Monday, June 16, 2014

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (aka: Nosferatu the Vampyre)

(1979) Written and directed by: Werner Herzog; Based on the novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Death is a cruelty against the unsuspecting.  But that’s not what I perceive as cruel.  Cruel is when you can’t die even if you want to.” – Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski)

A remake of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking horror classic Nosferatu would seem like a fool’s errand in less capable hands, but Writer/director Werner Herzog pulls off the impossible.  More than an homage or update, Herzog returned to Henrik Galeen’s original script and Bram Stoker’s novel to create his screenplay.  While the original version of Nosferatu was an unauthorized telling of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, with the names changed to distance itself from the source material,* Herzog used the original names from Stoker’s story.  The end result is something at once familiar and different from any other incarnation of the Dracula story.**

* Despite their efforts to conceal their film’s origin, the makers of Nosferatu were sued by Stoker’s widow, and a German court ordered existing prints of Nosferatu destroyed.  Thankfully for Herzog and future generations, some copies survived.

** In his DVD commentary, Herzog claimed not to have seen the Bela Lugosi version.

Herzog cast volatile actor Klaus Kinksi* as Count Dracula, an inspired but controversial choice.  While Herzog had “no doubt” about his decision to cast Kinski in the role, he had to justify his choice to a crew accustomed to the actor’s well-earned reputation for on-set tirades.  Kinski is perfect as the tormented count.  More than a simple mimicry of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, Kinski paints a canvas of despair, depicting Dracula as a pathetic, lonely creature, distanced from the world of the living.  In his initial meeting with solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), he laments how he’s lived for centuries, but never really lived.  He watches Harker devour his meal with longing and fascination.  Sentenced to an eternity of pain and solitude, he must repeat the same cursed existence over and over.  Kinski’s Dracula is the antithesis of the romantic creatures that have dominated most vampire films in recent memory.  He’s become something neither man nor beast, a slave to his baser impulses.  When Harker cuts his finger, Dracula lunges at the bleeding appendage with an unstoppable fervor.

* Although Herzog and Kinski collaborated on several films together, their working arrangement was ambivalent at best.  Anyone interested in learning more about the director’s often contentious relationship with Kinski should check out the immensely entertaining (Herzog) documentary, My Best Fiend.

Isabelle Adjani stuns as Jonathan Harker’s wife Lucy.  She appears almost ethereal in her scenes, as a paragon of untarnished beauty and virtue.  As Harker descends into darkness under the influence of Dracula, she assumes the heroic stance to protect the man she loves.  She seems to be the only one willing or able to stand up to the Count, after he moves into their village with the plague in tow.  By contrast, the frail Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) appears impotent in the face of evil, even as death surrounds him.  French actor/artist Roland Topor* is also memorable, in his off-the- rails performance as Dracula’s crazed servant Renfield.

* Fun Fact: Topor’s psychedelic artwork formed the basis for the alien world depicted in René Laloux’s animated film Fantastic Planet.

Shot for an estimated $896,000 with a minimal crew, Nosferatu looks like a more expensive production,* thanks to Herzog’s insistence to film on location, rather than sets.  The seven-week shoot took place primarily in Holland, which stood in for the German port town of Wismar, and Eastern Slovakia, for Transylvania.  Dracula’s home was a castle in Moravia.  Instead of employing professionals, Herzog employed many non-actors for supporting roles, including an entire village of gypsies.  The scenes with Harker and the gypsies take on a documentary-style appearance, and their presence lends a certain veracity that could not be conveyed by regular actors.

* At the behest of American distributor Fox, Herzog simultaneously filmed an English-language version with the same crew, although it’s the German-language version that most film fans prefer.

Herzog does away with special effects or other post-production trickery to tell his vampire story, relying on a more straightforward approach.  Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s striking cinematography sets the mood for Nosferatu, with images of a foggy desolate beach, rats swarming off a sailing ship, and Harker wandering the shadowy cobwebbed halls of Dracula’s castle.  In one overhead shot, we witness multiple pallbearers and coffins snaking through the streets of Wismar like icy tendrils of death.  In another scene, absurdity and hysteria prevail as some plague-infected residents (played by the film crew) enjoy a brief moment of revelry.

Frequent Herzog collaborator Popol Vuh contributes the dynamic, haunting music score. A funereal chorus presides over the opening shot inside a crypt.*  The audience is then introduced to the peaceful town of Wismar, underscored by placid, guitar-infused music.  The tone rapidly shifts to more ominous sounds as Harker travels to Transylvania, and a return to the plaintive chorus.  Wagner is heard, as Harker traverses unknown territory, crossing foreboding landscapes and mist-shrouded mountains. 

* In another nod to realism versus artificiality, this particular scene was filmed in a mausoleum in Mexico, and featured real mummified corpses.

Herzog’s film is a perfect companion piece (a B-side, if you will) to Murnau’s original.
His poetic vision of Nosferatu compares favorably to, and in terms of character development, even surpasses the original.  It’s deliberately paced, which in most instances could be a fancy way of saying that it’s slow, but that’s not really the case here.  Herzog lets his story unfold in its own time. Uninterested in cheap thrills and special effects, he chooses to ruminate on existence and dwell on the nature of evil. (SPOILER ALERT)  The bleak ending takes a post-modern spin on the traditional conceit that evil was always held at bay by the virtuous and righteous.  Herzog gives no quarter, instead, leaving us with the unsettling conclusion that love, no matter how strong, does not conquer all. 


  1. Wonderful post, Barry. I've not watched this in many years. I remember having the novelization of this version, which had that gorgeous poster image on the cover.

    1. Thanks, Brandon. It was great watching both versions back to back, and seeing how Herzog honored the original while taking his version in a new direction.

      The poster really capsulizes the feel of the movie, dreamlike and hypnotic.

  2. My son and I watched the original last fall on the big screen with a live band. It was very cool. I may do a double feature like you suggested once I get the blu ray of Herzog's film. Great review and cool post, Barry!

    1. That must have been incredible. You and and your son were very lucky to see such a screening. I'm green with envy!
      Like you, I've made a conscious effort to introduce my son and daughter to movies from another age. It's good for them to know that films existed more than 10 years ago. :)

      Thanks for the kind words!