Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Werner Herzog, 1979
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz

A German estate agent, Jonathan Harker, is told by his boss, Renfield, that he must leave his home town of Wismar and travel to Transylvania to help a mysterious nobleman buy property in Wismar. Harker obeys, but laments that the long journey will separate him from his beautiful wife, Lucy. The Transylvanian villagers are suspicious of the nobleman, known as Count Dracula, and believe him to be a vampire. Harker ignores them, but is repulsed by the strange Count. To his horror, the Count becomes obsessed with a picture of Lucy and wants to buy property in Wismar just to meet her. Lucy and Jonathan both experience disturbing nightmares and Renfield is sent to an asylum. 

Harker learns Dracula really is a vampire and nearly dies trying to escape from the castle. Dracula travels by boat to Wismar, along with his coffins. When the journey is complete, he kills the crew and makes it look like the plague. Abraham van Helsing and other doctors examine the corpses, but the plague spreads through the town. Jonathan arrives home, ill and in a state of delirium. Dracula is desperate for Lucy to love him, but she refuses and tries to convince the townsfolk that a vampire is in their midst. She is ignored and decides to take matters into her own hands and lures the Count into her bedroom, hoping to keep him there till dawn when the sunlight will destroy him. 

Mixing art house and horror, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht has plenty of grim moments, mixing death scenes, depictions of corpses, rats, and more with director Werner Herzog’s trademark sense of atmosphere. As with Murnau’s original Nosferatu, Herzog’s film is based on Bram Stoker’s novel. One major different is that Murnau made his film without permission and Stoker’s widow tried to have every copy of the film destroyed. When Herzog completed his adaptation in 1979, the novel had entered the public domain, so he was able to restore more of the original plot and names. For some reason, as other directors have done, Herzog chose to rename Mina’s character Lucy, who is her friend in the novel.

Herzog remade Murnau’s classic, because he considered one of the greatest German films ever made and wanted to do his own take on it with presumably the only living actor -- Klaus Kinski -- who could convincingly do a rendition of Max Schreck’s rat-faced Count Orlok. Though I’m generally the first in line to declare my hatred of remakes, particularly horror remakes, this is certainly one of the finest. Much of this is due to the excellent casting, headed by Herzog’s long time collaborator, Klaus Kinski. Kinski is truly terrifying as the Count, but manages to keep his normally unbridled energy carefully controlled. 

Beautiful French star Isabelle Adjani (Possession) is perfect as Lucy Harker and her wide, round eyes are particularly adept at expressing the terror she experiences throughout the film. Bruno Ganz, one of Germany’s finest actors, also shines as Harker and is responsible for much of the film’s sense of unrelenting gloom, impending sickness, and utter exhaustion. His Harker is a good-natured, but flawed man and the film charts his painful descent into madness. His part in the bleak twist ending also sets this film apart from other adaptations of Dracula and it remains one of the most nihilistic. French writer by way of Poland, Roland Topor, also known for working with Alejandro Jodorowsky, is excellent as a very bizarre Renfield (which is saying something, considering the history of Renfield performances).

Another memorable element of Nosferatu is the cinematography from Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, another regular Herzog collaborator. The rich colors of the film and natural settings do not present the ripeness and bounty of nature, but rather its decay and rot. Herzog depicts desiccated Mexican mummies from the Guanajuato museum, crumbling Czech castles, Carpathian mountains, a plague festival, and other atmospheric locations around Europe, making this perhaps the most visually sumptuous Dracula adaptation in existence.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is different than Murnau’s in several ways, despite the fact that Herzog changes very little from the original, capturing some scenes shot for shot. First and foremost, it lacks Murnau’s expressionist style and puts an emphasis on realism, but also manages to be more surreal. The normally volatile Kinski was apparently well-behaved on set, despite the fact that he had to spend hours having his make up reapplied every day by Japanese make up artist Reiko Kruk. This effective, creepy make up is one of the few ways the film abandons realism. The mood and tone are also completely different, partly due to the carefully measured pacing, which is much slower than Murnau’s, and the grim twist ending. The figure of Dracula is also explored in further depth. While Kinski’s portrayal is as animalistic as Max Schreck’s, if not more so, there is also an emphasis on the emotional elements of the story. He is an isolated, lonely figure searching for love, though he only finds death.

Commercially successful, this was one of five films directed by Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. It comes highly recommended and is an excellent place to start if you’re a genre fan hoping to explore more of Herzog’s excellent films. Nosferatu is available as a 2-disc, special edition DVD, which comes recommended due to some lovely special features. On a final note, the film was made in both English and German at the insistence of the studio, but I recommend the German version. 

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