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F. W. Murnau, C. D. Friedrich, and the Conceit of the Absent Spectator
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MLN 120.3 (2005) 633-653



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F. W. Murnau, C. D. Friedrich, and the Conceit of the Absent Spectator

University of Oregon

Nosferatu (1922): Following a cautionary title-card, the iris opens briefly on a provincial town square. Shot from the roof of a Gothic church, its spire prominent in the foreground, the scene has the burnished feel of an albumen print. Tiny human figures can be made out on the streets below, the first harbingers of morning bustle. The iris reopens on Thomas Hutter, arranging his neckwear in a mirror, the back of his hair gilded by sunlight entering through the window at his right. With an air of characteristic self-approbation, he straightens and faces left. Suddenly, as if reined in by an unexpected sound, he tiptoes to the window and peers out over its ledge (Fig. 1).1 He has overheard his wife, Ellen, shown standing at an adjacent or facing window (Fig. 2). The sill is covered with potted plants; ornate wallpaper and an array of family portraits are visible in the room behind her. She is toying with a cat, inciting it to play with a locket on a chain. The camera lingers as Ellen contends with the kitten's nonchalance. The scene has all the attributes of a tableau, presented to a gaze of which it is, or purports to be, unaware. Ellen's innocence, which is consistent with the autonomy of the ambient space, depends on the absence of an observer. Or more accurately, the self-containment of the latter scene is made possible by the stealth within the [End Page 633] former: Thomas, intent on being neither seen nor heard, takes pains to uphold the fiction of the absent spectator.

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Figure 1
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Figure 2

In the juxtaposition of these two shots, we find an apt and almost programmatic illustration of a paradox described by Michael Fried with respect to the "rapprochement between the aims of painting and drama" that occurred during the second half of the eighteenth century: "A tableau was visible . . . only from the beholder's point of view. But precisely because that was so, it helped persuade the beholder that the actors themselves were unconscious of his presence."2 Emphatically pictorial, the shot of Ellen at the window is reminiscent of those canvases, increasingly prevalent in the eighteenth century, in which an attitude of rapt attention or profound meditation was tantamount to an obliviousness towards the beholder. A similar absorption was to emerge as the trademark of a modern dramatic form bent on becoming untheatrical—a form in which, in contrast to popular and festive theater, the audience does not participate in the spectacle.3 Spying on Ellen from behind a curtain, Hutter literalizes the "as if" of modern drama, which in not addressing itself to the spectator grants him the illusion of being undetected. To say that Hutter is a voyeur may be too routine a point to make nowadays, yet he clearly embodies the "mechanism of satisfaction" that, following Christian Metz, "relies on my awareness that the object I am watching is unaware of being watched."In close parallel to Fried (who cites Diderot's distinction between "a woman who is seen and a [End Page 634] woman who exhibits herself"), Metz explains the "fundamental disavowal" behind the codes of classical cinema: "The film is not exhibitionist. I watch it, but it doesn't watch me watching it. Nevertheless, it knows I am watching it. But it doesn't want to know."4

The "realism," i.e., the "non-exhibitionism" of these scenes from Nosferatu (and of classical cinema generally) is the result of a visual syntax that at once centers the viewer and disimplicates him from the space represented. As is the case with modern (bourgeois) drama, the spectator beholds the scene but does not recognize himself as constitutive of it (even though the spectacle is constructed around the unity he occupies). This is distinct from more popular types of theater, in which...