In this image from 1:00:00 into F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu (1922)*, the captain of the riverboat Demeter is hard at work. His ship is in peril, and his entire crew is dead. Only one option remains: he must quickly lash himself to the wheel, and do whatever it takes to get his ship and its cargo to safety. It’s that old cliché of a captain going down with his ship. Unfortunately, as a title card informs us, the Demeter is the “Ship of Death”—and as such, both the ship and its poor, unknowing captain are doomed.
If only the captain could’ve seen the low-angle shot that precedes this one, wherein the gaunt, rat-like Count Orlok (Max Schreck) stalks across the deck. It’s an iconic horror image, and with good reason: the odd angle emphasizes the evil strangeness of Orlok’s posture and gait, as well as the totality of his hold on the ship. He doesn’t need to skulk around in the cargo hold anymore; now he can skulk out in the open. No crew members are around to impede him, and the captain’s too busy panicking and tying himself down.
Yes, it’s one of those classic we-know-more-than-they-do moments, when the disparity between our knowledge and the character’s is the source of terror. Normally, the captain’s actions would be brave and heroic. Normally, the ship would be threatened by something external, like pirates or bad weather—anything but vampires. Lashing himself down now, however, is like buckling your seatbelt in a burning car. The ship itself is diseased, and in a few moments Orlok will be the only passenger left.
As much as we implore him, the captain refuses to look up and realize his mistake until it’s too late. He’s just as oblivious as a sexually active babysitter in an ’80s slasher movie. By the time he shifts his attention away from the knot he’s tying, Orlok has circled around the deck and is lurking off-screen, about to descend. The scene ends with an ominous fade to black, signaling the consolidation of the vampire’s shipboard control. The whole build-up to the captain’s demise takes only five shots, with two angles and no camera movement. It’s both economical and terrifying.
So here’s a salute to the captain of this ill-fated ship, and to F.W. Murnau for immortalizing him in the annals of horror history. He may not have been the most observant sailor to captain a plague-ridden vessel, but at least he was committed! He knew his ship was in trouble, and he did what seemed right. Well, he gets an A for effort in my book. Sometimes, especially when you’re a minor character in a vampire movie, you just can’t win.
*At least, according to Kino’s 2002 DVD. Different editions of Nosferatu (and there are many!) have different running times.