Sacrifice and Rage from Nosferatu to Pat Tillman

Lieutenant General John Riggs, Massively Unfulfilled Recruiting Quotas, Max Schreck, The Vampire’s Liminal Status, Tragic Car Accidents, Jack Kerouac, The Expressive Potential of the Moving Camera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nightmare Logic, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Inverted Excitability, Victor Sjöström, Private Diabolisms, Western Heroes, Private Detectives, Slovakian Legends, The Demeter, Little Eva, Tiny Tim, The “Glories of Sacrifice”

Sacrifice and Rage from Nosferatu to Pat Tillman

Jim Shepard
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

As of late, spectacular ironies stroll out of the news two or three times a day; even so, one of the more stupefying of the last year or so has to be this administration’s wholesale destruction of its country’s military, particularly the Army. I’m not talking about casualty rates in Iraq. I’m talking about policies—avoidable policies—that seem so systematically self-defeating that it’s hard not to see these policies as determined to destroy what you might expect the neocons to cherish most—the direct embodiment of America’s imperial might. What should we make of this administration’s nickel-and-dime stonewalling—in an all-volunteer army—on the issue of sufficient body armor? Or Humvee armor? Or wounded veterans’ benefits? Or on pledges to limit tours of duty? Sure, the Marines can be abused and sacrificed without much political cost—those sonsa­bitches are crazy, as one of the grunts half-admiringly reports in Michael Herr’s ­Vietnam memoir, Dispatches—but this is the ­all-volunteer Army. And that rank and file does tend to register its own self-interest.

This May we learned that one year earlier, Lieutenant General John Riggs, veteran of thirty-nine years in the Army and winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam, was booted out with a demotion—he was retired as a major general—for having had the temerity to suggest publicly that American forces in Af­ghanistan and Iraq were stretch­ed too thin. That kind of demotion for straight talk is more or less unprecedented in the military. (Not getting ahead because of straight talk, of course, is commonplace, but demotion is not.) And the fact that the administration calculated it could get away with such vindictiveness indicates how satisfied it is with its success at having weeded out anyone unwilling to toe the line, no matter how disastrous that line might be. (This process started long ago, of course. Remember General Shinseki, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shitcanned in May 2003 for pointing out what’s since been proven: that the Army’s manpower numbers were far too small to pull off what it was being asked to do in Iraq.) So who’s left in the command structure of the Army at this point, then? The deafening silence of all but retired officers at the treatment of Riggs makes the answer unavoidably clear: only the sycophantic and the cowed. And whom are they going to be ordering around? Who’s going to be doing the heavy lifting? Well, in terms of the all-volunteer Army: this country is already rapidly running out of young men who are so badly informed that they’re willing to sign up for an indefinite stay in a meat grinder. ABC News reported that the Army fell 42 percent short of its recruiting quotas this last April.

This administration needs a healthy all-volunteer army. Having to institute a draft would be political suicide and would mean the near-immediate end to their oil adventures. Support for the war re­mains at its present levels because it’s costing the American people so little, as far as the American people can tell: not only because we’re mortgaging our future, instead of paying the war’s costs as we go, but also because young people who don’t want to go to Iraq don’t have to. Most polls suggest that almost 60 percent of Americans believe the war to be a terrible mistake. So why aren’t we out protesting? Because most of us are willing to pay other people to die for that mistake.

We’re not surprised, then, at the initial play that Part 1 of the Pat Tillman narrative received in the media. Tillman was, as far as Fox News was concerned, the epitome of the citizen-soldier called to his duty to defend his country: he ­didn’t just walk away from a good job; he walked away from the Na­tional Football League. I mean, those were the guys our soldiers in Iraq wanted to be. And he joined them. When he was then killed in a firefight, the country mourned and the administration solemnly put him to use: he was still, after all, the man who turned down fame and for­tune to make “the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror,” as the White House spokesman chose to put it. Except it turned out that he was killed by friendly fire, and that that had been instantly covered up by both the Army and the Bush administration. (In the immediate investigation following his death, the Washington Post revealed, there’d been fourteen sworn statements by fellow platoon members that he’d been killed by friendly fire. His last words, in fact, apparently had been “Cease fire! Cease fire! Friendlies!”)

Part of what appalled and radicalized Tillman’s family (“They blew up their poster boy,” his father told the Post) was the baldness of the cynicism behind the cover-up: the palpable sense of disrespect and con­tempt for Tillman that seemed to be operating alongside the more ob­vious Machiavellian agenda. Wasn’t Tillman, however he died, the sort of figure whom this adminstration held in the highest esteem?


Destroying, with a kind of mesmeric relentlessness, what one claims to value most: a surprising number of film genres operate with that principle at their core. Westerns, for example. Or film noirs. Or horror films.

My loved ones will claim that any number of faintly off-putting idiosyncrasies and just plain characterological oddities on my part can be traced to a defining moment in my childhood when I was left in front of the television at the age of six. My parents were out. My baby­sitter was less than zealous. I found myself in my parents’ darkened den confronting F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

Understand: we’re not talking here about a movie that’s terrifying, exactly. But we are talking about one of the most unsettlingly and insidiously weird movies in the canon. There was a rumor at the movie’s release that Murnau had em­ployed a real vampire in the title role. The rumor seems to have come about for at least three reasons: first, the way the guy looked. And moved. Audiences were, um, taken aback. A common response seems to have been something along the lines of “What the hell am I looking at?” Second, the guy’s name: Max Schreck. (Schreck means horror or terror in German.) And third, it was (falsely) claimed that no one knew the guy, or knew of any other roles he’d played. The rumor is also understandable to anyone who’s seen the movie, because Murnau, art director Albin Grau, and screenwriter Henrik Galeen all must have rummaged around in their psychic basements in order to help Schreck generate a performance that’s conversation-stopping in its sinister strangeness and dignified repulsiveness. If there’s any character in film history who seems to have wandered in from another world, it’s Schreck’s Nosferatu. He’s like an unfunny parody of a human. (Which is exactly what a vampire is supposed to be.) At any given moment, he’s like a rat, or a spider, or a skull, morphed into the human.

For their plot, Murnau and Galeen pillaged Bram Stoker’s Dracula (without worrying themselves about permissions) and the vampire’s liminal status as outlined by Stoker—is this thing dead or alive? part of our world, or not?—was beautifully suited both to unnerving six-year-olds left alone in darkened rooms, and enabling Murnau’s stylistic experimentation. His first nine movies are lost, and he owes his status among movie nuts to Nosferatu and the movies that followed it—especially Der Letzte Mann, Faust, Sunrise, and Tabu. (He was killed in 1931 before the premiere of Tabu when his Packard overturned outside Santa Barbara.) He’s usually credited with having been the first to understand the expressive potential of the mo­ving camera, in Der Letzte Mann. With Nosferatu, he was looking for ways to make his vampire’s presence even more unease-producing. And he hit on the idea of designing individual shots—referred to as “tableaux” by his peers—not only as static compositions but also as spaces continually open to every sort of intrusion and transformation. You want liminal, in visual terms? Nosferatu gives you liminal. He turned it into a compendium of comings and goings, of slightly alarming trajectories, of reminders that there was always stuff outside the frame that the viewer ­couldn’t see: stuff that might be worrisome, and stuff that was in motion. Horror films have taken advantage of that knowledge ever since.


So each character in the movie has his or her own way of moving and of making visually tangible what each represents. Hutter, Stoker’s Jon­athan Harker figure, is all doltish energy and precipitous rushing about, always active and never ef­fective. His somewhat ­long-suffering wife Ellen, on the other hand, responds to the world with a resigned and somnambulant grace. Nosferatu himself, meanwhile, as Jack Kerouac—another fan nearly undone by having seen the movie at too early an age—pointed out in in a 1960 review of the film, maintains the stillness of a figure in a bad dream or a spider on its web. He rises from his coffin like a plank. He ascends stairs with an awful, quick-footed walk. His shadow spreads across walls and bedclothes like an inkstain. He ap­propriates and contaminates whatever space he’s in. His initial stalking of Hutter is rendered from Hutter’s point of view in a series of dissolves that mimic the mechanism of nightmare, as the vampire’s figure doesn’t move but even so becomes progressively larger. As in: It hasn’t shifted, but it keeps getting closer. And then in one of the most disturbingly beautiful shots in film history, the vampire’s quietly insidious arrival in Bremen is heralded by his ship’s smoothly innocuous glide into an otherwise static and placid long shot of the harbor.


The movie keeps operating by bringing together stuff no one expected to see brought together, or by operating in a middle ground between two things. Murnau hybridized two en­trenched approaches to movie­making that seemed opposed in the early ’20s: the expressionism of Ger­man movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the fascination with the sweep and luminosity of nature on display in Scandinavian movies of the same period by people like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Victor Sjöström. Murnau discovered that the real world already offered everything needed to shake somebody up. How something was photographed made all the difference. So off he and his cinema­tographer trooped with their camera, and what they came up with in its own quiet way turns out to be all about the permeability of the border between the familiar and the uncanny. Nosferatu’s action often takes place in a bucolic ­na­tural setting and, the longer we stay in it, seems to op­erate more and more, as one critic put it, “under the shadow of the supernatural.” There’s an oblique neutrality to shots of waves in the moonlight. We witness the balked jumpiness of horses in a field. We sit with Ellen on some windswept dunes spotted with listing and canted crosses. Apparent tranquility is infused while we watch with an underlying unease and dread.


And yet we still haven’t gotten at how truly weird Nosferatu is.

And to do that we have to start talking about how often characters in the movie seem peculiarly ­ex­cited before there’s any apparent reason to be, and how often they seem oddly unexcited after there seems plenty of reason to be. The scenes between Hutter and Ellen feel bizarrely charged even before he leaves for the castle. Knock, the house-agent who’s Hutter’s boss, seems to be practicing a kind of homespun and psychotically in­tense private diabolism before the vampire even arrives on the scene or in the movie. And then once the vampire does appear, whole scenes are staged seemingly to establish the characters’ bizarre indifference. Hutter, attacked during the night, examines the two holes in his throat in a mirror the next morning and chuckles. Having learned that the vampire is on his way to his wife and hometown, he escapes the castle and then noticeably dawdles during his race home. (We crosscut multiple times between the vampire’s ship, surging along in full sail, and Hutter on horseback idly picking his way along a forest trail.)

The movie’s very structure seems to insist that we not single out the vampire as its only source of anxiety. Once Nosferatu arrives in Bremen we abandon him to spend eight full minutes on the plague that’s accompanied him, and then yet more minutes with Knock, who’s institutionalized like Stoker’s Renfield and then escapes and is pursued around town. So Nosferatu—this dread, ghastly vision of pestilential evil—has come to the hero’s hometown, and the movie loses interest in him for fifteen full minutes.

What’s going on? The same thing that’s going on in the Bush ad­ministration. Elements are combined that don’t work together, that logically cancel one another out but that nevertheless possess for their creators a kind of dreamlike power. In Nosferatu the narrative as­sumes a more metaphoric than logical purpose. Normal reactions—normal causalities—don’t occur, and repeatedly the same figurative point is asserted: polarities that we would expect to maintain themselves—polarities like purity and cor­ruption, or innocence and know­ledge, or desire and repulsion—are breaking down. So that, again, the morning after Hutter is attacked during his first night in Nosferatu’s castle, he notices the marks on his throat in the mirror and smiles. The next night as his baleful, implacable host looms over his bed, we cut to Ellen in Bremen, sitting bolt upright in her bed, stretching out her arms and calling to her husband. But it’s the vampire who responds, turning from his prey and gazing offscreen in a perfect eyeline match, thereby confirming the movie’s insistent and subversive implication that the pure at heart are as much on the monster’s wavelength as those already given over to perdition. (We’re shown in multiple ways that the diabolic Knock and Ellen are from the very beginning sensitized to the vampire’s approach.) Our un­ease and disorientation in that Ellen-calling-out-to-the-vampire scene is increased by our dawning sense that the explanatory intertitles at times misrepresent the images: “Hutter, far away, had heard her cry of warning,” we’re told immediately after Ellen’s call has apparently lured Nosferatu away from her hus­band. But her sleeping husband didn’t hear a thing. In other words, Nosferatu poses the question at the heart of expressionism: where does the infected soul stop and the world begin? Hutter and Ellen, re­united in Bremen, kiss, and the mo­vie cuts to a close-up of Nosferatu, who smiles.


The world is an extension of my sensibility; the world is what I say it is. All logic—what logic is left, then—proceeds from that. Anyone who’s sat through one of this administration’s press conferences registers something familiar in that formulation. And for those who’ve missed the im­plication, various spokespeople for the administration have, over the last six years, spelled it out. All empirical evidence seems to point to A? We say B. Next question?

The world is as I say it is, and I have no doubts as to my primary values. And yet my actions will work to undermine or even overthrow those values. And so the Western hero, who says he has to live free and unfettered in a world that enables that freedom, spends most of his movie making the world safe for the kind of community that will have to banish him or make him obsolete. The hard-boiled private detective fetishizes his isolated independence as his greatest source of strength, and then repeatedly tumbles into the femme fatale’s transparent snares. And horror movies, valorizing virginal innocence above all else, revolve mostly around the destruction of that innocence.

There’s some serious and bi­zarre ambivalence here, operating just beneath all of the claims of straightforward clarity, in other words. In the case of Murnau’s Nos­feratu, it’s not hard to see why; the filmmaker was, after all, semivoluntarily exiled from his family because of his sexual orientation, an exile that left him feeling both a respected member of his society and something else altogether. He would have been aware of the Slovakian legend that vampires came from the ranks of those ex­communicated from the church or from their lives: suicides, heretics, apostates, and those cursed by their parents. And he certainly must have registered at least what Stoker did: the usefulness of vampirism as a way of animating the unspeakable.

It’s instructive to note what Murnau didn’t take from Stoker. He dumped Stoker’s Christian meta­physic entirely. None of the sacred ammunition that Dracula pro­vides—communion wafers, holy water, or crucifixes—have any role at all in Murnau’s movie; instead, Nosferatu’s contribution to the genre is the destructive power of daylight. With sunlight, nature itself takes care of a problem that seems to be a dark parody of its own fertility. (“From the seed of Belial,” we’re told, the vampire has sprung, and he sails to Bremen on a ship called the Demeter.) The vampire’s particular kind of liminal status, in other words, depends on being cloaked; on some form of se­crecy. The light of day dispels it.

So this particular vampire, not very surprisingly, becomes readable as a grotesque and frightening form of desire, a version of the awakened or indulged wish that’s both irresistibly powerful and catastrophically dangerous. The figure of Van Helsing, the Good Doctor—in this case, Professor ­Bul­wer—representing rational science and hardy, masculine, can-do industry, is completely ineffectual in Murnau’s version, dozing through the climactic crisis and arriving too late to help. Instead, in Murnau’s version, Ellen—the embodiment of ul­timate value that everyone else has sworn to protect and uphold—faces the threat alone.

The movie does everything it can to maximize our surprise at that news. We make a stunning transition from that long and irritating and frenetic digression of the townspeople’s pursuit of the es­caped Knock to an unexpected and startling head-on shot of Nosferatu, utterly still and gazing out at us from his window. (He’s rented an outrageously creepy and dilapi­dated house that sits directly opposite Ellen’s homey and sunlit little cottage, like a real estate version of the unconscious.)

Ellen bolts awake. Hutter, who’s supposed to be on guard, na­turally does not. So she wakes him. Instead of pointing out to him the thing from the pit of hell that’s looking at her from across the street, though, she sends him for help. And without asking why she needs help—or looking across the street—he rushes off. She lurches around the room, agonizing. We’re given more shots of the vampire, looking at us from his window. Then she throws open her window and turns from it, her face in her hands, having inviting him in.

It turns out that she’s read, in The Book of Vampires, that only a woman who is pure of heart and willing to give herself to the vampire can lift its curse.

He leaves the window. She staggers drunkenly, her head still in her hands. His shadow mounts a staircase. His shadow pauses outside her door, its fingers extending elastically across the wall to the knob in a visualization of the vampire’s defiling reach. In bed, with him still offscreen, she jerks her head down in anticipation of his touch, and the shadow of his hand and arm spread upward across her white dressing gown. We crosscut between the per­versely intimate and understated image of him feeding at her neck in a long shot and Hutter, once again, not hurrying back (!) with a groggy Professor Bulwer in tow.

Her sacrifice succeeds: poor Nos­feratu is caught by the cock’s crow, loses his malevolent power, and staggers around in the sunlight like somebody’s Uncle Morty having a coronary. He dissolves, the same cinematic technology used to create him erasing him.

But then the most disturbing—and often unremarked-upon—turn occurs. Knock, ap­parently returned to his cell, pro­nounces his master’s death. Hutter continues to stroll home. Ellen lasts long enough to fall into his embrace upon his re­turn, and she dies in his arms, her sacrifice complete. He grieves on her bed while keeping one foot primly on the floor. The intertitle an­nounces, “At that very hour the Great Death ceased and the shadow of the vampire vanished as if overcome by the victorious rays of the living sun”: the good news everyone’s been waiting for. Except Murnau was careful to have it follow not the monster’s death, which took place four scenes earlier, but Ellen’s death. It’s her death, we’re reminded, that The Book of Vampires said was required, and her death that abolishes the taint.

Which brings us back to our current administration.

Nosferatu’s aggression toward its female lead and paragon of virtue is the same sort of aggression you can sense lurking behind sentimentalities like she was too good for this world. We might note that such sentimentalities are not only pieties but slippages of responsibility as well. If someone is too good for this world, then it’s probably no one’s fault that they’re no longer in it. That’s the sort of comforting logic that the reader confronts in discussions of Little Eva, Tiny Tim, and Pat Tillman. What separates the third name on that list from the first two is how explicitly the re­sponsibility for his death can now be attributed to those who claimed to so cherish his value. (And how cynically and vehemently that re­sponsibility has been denied.) When this administration talks about sacrifice, it does so with a weird doubleness, an edge. The all-volunteer Army is doing precisely what the major figures in this ad­ministration—from Donald Rumsfeld to Dick Cheney to George W. Bush—refused to do, whatever their past or present rhetoric about the glories of sacrifice. We’re very grateful to those who sacrifice for us, and grateful as well to those who embody the virtues to which we claim we most aspire. And we’re enraged by them, as well, for all they demonstrate to us, through the example of their behavior, about ourselves.

More Reads

Nibble, Lick, Suck, and Feast

Davy Rothbart

Aardvark Politick

Douglas Wolk

We Need Heart-Touching, Soul-Penetrating Stories!

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro