Video Essay. Wishful Space: F.W. Murnau’s "Nosferatu"

Exploring how the director used editing to suggest connections, create associations, and evoke a space driven by desire and dread.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The seventeenth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) from October 24 - November 22, 2016 in the United States.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931) liked to compare film with architecture. And from his earliest works, we see a strong pictorial intelligence at work, carefully marrying the architectural characteristics of a location or set with the further geometry imposed upon these given elements by the choice of camera angle. This amounted to far more than a flashy, modish expressionism of stark, plunging lines of intersecting walls, or actors inching along the diagonals of a frame; it became the basis for an entire, integrated system of mise en scène. What Murnau aimed for, above all, was not static, painterly effects but what he called a dynamic ‘mobile architecture’ specific to cinema.

This quality of mobile architecture is what Éric Rohmer set out to grasp in his 1972 doctoral thesis devoted to ‘The Organisation of Space in Murnau’s Faust.’ But when we take another look at the classic Nosferatu (1922) today, what we are more likely to notice is the further elaboration the German director added through his mastery of editing—and his virtual invention of what critic-teacher-filmmaker Jean-André Fieschi (1942-2009) dubbed ‘poetic montage.’

Fieschi stresses that a cut rarely just serves to ‘stitch up’ a continuous space in Nosferatu. Rather, Murnau used editing to suggest connections, create associations, and evoke an imaginary, secretive, ‘wishful space’ driven by desire and dread in equal measure.  

There are two levels on which this inventive editing occurs. The first two parts of our audiovisual essay are devoted to the system of rhymes and echoes, backwards and forwards, between shots that are not consecutive, that belong to different scenes. For each poetic cluster (that we label 1, 2, 3 …), each poetic idea, we gather various instances from across the film. For those who want to return to the film for a closer analysis, within each cluster we append letters to indicate the different scenes. 

The last two parts of our video are devoted to consecutive cuts, often joining events that are occurring simultaneously, but in different places. This is where Murnau’s poetic montage works reaches its most powerful, dramatic, even shocking effects. The direction of characters’s looks and gestures enter into a correspondence across diverse spaces, ultimately suggesting an unspoken scenario below the one we see on the surface.

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