Nosferatu The Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht)
Germany (1979) Dir. Werner Herzog
Remakes have recently become the bane of film fans, not just due to the alarming rate at which they appear but the choice of classic or fondly remembered favourites being “rebooted” into inferior versions. To remake a revered classic is often considered borderline blasphemy so one has to wonder if Werner Herzog had balls of steel to remake F.W Murnau’s seminal horror Nosferatu.
In all fairness to Herzog he does rate Murnau’s film as the greatest ever to come out of Germany, so this homage of his is based on respect and affection – although one could argue that if Herzog loved it so much he would have left it alone! There are also some advantages Herzog had that Murnau couldn’t – the most important one being access to the rights to make the film with all the original names and aspects of Bram Stoker’s novel intact, which Murnau was forced to change for copyright reasons.
The story hasn’t changed although some key elements have. Estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sent to Transylvania to finalise a deal with one Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) to move to a property in Wismar. Harker makes the treacherous journey where the mysterious count put him under his spell by biting him and feeding off his blood. Upon arriving in Wismar, Dracula takes a shine to Harker’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), the only person truly aware of the danger Dracula brings to the town.
Straight away those of you who have not seen this version will question Lucy being Harker’s wife; Herzog swapped the roles of Lucy and Mina, who was Harker’s fiancé in the novel while Lucy was just a friend. Here Mina is Harker’s sister and is practically insignificant to the overall story. Also put in a different role is Renfield (played by French artist Roland Topor), who Herzog doubled up as Harker’s boss before going mad after biting a cow. Again his role is greatly diminished from how we know it, which isn’t a bad thing as Topor’s portrayal is insufferably annoying!
Surprisingly underplayed is the presence of Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) whose role as hero is supplanted by that of Lucy, who under Herzog’s watch is not the helpless victim but the one who stands up to Dracula and uses her whiles to seal his fate. This is arguably the boldest of the changes insofar as deviating from Stoker’s work and the other adaptations of the story, and will likely endear the modern female viewer to this hitherto unheard act of female heroism.
Aside from a few scenes and shots which were direct lifts from Murnau’s film, this is very much Herzog’s own presentation, his fingerprints very clearly over every frame. If it not the occasional surrealist diversion – a family having tea off a coffin in a rat infested town square with dead bodies strewn about the place – then it is the use of unorthodox camera angles and the placement of seemingly random but visually congruent shots. One particularly creepy scene shows a large bat climbing up the curtains on Lucy’s window – yes a REAL one!
One of the more controversial aspects of the filming was the involvement of 11,000 (!) rats which Herzog wanted to explain the mysterious plague (which was really a cover up for Dracula’s bloodlust). After being refused permission to let the rats lose in Delft in the Netherlands, Herzog had to relocate to Schiedam for these scenes, while the treatment of the rats, which had been brought in from Hungary, also drew negative attention for Herzog.
At a time when the splatter movie was in its infancy thanks to the likes of Halloween, Nosferatu sticks with the tradition of psychological scares over gory visuals. There is no blood to be seen in this film or anything of a truly violent or graphic nature. If anything the most upsetting images are the mummified bodies of the victims of the 1833 cholera epidemic of Guanajuato, Mexico at the start of the film.
Despite the benefit of sound Herzog’s film relies heavily on atmospherics, keeping dialogue to mostly essential instances – presumably due to it being shot twice, in both German and English. Employing classical music and tracks from experimental German electronic pop group Popol Vuh, the mood is permanently eerie and unsettling with a touch of melancholy and sombre awareness behind the dirge like compositions. And when there is no music the natural silence is only broken the sounds of regular movement and everyday ambience.
Even with the famously volatile relationship he had with Herzog it would seem almost inevitable that Klaus Kinski would be cast in the central role and perhaps because of his personal eccentricities, this was almost a tailor made role. Much like the legendary Max Shreck – upon whose make-up and look Dracula’s appearance is based here – Kinski’s grim facial features are ideal for such an unpleasant character which the make-up only accentuates.
Surprisingly Kinski’s portrayal is quite melancholic than Shreck’s, who was downright unsettling, making his threat less obvious, while the advent of relaxed censorship rules, the interaction between Dracula and Lucy is notably more sexual but never explcit. As Lucy, the seemingly ageless Isabelle Adjani is at first rather bland yet prone to histrionic overacting only to morph in the second half into a spirited heroine, but looks radiant doing so. As Harker, Bruno Ganz cuts a dashing if subdued figure, a far cry from his tour de force essaying of Hitler 25 years later!
For Herzog making Nosferatu may have been a tribute and homage to Murnau’s film and it works because it is not a direct remake nor does is suffer from its deviations. It is suitably chilling film in its own right but one just can’t help shake the feeling that we already have the original so was this version really necessary? Even if I remain undecided Herzog admittedly exceeded my expectations here.