I’ve seen Murnau’s Nosferatu dozens of times. It’s one of my favorites. Somewhere along the line, I noticed a minor detail that brought a smile to my face.
The second half of the film takes place in the fictional city of Wisborg. There are two scenes, or really two shots that were photographed in either Lübeck or Wismar, in Northern Germany.
The first shot is of the town crier with his drum, marching down the street to announce the coming of the dreaded plague. To capture this moment, Murnau found a high window in a building where he could get a view of the street leading back into the distance. He waited until the row of houses that lined the street cast a jagged shadow down the middle of the cobblestones and shot as the town crier made his way along.
The second shot comes later in the film. It is shot from the same location and at the same time of day, as evidenced by the position of the shadows. The shot is part of a scene where our heroine, Ellen, tries to muster the courage to destroy the vampire. She looks out the window, but this time Murnau films a funeral procession making its way slowly down the street.
Both shots are filmed from the same window, but one is meant to be an objective record of the town crier, while the other is meant to be the subjective depiction of Ellen’s point of view.
It took many viewings before I noticed an important difference between the objective shot and the subjective shot. The objective shot is done with the window open, so we cannot see where the camera is filming from. We just perceive that we are high up looking at the troubled town. Ellen’s shot is filmed with the window closed, and so we see an out-of-focus window pane at the bottom of the frame, reminding us that this is one person’s individual perception. It’s a minor detail, but it took deliberate planning and forethought. To drive the point home, Murnau also vignettes the frame.
It is a small detail, but the movie was filmed in 1922, when the language of film was still developing. Murnau shows not only an impressive eye for detail, but an understanding of the objective and subjective lens.
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