Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (literal translation: “Phantom of the Night”) begins with unbroken close-ups of the famous mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico, notable for the uncomfortably lifelike preservation of their individual details—clothes are still intact, facial expressions are unique and varied, and, in some cases, hair and fingernails linger. They are eerie in the way that they appear nearly alive in their death, with their faces and postures twisted as if locked forever in quiet screams. We see these images in vivid detail, and we can almost hear their moans from the Other Side. After lingering on these faces for so long that we grow unsettled, Herzog then cuts to dreamy, slowed down image of a vampire bat in mid-flight. The implication is clear: This is a film about vampires, who likewise appear nearly alive in their death, and Herzog has no intention of painting the typical, attractive picture of ruggedly dashing undead.
The contorted, mummified remains inform every frame of the German director’s update of F.W. Murnau’s silent chiller Nosferatu (1922); they make clear that Herzog’s first order of business is to strip death of all the romantic glory attributed to it in every vampire film since that first silent Dracula adaptation. Max Schreck, who played the Count for Murnau (named Orlock in the original due to copyright issues, but no matter), was a tall, rat-faced figure who was certainly nobody’s idea of a dashing aristocrat. He lurched about the soundstage awkwardly like the crooked man who lived in a crooked house, his bug eyes and pointed, bald head making him look like the epitome of a revolting old geezer. It is no surprise that the heroine is repulsed by his presence rather than seduced—has there ever been a less attractive screen vampire?
Well, yes: Klaus Kinski, who plays the role for Herzog, manages to be both revolting and pathetic. The misery is absolutely required in this 1979 remake, because it serves as compensation for all of the romantic Draculas who came in between the two gruesomely gaunt German interpretations. Seduction was the crucial element when the role belonged to Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and Christopher Lee (and, for that matter, Gary Oldman in the 1992 version): Yes, Dracula sucked your blood, but it’s kind of thrilling that a tall, dark and handsome man would take such interest in you. Vampirism doesn’t seem so bad when you get to look gorgeously gothic, and eternal life as an undead slave never seemed so sexy. The same year as Herzog’s Nosferatu, Universal Pictures themselves revived Dracula with Frank Langella in the lead; it was a perfectly acceptable genre film, high on production values and eroticism but decidedly low on unease and dread. Dracula was now an archetypal romantic a la James Bond, and it was considered a compliment to be cast in the part.
Herzog’s Dracula couldn’t agree less. Under no conditions would anyone want to be the kind of vampire we encounter in this film, including the evil Count himself. Kinski sports a hunched back, a naked scalp, rat ears, pasty flesh, and a hideously tragic glower that winces when he sucks blood, as if it tastes like sour milk. “To live forever in the dark is the worst fate I could imagine,” Dracula rasps sadly, and we believe him. The only person who seems to have any exhilaration with being a vampire here is mad old Renfield (Roland Topor), who is last seen cackling into the night as he leads an army of plague-infested rats north, some of which we presume he will devour himself; this isn’t exactly the thrilling life of an undead being that audience members would want to emulate.
It goes without saying that Nosferatu efficiently contributes to Herzog’s general obsession with the chaos of the universe. Nothing is ever romantic in his vision of the cosmos, even the most beautiful places of nature. For Herzog, especially in his early work, every aspect of the world points to its damnation of the human race. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, for example, he sees man’s ambition as our hopeless doom, and the jungle becomes our prison. In Grizzly Man, he sees indifference and boredom in the eyes of the animals that activist Timothy Treadwell swore to protect. I think he sees the same indifference in the eyes of Count Dracula, except his very nature has become his own prison. When he gets around to the classic line, “Children of the Night—what music they make,” it sounds less like a declaration and more like a lamentation from a misplaced soul who has long since lost the ability to express himself in any way except as a human leech.
The film follows a variation of the Bram Stoker novel that audiences have been seeing since the 1922 film: Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is a real estate salesman sent to Transylvania to finalize Dracula’s purchase of a house in westernized Europe (London usually, Wismar here). Jonathan’s beautiful wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) has a bad feeling and cautions him, but he insists they need the money. He thus sets off, and you know what happens next: He arrives in rural Transylvania, and villagers caution him not to go to Castle Dracula. “There is no castle, only ruins,” a gypsy warns him. “Only ghosts live there, and to enter into the castle, you must cross into the ghost world.” These early scenes play like parody, in which all the superstitious villagers grow silent and melodramatically turn toward Harker when he dares utter the name Dracula. But this particular dialogue is an important signpost: The next several scenes show Harker traveling on foot to the castle, and Herzog shoots them with the quietly ominous, surrealist qualities of the jungle in Aguirre, indicating that this poor man, who we know is soon to be Dracula’s victim, is slowly but surely crossing into another realm of existence and, indeed, another type of vampire film that will soon abandon the campy familiarities.
When Kinski’s Dracula reveals himself for the first time, he stands in a doorway silhouetted against a dim light. His long, bony fingers are perched like claws, and he wears a hat that makes his head look like a vague but clearly inhuman object. We zero in on him; as his form becomes clearer, we realize that Herzog has literally transformed Dracula into a human rat: Kinski’s own snout-like nose is accentuated by the prosthetics on his ears and the dark cloak draped clumsily around him. When he stalks Harker, he does not do it with the swift efficiency of Christopher Lee, but rather with the nervous jerks of a rodent keenly aware that a cat might be in the other room. This is a Dracula that above all else moves on his feet, who scrambles like a rodent from one location to the next. He doesn’t float, doesn’t turn into a bat, only skirts and growls. He gives the general impression not of refined aristocracy, but dirtiness and disease.
Harker’s own explorations around the castle accentuate the infested word of these phantoms. He hears the screeching of a violin, which we see is played by the ghost of a small child standing in a doorway. The music echoes down the corridor, shrill and maddening. Harker’s room is dusty and unkempt. Dracula himself looks as if he hasn’t left the shadowed walls of this castle since the beginning of his undead career. And rats seem to tumble out of every crack. The overall effect is decidedly otherwordly, but it also accomplishes something more: It represents a chilling decay that the classy Hammer productions basically abandoned and that the Universal films were too sanitized to truly reveal. And Coppola’s castle in the 1992 film is a supreme exercise in art design that constantly draws attention to itself. This castle, this world in which Dracula inhabits—it’s not staggeringly creepy, it’s not foreboding in its gothic details. It’s… stale and dead and downright uninhabitable. The most memorable piece of artwork on display is a clock with a skull its roof; when the bell tolls, the Grim Reaper emerges from a door on its side and slides across the hour hands. Dracula observes the clock smugly, as if he shares an unspoken secret with its gloomy mechanizations.
In Stoker’s novel and most of the subsequent films, after Dracula flees to civilization, he slowly turns unsuspecting young woman into his slaves and thus implements a quiet plan of attack. Dracula lacks any such subtly here: An army of rats accompany him, and with them the plague. The second half of Nosferatu is devoted primarily to images typical of Herzog’s cinematic vision: The town’s human population dwindles as the rats increase, and the desolation spreads so quickly that the residents begin to move about in a dreamlike state, dancing madly in the streets and celebrating their impending doom. Death’s dance moves about almost in celebration in images that bring The Seventh Seal to mind. A moment when Lucy joins a rich family at a dinner table for their last meal (all have the plague) rivals the feverish lunacy of the monkey-covered rafts in Aguirre: They sit to eat, and the scene immediately cuts to the dinner table after the meal; the seats are now empty, the humans have disappeared, and rats nibble on the remaining food. The message is clear: Vampirism is a terrible disease and only a slow, agonizing death comes from it.
By the time Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), steps in to finish off the Count (who by now has already been rendered powerless by Lucy, as in the 1922 version), he comes across as a weary physician performing a mercy killing. The fearless vampire hunter once played in furious overdrive by Peter Cushing is still fearless, but only because he isn’t presented with anything to necessarily fear. The town is already destroyed and he probably has the plague himself, so the good doctor has no one left to save and nothing in particular to loose. For that matter, Dracula is not the dominant presence of Christopher Lee who would crush all those who defy him: Kinski’s vampire, now imprisoned by the rays of the sun, is merely a trapped rat, and Van Helsing is an exterminator.
Herzog’s vision is worth comparing to George A. Romero’s vampire masterpiece Martin (1977), which similarly cast vampires in a more questionable, sympathetic role. That film features a troubled young man who grows up being taught by his superstitious family that he was a vampire, and he therefore does what he can to fulfill the role. Like Herzog, Romero borrows vampire traditions and uses them to realize the gloominess of such a life. The difference is that Herzog works within the framework of established traditions and uses them as a springboard to invent unique images surrounding the vampire; Romero, with a hero who is never sure of the authenticity of his supernatural power, creates his own rules on vampirism but nevertheless maintains images and archetypes that the old Universal films firmly planted in our popular culture. Both films play against the standard vampire myth and ask us to take the undead curse quite seriously without requiring us to keep our tongues plants in our cheeks. I’ve seen enough vampire films to know that among sound-era pictures, no others have better covered this subject. Watch them both.
Before making this film, Herzog had already established his admiration for Murnau’s original. Along with Fritz Lang (of Metropolis), Murnau was one of the great expressionistic directors of the silent era, and his Nosferatu is still probably the best of the Dracula films, and certainly is the best silent horror film of them all (sorry, Lon Chaney). It’s most notable ingredient today is that it is the Dracula before the clichés that established him in popular culture—a film that invented conventions instead of having dozens from which to borrow.
Several shots from Herzog’s film indeed pay homage to Murnau, but I wouldn’t call it a completely faithful remake per se because it is clearly working off of Herzog’s own obsessions with man’s contributions in nature’s chaos. Kinski might emulate Schreck’s appearance, but certainly his pathetic menace is Herzog’s own invention. Schreck was hideous because he is menacing; Kinski seems menacing because he recognizes his own hideousness and is content to make the world feel the desolation that he experiences every day. If Murnau’s film created conventions from which other vampire films built, Herzog resets them with this remake, so that images that should feel so familiar to us seem unfamiliar and unsettling again. It is ironic that it took the recycling of cinema’s original Dracula to recast him in such an unexpected light, and we must credit to Herzog for being insightful enough to see that this is exactly what was required.
English title: Nosferatu, the Vampyre
Klaus Kinski: Count Dracula
Isabelle Adjani: Lucy Harker
Bruno Ganz: Jonathan Harker
Walter Ladengast: Dr. Van Helsing
Roland Topor: Renfield
A film by Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Based on the 1922 film directed by F.W. Murnau. No M.P.A.A. rating; contains a few mild scenes of bloodsucking and images of death and decay. Running time: 107 minutes. Original German theatrical release date: January 17, 1979. Available both in English and in German with English subtitles (the latter is preferable).
Questions? Comments? E-mail me: email@example.com