From technological advances to adaptations of style, cinema has transformed and evolved throughout the years, but despite the industry’s changes, mise-en-scene has remained relevant due to it’s artistic importance. The term mise-en-scene is French for ‘placed in a scene’ or ‘onstage’. It refers to the different parts of a shot that are purposefully crafted in order to signify particular messages and meanings. Specifically, it encompasses lighting, blocking, camera angles, and overall composition.
The 1922 movie Nosferatu is a great example to look at because it’s strategically compiled of key scenes that can be analyzed using the ideologies of mise-en-scene. The shot where Nosferatu stops sucking a woman’s blood and looks out the window, seeing the rising sun and realizing his impending doom, which can be viewed in the still below, provides the perfect example of how to dissect a shot via the elements that make up mise-en-scene.
In scenes like the one shown above, one of the most important things to look at is lighting. Especially within horror or tragic films like this one, lighting can make or break the mood. One of the strategies used within this scene is the highlight of the dominant. The reason why you immediately look at Nosferatu’s face is because it’s lit up in an otherwise dark setting. The wall, including the mirror behind him, the curtains, and his clothes are purposely dark to contrast the light reflected off his face. The reason behind making this particular feature evident is so the audience will follow his gaze to the window. The director wanted the view out the window to be a subsidiary contrast because it plays an important role in the story. What we find out here, at the same time as Nosferatu, is that the sun is beginning to rise. The sun is a vampire’s kryptonite, which is another reason why there is such high contrast lighting. All of the sharp shadows against the conflicting overly-white objects are what create this duality between this ‘creature of the night’ ideology and the safety and therefore ‘good’ that daylight brings. It is evident that the victim is conspicuously draped in white tapestry as a way to define her soul as good as appose to Nosferatu’s black cloak defining him as evil. The camera angle is then taken in to consideration in order to compliment the story that these lighting features create.
This moment is portrayed using a long, or establishing shot so that the audience can absorb all of the complexities of the scene within a few seconds, even if they don’t realize it. Story-wise, we see the sun coming up as well as Nosferatu’s reaction to it. Then, to deepen the tension of the moment, loose framing is used to show he has room to move from the bed to the window in order to investigate the sunrise, therefore sparing the life of the woman in the bed, but he is still in a decision-making state, so the audience is kept on their toes. Since this is an establishing shot, there are multiple items and plains in focus, and yet it is not a busy scene. We still understand what is important (the sun coming up, Nosferatu’s reaction, and the woman’s unmoving body) and are not distracted by the trivial items that surround them. Also, the fact that the camera is in a neutral position allows us to be eyelevel with Nosferatu and the window, making our recognition of what is going on clearer.
All of this camera work is important, but what allows these particular shots to be effective is the blocking of the figures within the scene. Nosferatu and his victim are both pushed to the left of the frame. This makes it seem like she is cornered by him and has no way to escape. He is higher than her to show his dominance and her vulnerability. The fact that his hands are touching her, but her hands are not touching him also plays into this power structure. It makes the audience uncomfortable because it’s such an intimate position in such a cramped corner. What adds to the uncomfortable feeling is that we cannot see her face. We have no confirmation of life or death. Then, when we turn our attention to Nosferatu, we see only his profile and realize that he is lost in his own thoughts. This, along with the distinct line of his jaw, are other features that lead us back to the window.
The lines that the windowpane creates forms a kind of horizon for the sun, and the bed post, window siding, curtains, and mirror all give us an elongated vertical line so that our attention is not just drawn to the right, but upwards as well. The bed sheets make a triangular shape so that they draw our attention to the victim, Nosferatu, and the window. These are the three most important points in the frame, which is why this triangle shape is just about centered. The two figurines hanging on the wall are in a circular shape, which gives the room a bit of a homey vibe and creates the sensation that he broke into someone’s safe space, thus adding to the creepiness. So although at first glance this seems like a very basic layout of someone’s bedroom, it’s actually very strategically and masterfully constructed.
Once you start noticing the different aspects of mise-en-scene, you begin to understand just how intricate each piece is. Nosferatu on the surface seems like a simple old movie, but the blocking of the figures coincide with the camera shots and the lighting to create this mise-en-scene shot that, through analyzing it, can tell us a great deal about the story and why we, as the audience, feel what we feel.