Professor of German Studies Gabriele Wittig Davis studies representations of late eighteenth to early twentieth-century German society and culture in literature, thought, and film. Next semester, she’ll be teaching a new course, Specters, Monsters, and the Mind: The Gothic and Grotesque in Anglo-German Film and Fiction from Frankenstein to Twilight and True Blood. With Halloween coming up this weekend, Questioning Authority thought this was a great time to find out more about what promises to be some spooky subject matter.
QA: Tell us about the course.
GWD: On the content level, it’s a course that links the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, and connects a number of media and different types of traditions. We’ll look at the vampire tradition, for example, beginning with the Romantic Era when you have examples like the Goethe poem “The Bride of Corinth,” that features a female vampire, herself the victim of a forced marriage, who returns to her home to capture her bridegroom, and, later, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And you wonder why you have all these occurrences of monstrous shapes--there are also Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irvin--all of a sudden, you have a concern, even a fascination, with things that seem to be part of our underbelly or the darker side of human existence.
What I find so momentous is that connection between the “specters” in the tales of romanticism and the bloody “monsters” of the human mind that surfaced, historically, in the final frenzies of the French Revolution with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. A century later, Classic German Cinema, or Weimar Cinema, arises from the graves of the First World War, so to speak, again during times of radical upheaval.
Many critics agree that Weimar Cinema reaches a climax, if not the climax, by creating the first—and, many maintain, still best—Dracula film, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, a silent film so powerful in its chilling use of shadows that students to this day, although so hardened by current movies they’ve seen, find it really scary.
More recently, there’s the 2006 movie by German director Tom Tykwer called Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It’s a very different kind of vampire movie. It takes place in eighteenth century France, going back to the roots in some sense. It’s about a boy who is born on the dung heaps of society with a supernormal sense of smell. He later learns to create perfumes. But to create the perfect perfume, he feels driven to kill young virgins.
QA: You’re dealing with a wide swath of history and narratives. How do you connect all of this material together?
GWD: For me, there is always a link between art and society. This is why the students also have to look at what is going on at the time and be able to formulate why someone picked up on that genre at that time. In the classic Nosferatu, Max Schreck was the actor who played the vampire. In the 2000 movie, Shadow of the Vampire, Willem Dafoe portrays Schreck as a real vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. Another interesting thing in this is that in German, Schreck means “terror” or “fear.” It’s a self-reflective film. It’s self- reflective about the original movie, about the medium, film, and its tradition in general, and self-reflective in terms of asking, “What do we unleash when we create these vampires?” Are we desensitizing people by representing imaginary specters and monsters? Are we only reflecting the reality of brutality in society today? Does the imaginary lead to further brutalization or help us work our way out of the dark subterranean catacombs of the unconscious to the sunlight of the conscious mind?
QA: Let’s talk about some other recent monster series. True Blood on HBO and the Twilight book and movie series. Why are vampire stories such fertile ground right now in modern-day America?
GWD: Well, I’m going to leave that up to students to explore, but I do think these current vampire stories are less perturbing than what’s come before, because, while the others are questioning normative values, these re-establish them. As strange as it may sound, they’re playing with the tradition, but they are not really getting to the soul of it. That would be too disturbing. These stories are really focused on the romantic side of things. It goes along with the conservative bent of society right now.
QA: Why did you want to teach this class?
GWD: It’s hard to figure, because I’m not a person who likes to watch horror movies. The experience affects me too much. I don’t like to see all that created brutality because I already know how much brutality there is in the world. But, you know, any kind of good creative work touches you emotionally in some way. I know I shouldn’t say that, because if I were just a critic, I should not be moved to such a degree. But I think that’s part of why I really like the material; it is not just an academic exercise for me. And I think for my students, it has to be something that they can really draw on as an experience to which can relate outside of the classroom. Obviously, many of them aren’t going to be making films, or becoming literature critics or historians, but if they’re captivated by the material, they’ll really “read” and analyze any kind of text or discourse, then those skills of the mind, and experiences which make life more livable, will stay with them.
QA: Are you going to be paying more attention to Halloween this year than in the past because you’re about to teach this class?
GWD: That’s a good question. It might be fun to walk across campus and see what the students are up to. What kind of costumes are people wearing? Is there more violence there? For me it’s a reflective time. It’s a time to think about how traditions have changed.
QA: As someone who’s scared by horror films, but a scholar of them, what’s your favorite scary movie?
GWD: I like both versions of Nosferatu, both the classic one and the remake. The original Nosferatu is extremely eerie: Max Schreck just does a marvelous job of being this combination of animal—I mean, he looks like a rat—and yet he is still, in some sense, human. Schreck’s portrayal leads you to understand that this is not a monster who lives outside of us. There are enough scenes that make it clear that this monster is part of society, is part of us. What Werner Herzog does so well in the remake, I think, is that he takes it a step further, and although his Nosferatu also dies at the end, a new vampire escapes out into the world. In a bizarre way, it’s hopeful. You know there is something that is inherently human there, that there is goodness along with the darkness. I study it because—and this is going to sound extremely trite—because by examining the darkness we can overcome it. We can find the light.