November 2014        

Dracula and the horror of imperialism

Jenny Farrell

Many readers tend to regard novels, and films based on their contents, as mere “entertainment,” i.e. as pleasant ways to pass the time. The idea that the creators of such stories may use them to send a “message” to the reader, still less an ideological message, seldom occurs to them—and still less again the idea that this message may encode a stringent critique of the prevailing political and economic order, whether its original creator consciously intended it or not!
      Nor could these original creators foresee that the literary images they created would inspire the creations of ideologically motivated film directors.
      Thus the Gothic and, later, horror genres, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, enjoy an unbroken tradition to this day. Both these art forms were intrinsically linked to developing capitalist societies and emerged during the period leading up to the French Revolution. From there on they express an underlying sense of horror and madness that subverts prevailing ruling-class assertions about the right and reason of their system.
      The Irish writer Bram Stoker added a new dimension to this aesthetic of horror with his novel Dracula (1897), about the vampire who lives by sucking blood from people, thereby killing them and turning them in turn into vampires.
      Such an apt image for the advent of imperialism wasn’t lost on the artists of his time. As the major colonial powers went to war over their colonial spoils, Germany and Britain looking for their “fair share,” in Stoker’s Dracula the act of property acquisition by a foreign aristocrat, facilitated by an English lawyer and his employer, brings the lifeblood-sucking vampire into the ordinary world. This is the horror: evil can enter the ordinary world, wreaking havoc and threatening the lives of many, with the help of “respectable” lawyers selling property.
      This image struck a chord with the German expressionist film-maker F. W. Murnau. He based the first horror film in cinema history on Dracula, shot in 1921, just three short years after the appalling horror of the First World War. The film-makers avoided copyright issues by changing the story around a bit and calling it Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. (“Nosferatu” appears in the novel as the word for the Undead.)
      Some of the other changes, however, are very interesting indeed. One is that the property deal, with all its horrendous implications, is emphasised. Murnau fuses the estate agent with Stoker’s madman, Dracula’s servant Renfield, who will not allow the certain onset of evil to prevent the property deal!
      The other plot change worth noting in the light of then recent history is that evil is destroyed—but only at the cost of innocent human life, as is also the case in Stoker’s novel.
      When Werner Herzog of the New German Cinema movement, in an effort to reconnect with pre-Nazi German cinema, made a new version of Nosferatu in 1979 he, unlike Murnau, takes from Stoker’s text the idea that, once infected by Dracula, people will turn into vampires unless they are killed and a stake put through their heart!
      Once again the estate agent is a madman, prepared to risk the lives of many people in order to make a good profit through property sales. As in Murnau’s film, he is in cahoots with Dracula. In a horrific extension of the original idea, as Dracula’s servant he is sent far away by his master to spread the plague.
      Murnau’s image of the all-destroying plague is developed into an apocalyptic vision by Herzog. He sees evil spreading from two sources: by those turned into vampires themselves and also by Dracula’s servant by means of the plague. Both survive the demise of Dracula.
      Herzog’s horrific image of a destruction that cannot be stemmed is, arguably, a most compelling cinematic presentation of the horror wrought by the ravages of an unbound and unregulated capitalism. As Murnau’s film invents horror for cinema, so Herzog’s film, made after two world wars, amid the threat of a nuclear war and many more to come, can no longer envisage the defeat of evil. Herzog’s film, in the metaphorical language of art, drives Horror into the Apocalypse of imperialism at war.

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