Book Review:

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Cristina Massaccesi

Reviewed by David Hansen

Review of Cristina Massaccesi's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Auteur Publishing (Devil's Advocates), 2016.

Released as part of the Devil’s Advocates series, Cristina Massaccesi’s monograph takes on the sizable task of collecting and analyzing nearly a century’s worth of information into a compact form concerning the oldest surviving film adaptation of Stoker’s immortal work. While some of this information will be instantly recognizable to devotees of vampire or classic cinema, much of what has been compiled here is fresh and new, offering a rare opportunity to reevaluate a classic work in a new light. Having taught Nosferatu several times in various classes, I am struck by how accessible the writing is for a readership unfamiliar with cinema in general and German film history in particular. This approachability in no way impedes more advanced scholars, who will undoubtedly uncover new and striking information about a film they may have thought had been well-dissected.

Massaccesi constructs a “life and times” framework for Nosferatu, adding compelling historical context to the film’s production and genesis. Starting with Chapter 1, Contexts, Massaccesi guides the readers through the film’s production process and the sociopolitical history surrounding the inception of the film in post WWI Germany: “Nosferatu, along with many other films produced during the Weimar Republic […] can be doubtlessly interpreted as a vehicle to express the inner anxiety and unrest that was at work in Germany.”

In addition to the expected historical points, such as discussing general filmmaking in post-WWI Germany and the well-documented legal troubles Prana films had with Florence Stoker concerning copyright issues, we are given unexpected avenues of scholarship to explore. One example is an excerpt of an article written by Nosferatu’s producer and set designer, Albin Grau, for Buhne und Film in 1921. In it, he talks about hearing a soldier’s story concerning an encounter with “an undead or Nosferatu, as the vampires are called over there” while he was in Romania. Massaccesi uncovers how Grau likened the devastation of large military conflicts to the unleashing of “a cosmic vampire to drink the blood of millions and millions of men.” These excerpts lead into a larger analysis of the occult themes and symbols that influenced the overall look and tone of the film and how they represent the real-life impact of WWI on the German psyche. While the occult connotations have been mentioned before in other media, they are well fleshed out in Massaccesi’s text.

Ch. 2, Bringing the Undead to Life covers Nosferatu’s resurrection from apparent destruction at the hands of law enforcement, including Lotte Eisner’s not-widely-discussed efforts to preserve and restore the film: “She managed to obtain the original script of the film from Murnau’s brother, Robert Plumpe. […] In this way, restorators and film scholars such as Enno Patalas and Luciano Berriatua, managed to reconstruct the Ur version of the film.” Massaccesi also employs several critical lenses to deconstruct the adaptation process that brought the book to life. In From the Page to the Screen, readers will find thoughtful analysis of the potential reasons for changes to the script and themes beyond the filmmakers’ attempts to avoid potential lawsuits. Regarding the change in setting and time, Massaccesi writes, “The shift from modernity to the Biedermeier period could also be read as a subtle attempt on the part of Murnau to comment on the stifling state of contemporary German society without raising the question directly and in a way that could result to be too controversial.”

Beyond deconstructing the birth and preservation of the film, Massaccesi examines several critical interpretations of Nosferatu as it has proceeded on its immortal path into the twenty first century. In Chapter 5, Nosferatu’s Afterlives, we are given an examination of the reinterpretations of the film, including a critical look at Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht and E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 film, Shadow of the Vampire. A welcome addition is an interview Massaccesi conducted with Merhige himself. When asked if there were significant differences between his concept for the film and the script as penned by Steven Katz, Merhige states, “Yes, yes, yes. The original script was very much in keeping with the genre of the vampire film and I did not want to follow this line of aesthetic in both story telling and content. I mean, if you have an opportunity to turn a genre on its head and break the rules of a genre, then why not go for it.” The interview offers a unique insight into the original film from the vantage point of another professional director and artist.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is a detailed companion piece to the film suitable for classroom instruction as well as for a general readership. While a few sentences are missing a word or two, these occasions are infrequent. The synthesis of decades of information and interpretations surrounding Murnau’s groundbreaking film is robust, comprehensive, and accessible for newcomers to German filmmaking as well as to lovers of vampire media and lore. As an educator I am well pleased to find an approachable exploration of this piece of film history. Allow me to close by stealing the Shakespearean reference often used by historian David J. Skal concerning his impressions concerning Dracula’s longevity. After reading Massaccessi’s book I can equally ask the question, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Massaccesi work indicates there is indeed life in the old boy yet.

-2 April 2019