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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979)

Every year my neighborhood rep house the Coolidge Corner Cinema honors a distinguished person in film with the  'Coolidge Award'.  This year, it's German director Werner Herzog, who is 75 years old in 2018.  He'll be visiting on February 8 for an afternoon screening of a TBA film followed by a Q&A, and then a full evening discussion with Boston University Classics professor Herbert Golder.  See details here.
Werner Herzog (photo from
I've only seen a couple of his films, but I decided that I need to see more, in preparation for the afternoon session that I'll be attending that day.  Luckily for me, Filmstruck has several of his films currently available, and I only somewhat reluctantly decided to take a look at his telling of the Dracula legend, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).  Those familiar with classic horror films will likely already know the film it's based on, F.W. Murnau's legendary silent film Nosferatu from 1922.  German compatriot Herzog, decades later, apparently loved the film and decided to remake it, but with the original names from the Bram Stoker novel restored.  Usually, remaking a classic is a bad idea.  In this case, it was actually a pleasant (?) surprise.  I started watching fearing I'd quickly be repulsed, or bored, or both. I was quickly drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I would give a green light to any classic film fan thinking about watching this one.  (Unless they would be unsettled by rats; lots and lots and lots of rats.)  A few observations follow.

Herzog was obviously going for the "look" that Max Schreck brought to his role as the skeletally thin, toothy menace that is Nosferatu (Count Dracula) when he made up Klaus Kinski.  Check it out:

Klaus Kinski as Dracula (1979)
Max Schreck as Nosferatu (1922)

The two directors have different approaches to the character, however. Murnau creates a sense of mystery in his Nosferatu by generally requiring us to maintain a distance from the vampire-- his most memorable appearances filmed mostly in silhouette, shadow, or in medium or long shots.  He's certainly creepy enough and we get the point that he's to be feared. Herzog, on the other hand, brings us close in to his Dracula, as we can't help but sense the realness, albeit horrifying nature, of this creature. Herzog is interested in the complex psychology of the character, and Kinski delivers -- while he's so horribly ugly and repulsive, we simultaneously feel some empathy for the great pain that the man is obviously dealing with, the affliction that causes him to have to feed on the blood of living humans without ever resting or being able to grow old and die.  Kinski was notorious for his unstable personality, and had to be institutionalized when he was a young man; perhaps some of that madness is channeled here.  

Herzog provides us well-rounded characters of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who somehow can't get his business transacted with Dracula quick enough to escape without being neck-bitten, and his devoted wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) who ultimately vanquishes the menace, at cost to her own life.  The sexual angle of the Dracula story isn't overemphasized, but you will certainly see it if you look.  Renfield, the business owner who sends Harker on his adventure is already losing his mind -- his constant high pitched cackle as supplied by actor Roland Topor was incredibly annoying in short order.

A sense of unease settles over Count Dracula's houseguest, Jonathan Harker
Herzog seems interested in the everyday living of this central European town that is simultaneously beset with vampire horror and the Black Death, not necessarily coincidentally.  Many shots look like still life paintings of the great Dutch masters. Herzog and cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein relied heavily on natural light, or candlelight, which gave the film a sense of time and place, as well as a natural hearth-bound beauty, or ominous beauty of the wilderness:
In Renfield's office: Kittens with books and apples
I also loved the soundtrack. Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh are credited, and their contributions are the modern, dissonant themes, but also new-agey guitar compositions which give a comforting and romantic feel to the early scenes in the film, like this one between Jonathan and his wife Lucy.

However, the climax of the first third of the film, when Harker has left the comfort of the inn and climbs into the starkness of the Carpathian mountains towards Dracula's dwelling, is scored with the Prelude to Wagner's Ring Cycle--the opening of Das Rheingold.  It's lush, majestic music that builds slowly quietly to almost a triumphant forte.  Perhaps it was chosen because of the opera's overarching theme of the destructive nature of the quest for gold -- not unlike the destruction Harker unwittingly brings upon his own town at the end of the film as he pursues his chance for wealth.  

The entire sequence is currently on YouTube, linked below.  Wagner's Prelude to Das Rheingold starts about 2 minutes in.

Roger Ebert, a great admirer of Herzog, considered his version of the Dracula story worthy of inclusion in his list of "Great Movies."  Read here his summary of the powerful experience that is watching this film.  Finally, fellow blogger Silent-ology wrote a great essay about this film in 2015, read it here.