutter’s repressed desire to kill his wife, but only through his effectual alter-ego. He is frustrated with his obvious inability to provide (his efforts with the flowers were greeted with anti-climactic fashion), and does not seem to love his wife in the traditional romantic way, as we may tell from his desire to leave her, and his uncomfortable rejection of her affection. The fact that only shadows commit the murders, and not Orlok in physical form, represents the suppression of the murderous thoughts, where only a shadow was allowed to escape Hutter’s mind. Accepting Orlok as the emboldened and achieving side of Hutter conveniently excludes Orlok’s diabolic intentions, which is a quality of Hutter not expected to be expressed. However, Elsaesser clearly explains that “the motif of the Double is indeed quite close structurally to the motif of the creature, emancipating itself from the creator and turning against him… interpretation of the Double, or shadows, [is the] symbolic representation of internal irrational forces at work”. Greed is the sin that motivates Hutter’s journey. These evil intentions, embodied by Hutter’s creation of Orlok, resulted in punishing consequences. Orlok turns against Hutter by winning over the woman Hutter wants so much to please, yet, ironically, never really loves. Knock, the driving force behind Hutter’s journey of self-discovery, is in turn under the manipulative spell of Orlok. This way, we are able to trace the source of Knock’s intentions back to Hutter’s alter-ego, Orlok. We are now able to appreciate Nosferatu as a chaotic intercourse of the internal emotions of one man, much like how the albatross, Life-In-Death, and the wedding guest were tools to probe the dark recesses of the Mariner’s psyche.
Besides evincing the mental state of characters, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Nosferatu both thoroughly examine their period’s relation to nature. It was only during the Romantic period that walking in the woods was not perilous, but an opportunity to enjoy and ponder awesome views. Europe had become more civilized, safer, and its citizens now felt freer to travel for the simple pleasure of it. Romanticism cultivated a sentimental treatment of all subjects, including nature. The albatross embodied nature in The Ancient Mariner, and like the Romantic society’s embrace of nature, brought good fortune to the ship and was welcomed with joy. The killing of the Albatross is the Mariner’s sin against nature, and he is duly punished. Countless references to nature throughout the poem are not enough to set it apart as a “Romantic treatment of nature”. However, Coleridge uses the sun, moon, sand, sea, including a “hermit in the wood”, to express the Mariner’s mental states and how they evolve with the natural surroundings: “O happy living things! no tongue/ Their beauty might declare (283-284)”. Following a stanza of colorful animal sightings, the Mariner proclaims their beauty and happiness. By his blessing of the nature around him, the Mariner is finally redeemed and the spell begins to break. Coleridge personifies nature with a twist of supernatural, and fuses it with the Mariner’s sub-conscious, sealing The Ancient Mariner as a piece acutely reflective of Romanticism’s nature motif.
The “nature” motif is not lost in Nosferatu. Murnau explores the interaction between humans and nature. First, he questions the legitimacy for cannibalism. We see Venus fly traps, Knock catching flies, and spiders with their webs of evil. If carnivorous activity is prevalent in the animal and plant kingdom, should we feel Orlok’s desire for fellow humans is evil or unjust? Second, the horses’ fear of the hyena parallels the trepidity of the villagers to Orlok’s omnipresent evil. Lastly, we see Hutter’s comfort in the wilderness: first, when he disregarded advice and traveled by night to Orlok’s castle, then again, when he journeys home to Ellen. Murnau is generous with footage of Hutter traversing bridges and trails, which represent relief from Hutter’s clustered concrete home. It is as if Murnau himself was drawing energy from the outdoors. This agrees with Paul Brian’s take on nature in Romanticism: “It is precisely people in urban environments aware of the stark contrast between their daily lives and the existence of the inhabitants of the wild who romanticize nature. “
Like nature, sentimentalism was celebrated in the Romantic period. This is evident in the Ancient Mariner. We do not see the mariner in love or marriage, but, we may still read much from his brief encounters with the Hermit and the Wedding guest. Both friendships find their roots in the romantic belief in human connection and fate. The relationships between the mariner and the Hermit, and between the mariner and the Wedding guest, are not cynical and insincere, but are reassuring and deep. The Hermit senses danger while approaching the mariner’s ship, yet decides to push on: “Dear Lord! it hath a fiendish look- / (The Pilot made reply) / I am a-fear’d” – “Push on, push on!” / Said the hermit cheerily. (539-543)”. The Hermit eventually saves the mariner from his sinking ship. They share a deeper bond when the Hermit cleanses the mariner of guilt by asking the mariner to tell him the story of the albatross. This is an optimistic and cheerful take on human relationships, typical of the romantic period. Correspondingly, the Wedding Guest initially distrusts the mariner, but is touched by a connection he felt with him, and eventually listens to his story. (He holds him with his glittering eye–/ The Wedding-Guest stood still, / And listens like a three years’ child: / The Mariner hath his will, Lines 13-16) Midway through the mariner’s tale, he is afraid and becomes weary, yet he stays and eventually walks away a better person: “He went like one that hath been stunn’d, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn (623-26)”. These relationships exemplify the sentimental Romantic belief in the goodness of man.
Nosferatu not only maintains the sentimental aspect of the Romantics but updates it to 20th century sensibilities. Romantic fiction had a penchant for tearful wallowing in the longings and disappointments of frustrated protagonists. By the 20th century, however, sentimentalism had been rejected – what the Romantic age prized as moving and beautiful was deemed false, exaggerated and even comical. Nosferatu mocks Romantic love, a notion set during the Romantic age as the foundation of a successful marriage, with the outwardly exuberant, yet, obviously empty, relationship between Hutter and Ellen. The opening sequence between the pair of “loveless lovers” throws a tad of cynicism on the notion of marriage. Then, even more bitingly, Ellen is mesmerized by, and finally offers herself to, Orlok instead. Overwrought expressions of love between Hutter and Ellen, and Hutter’s valiant efforts to protect Ellen, bring to life the atypical Romantic sensibilities. Yet, Murnau takes this romantic notion and injects his brand of sardonic humor, reducing the pair merely to anachronistic stage actors ripped out of a Romantic play.
In conclusion, both German Romanticism and German Expressionism were rebellions against the stifling of individualistic intellectualism. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Nosferatu, two quintessential pieces of their age, capture the inward-looking quality of both periods, especially choosing to explore the psychological manifestations of characters within the art. Such sentiments also gave rise to a renewed interest in nature, embracing animals and the woods at the same time. Lastly, the outburst of Romantic emotionality left an optimistic slant on human interaction in the Ancient Mariner. However, under 20th Century sensibilities, Murnau captures that Romantic notion with a breath of cynicism instead.
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