Grey Room

Vegetal Gestures: Cinema and the Knowledge of Life in Weimar Germany

Matthew Vollgraff


Halfway through Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s classic vampire film Nosferatu (1922), the gripping narrative is brought to an abrupt halt by a visit to the laboratory of Professor Bulwer. The audience plays voyeur as the Paracelsian doctor inducts his pupils into the “mysterious essence of nature” with a lesson on carnivorous plants. Murnau here inserts footage taken by his friend, the science cinematographer Ulrich K.T. Schulz, of a Dionaea muscipula—otherwise known as the Venus flytrap. In the scene, an unsuspecting fly lands on the plant’s open lobe, and within the blink of an eye it is devoured, to be digested by the gastric juices of its vegetal crypt. “Isn’t it,” the professor asks his students with a devious glance, “just like a vampire?” Why should the Venus flytrap provoke horror and dread in the viewer, as if it were some monstrosity in defiance of nature? Let us suppose that what unsettles is not just the plant’s carnivorous diet but its sudden, jerky motion and subtle sensitivity. The plant’s uncanny aspect lies precisely in this mixture of kinesis and aesthesis, like the disquieting liveliness of the undead.