dir. Werner Herzog
You have to hand it to Werner Herzog, it takes some brass balls to stage a remake of “Nosferatu”, the ground zero of the horror genre and a film that – on the list of films badly in need of a remake – happens to rank squarely at the bottom. F.W Murnau’s 1922 classic is still pitch perfect in every faucet of it’s making and hasn’t aged a day since it’s release 94(!) years ago. It assaults the audience with nightmarish imagery and a sense of dread and is truly one of the most frightening of all films. Some horror films you can laugh off. “Nosferatu” is not one of them. There is no area that could be improved upon with a traditional remake. But have you ever known Werner Herzog to be a traditional filmmaker? Cinema’s favorite oddball, Herzog has made well over 25 films at this point and each one is as idiosyncratic as the next. So it was with no lack of audacity that in 1979 Herzog and his film crew (comprised of a whopping 16 people) decided to partake in a faithful filmic update of F.W Murnau’s vampire classic. The film that he produced should be preached as gospel on how to properly revive source material, while also making it into something new. Especially nowadays, with remake culture at such an incline that we’re not even waiting a respectable decade before churning out an inferior photocopy. To compare Murnau’s film and Herzog’s is to observe two great artists gazing at the same material and both seeing something different. To Herzog the concept of vampirism is less horrifying than it is dismal. Whereas Murnau perfectly captured the throat clenching terror of the undead, Herzog finds a somber funereal pall that hangs over the solitary creatures who can do nothing but wait for all of eternity. In a soliloquy that achieves a macabre beauty Kinski’s Count reflects, “Time is an abyss. Centuries come and go. Death is not the worst.” Both films are rife with a thick atmosphere of dread, but only Herzog’s adds a sliver of existential gloom. For my money, the 1922 film is still more outright chilling, though Herzog’s revamp provides a much more quietly unnerving viewing experience. At first glance a “Nosferatu” remake seems like a slight diversion in a career that’s full of jungle epics and edge-of-the-world odysseys. But make no mistake, it’s as much a Herzog film as anything he’s made, and quite possibly the perfect summation of why that means something.
Note: While musing on the subject of remakes it should be observed that the “Dracula” legacy has a confusing history. Back in 1922 when F.W Murnau created his original “Nosferatu”, the Bram Stoker book was still under copyright. That’s why the names of the characters were changed; from Jonathon to Hutter, from Mina to Ellen, and from Count Dracula to Count Orlok. In 1979, it was a dilemma that Herzog didn’t have to worry about and thus, reinstated the names of the characters back to Bram Stoker created originals. Though, oddly in the Stoker novel the name of Jonathan’s wife is Mina. Lucy is a friend to Mina and a supporting character in the book. I’ve yet to find anything written on why Herzog made the name swamp, as in his film Jonathan’s wife is named Lucy.
That Herzog’s film won’t be your traditional vampire movie is made apparent in the opening images. We see disconnected shots of mummified corpses while the ghastly melody of Popol Vuh swoons. Already the film reeks of slow death. Herzog then unexpectedly cuts to a bat flying – dreamily in slow motion – in midair. It’s poetic juxtaposition at it’s finest and a tonic to the typical ‘stinger’ style opening of most horror movies. Whereas those often feature deaths, Herzog’s opening is a meditation on death. It’s much more unsettling than any scene of grisly violence could hope to be and more effective as a result. Like the original, Herzog’s film is surprisingly gentle horror movie. Interested more in creating tension through mood and music than blood and gore. We are shortly after introduced to enterprising agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, who quite memorably played Hitler in the fantastic “Der Untergang” 25 years later). The early scenes of peace and tranquilly in Wismar are shot with an eerie picturesque quality. The actors are as pale and inexpressive as ghosts. The streets and rivers feel haunted as if from a bygone era. It has all the spectral aura of gazing at a historical postcard of still life. But when Jonathan’s cackling boss, Renfield (Roland Topor), enters Herzog allows his material to embrace a certain level of camp. Renfield giggles like an imp and can’t even manage to finish a sentence without tittering. Relish in the way that he delivers the line, “It’ll take you a long time. You’ll sweat a lot. And perhaps you’ll also…(mischievous laugh)…spill some blood.” The relationship between Jonathan and Lucy (or Hutter and Ellen, if you will) is much stronger here than in original. Nothing against Murnau’s film, but Herzog simply dedicates more time to expanding upon the Lucy character, particularly in the later acts. More elaborately drawing out the sexual tension between her and the Count and her conflicted devotion to Jonathon. It makes her sacrificial choice at the end all the more poignant. It’s important to note that, while Herzog’s film manages to find a grim poetry behind the vampire myth, it still works very well in the confines of the horror genre. It perfects that careful balance between being a great vampire film and transcending vampire films altogether. Paying affectionate homage to Murnau, while also infusing a greater level of thematic subtext into the material that just wasn’t the point of the 1922 film.
Visually, the films of Werner Herzog have always been fascinating. They are never less than gorgeous, but only rarely are they scenic (the fog rolling across the mountains in the opening shots of “Heart of Glass” is an exception, and still one of the most breathtaking images ever committed to film). Wearing two caps as fiction filmmaker and a documentary filmmaker, Herzog’s cinematography exists somewhere in between. The emphasis of his compositions is always on what he’s filming, not how he’s filming it. His films lack the in-your-face panache of more visually stylistic directors, though few directors are more visually stylistic. It’s a paradox that has to be seen to be understood. I’m reminded of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, in which Herzog allows sustained shots of the raging water to go on and on. The results are particularly hypnotic, despite not being particularly beautiful to look at. Near the beginning of “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” is a lengthy sequence in which Kaspar is being taught to walk. Herzog films the scene in a series of static medium-long shots that don’t always allow enough headroom for the actors to work within. Striking but never polished, Herzog films scenes from even his larger budget projects like a renegade film-student; bold, daring, and never short of cajones. He is also an outrageously funny filmmaker, using shot composition and mise-en-scene for great comic effect. There is a hilarious scene in “Kaspar Hauser” where Kaspar learns the laws of psychics by way of some rolling apples, and who can forget the dancing chicken at the end of “Stroszek”. “Nosferatu” is naturally a more dreary film and has less of an allowance for humor, but Herzog still manages to sneak in some of his trademark playfulness. In an otherwise melodramatic scene where Jonathon parts ways with Lucy to embark on his quest to castle Dracula, Herzog can’t resist framing the ass end of a horse in the left of the shot. And In the only scene to fully embrace outright camp, Harker’s dinner with the Count is interrupted by the chimes of a clock that is as theatrically spooky as from the Grand Guignol Theater. Imagine a cuckoo cuckoo clock, but with a decidedly gothic twist.
Just as palpable as the sense of dead is the ghost of F.W Murnau, who lingers over the film like an old sage. Never once do we get the impression that Herzog is trying to one-up Murnau in any way. His film is a re-telling, not a refurbishing. Herzog’s love and admiration for Munrau’s classic jumps off the screen and it’s influence can be well documented throughout Herzog’s prolific career. In direct tribute to the silent film era, Herzog films with a non-saturated color palette that borders on black + white. Always one for extreme on-location shoots, Herzog also painstakingly sought out and revisited many of the same locations for his film that the German master himself used in the 1922 original. Even framing certain compositions with shared geographical landmarks. Some shots are obviously inspired by Murnau’s and some are outright recreations. Unnoticeable to the casual viewer, one has to question if the extra effort was worth it. Does it make for a better film? Did traveling hundreds of miles up the Amazon to shoot “Aguirre” make for a better film? Herzog would tell you that the specific locations he chose were chosen because they harbored a voodoo. After watching Jonathan’s serpentine journey through the Borgo Pass, I’m prone to believe him. Set to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” (which has never before sounded more forlorn), the expedition to castle Dracula is beyond mesmeric. It’s almost elemental. Like the film itself possesses the power to hypnotize. The majority of the shots are handheld and not particularly cinematic. As I mentioned above in regards to Herzog’s visual style, these sequences are never showy. However, it’s such a perfect marriage of video and audio that it creates an intoxicating experience. A time-lapse shot of some dark clouds overtaking the bright sky foreshadows the evil to come and is fittingly followed by the arrival of the Count’s coach. It’s using the horror genre as classical art, writ large.
But how can one even begin to discuss Werner Herzog without also discussing Klaus Kinski? The yin to Herzog’s yang. “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him.” Herzog has spoken. “We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder.” To say that the relationship between the two was tumultuous is a vast understatement. That they’ve managed to carve out their own place in film-making notoriety is telling. An insightful documentary was even made on the subject by Herzog himself, “My Best Fiend”. During the on-site shooting of Herzog’s epic, “Fitzcarraldo”, a group of the local Indians offered to have Kinski killed. As Herzog would later recall, “I needed Kinski for a few more shots, so I turned them down.” Both megalomaniacs and unwilling to give an inch, the two were as volatile together as fire and gasoline. However, there was also respect and a mutual give-and-take that helped produce some of cinema’s most indelible works, including “Aguirre” (perhaps the role that was most befitting Kinski) and “Fitzcarraldo” (perhaps the film that was most befitting Herzog). With sunken eyes and haunted face, I can’t think of an actor more well suited for the role of a vampire (except Max Schreck, of course). Kinski’s count is comparable to a rodent; a thin face with a pointed nose and rat-like fangs complete with bat ears. It’s in stark contrast to the cordial gentleman that Bela Lugosi helped to immortalize. But it also aids in painting the aloofness of being a creature of the night. Kinski embeds the role with a chilling detachment. Just watch the way that he coldly pushes Renfield aside after he has served his purpose. To further covey the Count’s isolation, Herzog often engulfs him in total darkness. In many of Kinski’s shots, the majority of the frame is completely black, only allowing us to see the Count’s pale, floating head. It’s a striking visual tableaux that brings to mind more 12th century art than horror cinema influence. The castle itself is shot with as much open spaces and long tables as possible to show us the cold existence of the vampire. “I love the darkness and the shadows,” the Count muses, “Where I can be alone with my thoughts.” An outsider himself, perhaps Kinki could relate to the nosferatu on some level. Regardless, his performance here has to be seen to be believed. It’s an incredibly nuanced performance, relaying pretty much exclusively on eye-play and body language, and gives as much life as possible to the undead creature.
The ship that unwittingly brings the Count to Wismar isn’t traveling lightly. Also aboard are thousands and thousands of rats that all carry the black death. It is here that we are treated with some of the most extraordinary images ever put to film. As the horde of rodents swarm over the picturesque town, we are witness to scenes on scale of a biblical Armageddon. Wooden coffins being carried en masse through the town square, fires lit in the streets, rats congregating in front of buildings and below the stairs. It’s as Bosch-inspired as anything from Herzog’s similarly hellish “Lessons of Darkness”, a faux-documentary that chronicled the Kuwait oil fires. In one surreal sequence the townsfolk all dance joyfully and feast in the middle of the street. As they sit and enjoy a banquet, they are indifferent to the hundreds of rats scurrying across their feet below. It brings to mind “The Seventh Seal”, Ingmar Bergman’s film about the black death, which also contains a scene where those affected dance and enjoy their final moments on earth. As Jonathan slowly succumbs to the curse of the undead (symptoms include a pale complexion and rodent like fangs), Lucy (played by the outrageously gorgeous French actress Isabelle Adjani, no stranger to horror) desperately attempts to find a cure. It’s one of Herzog’s stronger female roles and Adjani injects her as much sympathy and nerve as possible with such limited screen-time. In a powerful gesture of love, Lucy ends up making the ultimate sacrifice in a scene with some obviously erotic innuendo. She allows the Count to ‘take’ her until the sun hits and forces him into hibernation.
It’s in the final moments of the film that Herzog diverts from a faithful love-letter to Murnau and slyly subverts the vampire tale. The funniest scene in the film arrives near the end when Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), after slaying the vampire, is placed under arrest. “I want you to arrest this man!” the Warden tells the Town Clerk (Herzog regular, Clemens Scheitz). “The police don’t exist anymore,” is his reply. “Then take him to prison!” the Warden now demands. The Town Clerk shrugs, “There is no one there to guard him.” Now flustered the Warden shouts, “I don’t care! I want you to arrest this man!” As the Town Clerk leads Van Helsing off he sighs, “I don’t know where I’m taking you.” When the Count is slain there is no evaporation into the sunlight and no exciting puffs of smoke. The pathetic creature just curls up in the corner of the room and shrivels up like a dead bug in the least cinematic way possible. Instead of a triumphant victory for Van Helsing, he is deemed a crazed murderer. And Jonathon, now a creature of the night himself, vows to continue the Count’s apocalyptic holocaust. It’s all so gleefully hopeless that it achieves a kind of sardonic humor. Like the old-age storytelling punctuation of, “…and then they all died.” The final image in the film is of Jonathan ominously riding off, carrying the black plaque with him, while the music of Gounod’s “Sanctus” joylessly shrieks; both wickedly pessimistic and achingly beautiful at once. It’s a sublime period at the end of Herzog’s reification that death has no eternal end.
So does Herzog’s film live up to the genius of Murnau’s classic? Does it fall short? Does it surpass it? Who’s to say. They are two completely different films and to compare them in terms of quality is beside the point. Both are among the shinning lights of the horror genre. To view the two “Nosferatu” films back-to-back is to get a greater understanding of what having a ‘directorial vision’ means. Herzog creates a sense of unease that few films can compete with. He seems to spawn arresting images from thin air and uses them to pull the audience into a near catatonic state. Some of them operate on dream logic and are pure expressionist. The film is less of a horror film than it is a poetic discourse on death, or in this case – the inability to find death. Like written in revelation 9:6, “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it, and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” Kinski’s vampire is one of the saddest of all movie monsters, and much like the Frankenstein creature, achieves a level of pathos that is rare in horror cinema. Vampire movies are a dime a dozen nowadays. There is an audience out there. I don’t recommended “Nosferatu” to them. At times it’s as a slow and sedative as if it’s trying to lull you into a sleep. It’s hardly ever scary, but rather, seeps into your bones. Would you laugh if I called the film ‘silent but deadly’? However, there is an audience out there who will relish in Herzog’s vision of the undead, and who’ll be swept away in his romantic nightmare. Pay the film with multiple viewings and you’ll be richly rewarded. Werner Herzog is one of cinema’s most original filmmakers and “Nosferatu” is one of his finest films. As a work of art; a thing of deep mysterious allure. As a vampire film; a hallucinatory odyssey into the heart of eternal darkness. There is horror and there is beauty. They feed off each other.
Rating: A+ (MASTERPIECE)