What’s your Fear, Dear?

What’s your fear, dear? This is one of the repeated lines of the lyrical and experimental noise performance of Sean Derrick Cooper Marquardt and the S&M Accidental Orchestra Experience Berlin to accompany F.W. Murnau’s classic Weimer-era silent film Nosferatu. The orchestra, itself a blend of avant-garde and antique, was in-house at the ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi to reinterpret and add a contemporary twist to the score of the horror movie from 1922. An advantage of silent movies is that dialog and sound-effects are not complicating factors and composers have the flexibility to impose contemporary meanings and emphasis on these visual productions through music, making them almost endlessly adaptable to a new cultural landscape and zeitgeist.

The discordant mix of vocal, electronic, and classical instruments echoed in the arches of the historic theater, creating a robotic tension spliced with shards of poetry. Although the composition added tension befitting a horror movie, a conflicted director like Murnau from a complicated time requires subtly and nuance to emphasize the contemporary relevance. In a film about vampires and plague the question about fear is not misplaced, but it has significance in ways that did not resonate in the musical production.

Delphi Arch
Illuminated arches inside the Delphi Theater.

What’s your fear, dear? Asks the disembodied voice from the shadows off stage and slightly off key. For F.W. Murnau there was much to fear, both internally and externally. The famously liberal Weimar Republic was famously unaccepting of one thing: homosexuality. In Paragraph 175 of the German constitution, homosexual acts were made illegal, punishable by imprisonment. With the advent of the Weimar Republic, far from being abolished, the definitions of a homosexual acts were legally expanded, and lesbian acts were for the first time punishable by law. As is the old trick, this was all justified through claims of protecting public health. Many of Weimar’s actors and artists were affected by this misapplication of the medical discourse (or perhaps rather the revelation of the function of this discourse?) including Conrad Voigt of Das Kabinett des Dr. Calagari fame, and F.W. Murnau.[1] In an environment where one’s inner-desires are pathologized and earn the individual punishment and rejection, it is easy for one to see not just the outside but the inside as a threat, perhaps even a monster.

Far from claiming knowledge of Murnau’s thoughts (insofar as anyone can truly know the reason behind their thoughts and behavior) these observations add a lens from which one can reinterpret the film Nosferatu and a shovel to dig under the surface. While the orchestra plays their most subdued-but-still-discordant harmony of atonal laptop beats and cello and on screen the main characters Ellen and her husband Hutter enjoy a sterile embrace on sunny day in a picturesque homestead, one must now wonder if this, rather than the harmony, is the tragedy of the film? The forced mask of passionless domesticity in a heteronormative cage one not dare reject.

And then, as Nosferatu the vampire corners Hutter in his bedroom, his shadow sliding down the fallen man’s body, and the orchestra reverberates with the expected dramatic tension through a vocal rendition of a drowning cat paired with a bass guitar, one wonders if this is not rather the romantic climax; The moment that destroys the mask and releases the monster from his prison in the fantasy land of Transylvania (no doubt neighbors with Dr. Frank N. Furter) to cross the ocean and destroy the cold domesticity of the bourgeois society that had kept it in chains. Perhaps a rendition of the porn hits of the 70s or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” would have been more appropriate.

The proper entrance to pick up vampire ladies (and dudes).

grrrrlglrrlggglrrrlg? Asks the disembodied, drowning cat voice from behind the stage. But that unfortunately cannot be answered in the space of this article.

What’s your fear, dear? For the people of Germany in the time of Nosferatu’s release in 1922, and indeed for the war veteran Murnau, the fear was the memory of a war that had taken millions of lives, poor economic conditions, and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919.[2] In a simplified description, the promises of the world of industry and progress had brought war, death and famine on a scale never before imagined, and this destruction had created fertile conditions for disease.

Signifiers and metaphors for the experience were quickly assembled.[3] The coffin of one’s peacefully deceased grandparent was now laden with the images of thousands of victims of war and illness, being prematurely laid to rest in the same vessel. Rats, having always stood in metonymic relation to the plague, now carried the trenches of the First World War with them as they scurried through streets and gutters. The machines of peace, prosperity, and enlightenment had manufactured the means with which Europeans could destroy themselves in brutal, bestial fashion; a wound that bled through the depths of culture and left its indelible, if unconscious, mark on the world of images and art.

As Nosferatu the vampire packs himself in his casket on top of a wagon full of the many other coffins, either filled or prepared for unnamed dead, and the orchestra still drones on with its permanent tenor of tension, one wonders if this is not rather something more, rather the moment of betrayal? The moment when the promise of enlightened progress becomes tainted with the beast of unreasoned thinking and chaos, bringing with it the unfettered brutality of human ambition coupled with the supernatural, vampiric powers of technology.

And while the ship of the dead, which carries Nosferatu’s casket makes landfall in the harbor of Wisborg, releasing the rats that had travelled with the monster, and the orchestra maintains its discordant dirge of accordion and spoken word poetry, one asks is this not rather something cataclysmic? Not a household pest but the invasion of the unrestrained armies of modernization, spreading like a virus through the picturesque, antiquated village, working at its communal roots and destabilizing its core beliefs. One then wonders if the processions of coffins framed in Murnau’s camera could be the funeral march for the end of the dream of enlightenment and the return of the undead specter of war and disease in the minds of the viewer. The avant-garde musical approach of scrapes and plucks failed to reanimate the uncanny effects of memory and metonym buried in the images.

What’s your fear, dear? Fear can be complicated, vague, and ultimately personal, but in the end, such questions were left completely unanswered by the orchestra and with the composition died the relevance of Murnau’s layered masterpiece for the audience in attendance. The performance delivered varying levels of tension, but could not distinguish the chords it shared and those it rejected in the psychological landscape of Nosferatu. Rather than the revelation of unknown connections between old and new, the final word belonged to the drowning cat, the indecipherable “grrrlrgrrlgrllrlglr!” in the mind, with which one left the theater.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/jan/26/culture.features2

[2] Thomas Elsaesser, No End to Nosferatu, 2008

[3] Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema, 2009




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