Jul 1, 2012

What can Nosferatu teach you about writing?

Once upon a time was Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau – a German-born director who died in Santa Barbara, CA, because he chose his driver on the basis of looks rather than driving skills. An artist to the end.[1]

Let’s take a shadowy detour. A long time ago, there was this Irishman called Bram Stoker, who decided to mangle the hell out of Slavic and other Eastern European folk beliefs about rotting corpses that erupted from their coffins at night and shambled into their family homes to kill the rest of the family by mysterious means. So Bram Stoker wrote a book called Dracula that inspired a bevy of stage adaptations and derivative works.[2]

One such derivative work stood out.[3] It was called Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens: a symphony of horror. It’s about a naïve, optimistic young man who journeys into the petrified heart of the Carpathians and there finds an ancient, desiccated beast that looks like a man and pretends to be alive.

Why Nosferatu should stand out when other adaptations faded away, well --  for a start, there was the free publicity it got when Bram Stoker’s widow filed a copyright suit against Murnau. Thankfully, not all copies of the film were destroyed. You can watch it on YouTube right now.

Murnau’s Nosferatu is the quintessential vampire movie. It has influenced tons of music videos and garnered allusions in hundreds of movies (including Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula). Narrative, stripped down to the bone, is almost an afterthought in that movie – it’s the lighting, characterization and camera work that do most of the work. Every single frame was designed to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

A journey that begins in the mountains of Old Europe ends in a small bedroom at sunrise. Before Murnau shows you the sun, however, he all but drowns you in shadow.

So, what can Nosferatu teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

1. If you can’t come up with a plot, borrow one.

Nosferatu adapts Bram Stoker’s Dracula – it’s not an original story. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is Macbeth set in feudal Japan. The much-revered John Sturges film, The Magnificent Seven, was based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  

Homage is not a rip-off. But if homage is your goal, make sure you bring something real to the table. Sometimes a new setting is enough to revive an old story; you may or may not like the new Coriolanus that Ralph Fiennes directed but you should give him points for trying. The contrast between speech and visuals in it, as well as the clever incorporation of a media motif, show you how little we human beings have changed over the centuries.

It’s OK to go back to old stories and retell them. Hollywood’s being doing it for ages with varying degrees of success.

If you want really fresh stories, go back thousands of years. Dive into the beginnings of History. Go to Sumer and China, or to ancient Rome. Oh, and prepare to have your values challenged at every turn.

2. Atmosphere is great, but it isn’t everything.

At the heart of Nosferatu is a tale of love, endurance and sacrifice. Take that away and the movie is meaningless. No amount of cinematic trickery will nourish you the way a good story does.    

Max Schreck as the titular vampire
Only recently have I understood that another of my favorite films, The Mothman Prophecies, is not about a guy chasing a monster or trying to solve a mystery. It is a story of growth and self-forgiveness after a devastating personal tragedy. No wonder that Richard Gere’s character in the movie is called John Klein. Klein is German for ‘small’ and that’s just how he feels. Small and helpless and hungry for understanding, like a child.

Michael Pellington started his career in film directing music videos, and Mothman showcases a mature visual style. The play of light and dark, the attention to detail and the use of color to convey tension or mystery, all these things conspire to make the film beautiful. But all that beauty would be for naught if the story lacked a convincing protagonist.

Same with Nosferatu. Count Orlok is the monster we love to hate and the good guys, not nearly as charismatic or interesting, become heroes by opposing him. Once evil is banished, they will return to staid anonymity. That’s OK too, you know; a strong enough antagonist carries half the tale.

3. A monster in disguise is scarier.

We love stability. We cling to the permanent. To you and me, the only two permissible long-term changes in your body are growing up and growing old.

Change of any other sort, like developing a pigmentation problem or putting on too much weight, is undesirable. Metamorphosis equals disease. Mutation acquired during your lifetime doesn’t give you superpowers. It tends to kill you.

The vampire is the ultimate carrier of metamorphic disease.
He or she looks, talks and acts like a person but something fundamental denies the vampire its personhood: the vampire is an obligate hemophage. Basically a humanoid bedbug.
All of the vampire’s intelligence in Nosferatu is geared toward predation and it will use any means at his disposal, including legal ones, to find new hunting grounds. Vampires use both our laws and our weaknesses against us.

They prefigure the psychopath, a type of human being which, as neuroscience has proven, operates on… different software. Shallow emotion, superficial charm, weak impulse control, parasitic lifestyle, these are but a few tiles on the depressing mosaic of the psychopathic mind. They all fit the nineteenth-century vampire. (Remember, Bram Stoker pretty much invented our current notions about ‘classic’ vampires.)

When a normal-looking monster drops his mask — oh, the fear. It’s not that you couldn’t see it coming, no, you could. But all along you’d been lying to yourself and hoping that you were empathizing with someone like you. Realizing that you’ve become prey is a terrible feeling, made worse by the knowledge that you played into the monster’s claws. It doesn’t matter that you experience the situation vicariously, either in a book or on film. You still want the problem to resolve itself. You want clarity. Nothing cuts you like the shards of broken hope.

Remember, the vampire’s chiefest weapon is deceit.  

[1] He also made an excellent adaptation of the Faust legend. Your knowledge of film as an art form will remain incomplete until you see it.
[2] Fan fiction, or the art of telling stories using somebody else’s characters, is probably as old as spoken language. While I am not a paleoanthropologist and can’t tell you much about what kind of fiction people were painting on cave walls back in the age of mammoths and dire wolves, this much is true: During the Middle Ages at least, there was an explosion of sequels – or what we could call sequels today – because people couldn’t get enough of their favorite characters and, if the original author wasn’t around to pen more tales of Lancelot and Percival, too bad. Some other scribe would gladly pick up where they left off and have them fight dragons the size of castles or trade banter with magical severed heads.
[3] Nosferatu spawned a 1979 remake starring Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani, the cream of European cinema even then. The role of patsy was taken up by none other than Bruno Ganz, another excellent actor who also played Adolf Hitler in Downfall (Der Untergang); the role of a lifetime. Hitler was another sort of vampire.

A still from Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979)

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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