Monday, 29 February 2016

Nosferatu: the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Sepulchral.  Now there's a word.  A word redolent of the grave, and of foul decaying fiends and cor'ses that from their tomb rent (as Byron so put it in The Giaour: 'But first on Earth, as vampire sent / Thy corse shall from thy tomb be rent / Then ghastly haunt thy native place / And suck the blood of all thy race').  The awful stench of ill-fard inhumation.  The terrifying paralysis of obsequy with the very breath of the wind of the winds of madness pricking each and every hair on the back of your neck.  These are words that could begin, in some way - like the chained prisoners in Plato's cave attempting to describe reality from the flickering shadows upon the wall before them - to go about beginning to describe the infernal opus that is Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu (originally subtitled Phantom Der Nacht), possibly the greatest representation of dread and crawling terror that an auteur ever unleashed.

Originally filmed in 1922 by Teutonic cinema pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Nosferatu was a thinly-disguised 'free adaptation' of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula.  Dispensing with the business of securing copyright and paying royalties (much as he had done in 1920 when he directed Conrad Veidt as 'Dr Warren' and 'Mr O' Connor' in Der Januskopf, rather than filming Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Murnau and his screenwriter Henrik Galeen took the basic outline of Stoker's plot and grafted onto it the very folkloric roots of the vampire legend.  Here there is no seductive Count, no opera-caped and top-hatted aristocratic Mephistophelean charmer - in actor Max Schreck (the actor's actual name, despite the fated coincidence of his surname meaning 'Terror' - a name that has been homaged in cinema from Peter Cushing's Dr Schreck in Freddie Francis' 1965 Dr Terror's House of Horrors to Christopher Walken's villain in Tim Burton's 1992 Batman Returns) Murnau gave the silver screen a truly repellent vision of the blood-drinking undead: a rake-thin, pallid hairless ratlike creature with elongated talons and a feeling of having actually crawled from a cobwebbed tomb to slake his inhuman thirst and fill his emaciated body with the hot lifeblood of the living.

Murnau's copyright-dodging did not, however, go unnoticed and in short order Florence Stoker (widow of  Bram) gained a court ruling against Prana Film (rendering the company bankrupt by 1925) stipulating that all extant copies of Nosferatu should be destroyed.  Thankfully for cinema history, copies survived - possibly in part due to the fact that a number of differing variant versions had sprung up in so short a time, including an attempted re-release in 1930, re-edited and with added soundtrack, under the title Der Zwolfte Stunde (The Twelfth Hour).  This and other versions of the movie utilized different character names in order to further distance the movie from the original source, and so Gustav von Wangenheim's distaff Jonathan Harker is renamed Thomas Hutter, Greta Schroder's role of Mina is renamed Ellen (or the closer to the original 'Nina', depending on the variant being watched), John Gottowt's Van Helsing character becomes Professor Hutter, and Alexander Granach's insane Renfield substitute is retitled Knock.

In the 1970s, the German cinema was undergoing a creative renaissance due to the wave of young directors spearheading the New German Cinema, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Beware of a Holy Whore [1971], Fear Eats the Soul [1974], Satan's Brew [1976]), Wim Wenders (Summer in the City [1970], The Scarlet Letter [1973, starring the wonderful Senta Berger], The American Friend [the 1977 Dennis Hopper-starring adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game], and later to direct Paris, Texas [1984] and the superlative Wings of Desire [1987]) and Werner Herzog.  After starting his cinematic career with several shorts and documentary pieces, Herzog had begun to make a name for himself with the haunting and frankly startling Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) before making the first of many motion pictures starring his 'best fiend', the unpredictable, anarchic and quite possible not quite sane Klaus Kinski (whose turbulent anti-friendship and working career with Herzog would prove as productive as the invective that was wont to fly around the set) with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972).  While these scions of Neuer Deutscher Film were being touted as the future of the filmic arts for their country, some of them were interested not only in forging ahead into the future, but also in connecting the modernism of the present with the heritage of Germany's cinematic past.  Fassbinder utilized established cinematic stars from past eras of German film history, and Herzog decided to bring Teutonic Kinema full circle by delving early into its roots and remaking the work that he called the greatest film Germany had ever made: Murnau's Nosferatu - the enfant terrible of the modern German cinema paying homage to his illustrious Golden Age predecessor.

Herzog opens his movie with a spectacularly eerie title sequence of footage of mummified corpses (filmed in Mexico) - and the handheld camera lingers lovingly over these dessicated denizens of the catacombs as a canto Gregoranio unspools form the soundtrack, the spellbinding tones invoking a literal Fear of God as we experience a Thanatophobic reaction to these tenants of the tombs with their yellowed leathery hides pulled taut over wizened ligaments and protruding bone.  The spectre of death haunts the film from its very opening seconds, and even in the establishing scenes set in the pretty town of Wismar (the North German Hanseatic township that Murnau had chosen as his surrogate for Stoker's Whitby, the location shooting for which in Herzog's film taking place mostly in the picturesque pottery setting of Delft, the Netherlands), with Bruno Ganz (later to garner great acclaim for his barnstorming portrayal of the Fuhrer in Oliver Hirschbiegel's masterful 2004 Untergang [Downfall]) as Jonathan Harker going about his daily routine - Herzog having made the decision to revert the names of the dramatis personae of the film back to their more well-known Stoker nomenclatures.  Herzog pays homage to the Murnau film in these establishing shots, with a number of camera set-ups being almost exact recreations of the '22 film such as the small kitten batting playfully at the locket containing the picture of Lucy hanging from the vanity's mirror.  As Lucy (Herzog opting for that name for the film's conflation of Stoker's Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker characters, rather than Murnau's Nina / Ellen), French actress Isabelle Adjani (The Tenant [Roman Polanski, 1976], the titular Queen in Patrice Chereu's La Reine Margot [1994], and Jeremiah Chechik's best-forgotten-about 1996 bastardisation of Clouzot Diabolique) is the very incarnation of a Gothic (in both the literary and the more modern senses of the term) heroine, with raven-black hair, porcelain pale skin and lips of blood red (levres de sang, as Jean Rollin rolled), a fragile and spectral beauty amidst the haunting images of death and decay when Death comes to Wismar.

Sent by his employer, the estate agent Renfield (played by writer Roland Topor, who had authored the original 1964 novel of The Tenant in a strange piece of serendipitous synchronicity), Harker finds himself bidding farewell to his loving Lucy and embarking upon a strange journey to the wilderness of Transylvania, the 'Land Beyond the Forest'.  This long sequence, filmed in locations across the Czech republic and in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, is largely free of dialogue and with the striking vistas of forests and mountains soundtracked by an effective combination of the German avant-garde electronic ensemble Popul Vuh and Richard Wagner's Rheingeld from the Ring Cycle we are swept along with Harker into a strange land where the normal laws no longer apply.  Herzog may have lacked the inter-titles of the silent film, but where Murnau used text to tell us '...and when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him', here the same chilling effect of stepping into The Beyond is conveyed purely with sound and image: the very essence of pure cinema in full effect.  Here in this realm of ghosts Harker arrives, conveyed by a hearse-like phantom carriage pulled by night-black horses, at Castle Dracula to be met by the Count himself.  Klaus Kinski plays Dracula in a make-up extremely faithful to the Max Schreck Orlock, his head a moon-white and waxen hairless skull with pointed batlike ears and rat's teeth - the very embodiment of the unclean ('necurat'), insufferable ('nesuferit') enemy ('nefartat') bearer of disease ('nosophoros'): ancient atavistic folkloric horror incarnate.  Kinski portrays the character as shuffling wearily under the weight of the centuries, his voice a sighing suspiration, his movements languid and fatigued - this is a creature who has crawled down through the centuries cursed by the inability to die, a far cry from the image of the Romantic 'life' of the undead portrayed in the works of Anne Rice or the glittering ghouls of Stephenie Meyer.

As Harker languishes imprisoned in the corbelled crypt that is Castle Dracula, fed upon nightly by the Count whose polite and courtly manner disappears in the dead of the night to become a predatory animal (the image of his death-white visage emerging from the Stygian darkness to hover over the vulnerable supine Jonathan reminiscent of Fuseli's iconic The Nightmare), Herzog conveys a spiritual or psychic connection to Lucy who wakes screaming from strange dreamings - slow motion close up images of a bat in flight accompanied by the strains of Popul Vuh emphasising the lovers' bond betwixt one another transcending space and time, Lucy feeling Jonathan's pain and fear from afar.  The Count leaves Jonathan behind in his dungeoned hell, travelling in his crated coffin of earth by ship to Harker's homeland and arriving in another shot mirrored from Murnau, as the ghostly barque with it's dead crew sails into the harbour and its sail obliterates the view of the town's church.  The Nosferatu lives up to his name of 'plague bearer' as he arrives in Wismar bringing death and disease in his wake, as hordes of rats (around 10, 000 white lab rats - which the production tried to make resemble black 'plague rats' by covering them with makeup - being imported into the Netherlands by zoologist Maarten t' Hart under Herzog's instruction) sweep the streets and the Black Death decimates the population.  The slow creeping dread that falls over the town like a shadow, and Lucy's growing realisation of the cause, leads to the film's most powerful sequence - the white-robed virginal Lucy wandering through the town square through a vista of death: stacked unburied coffins and the unshriven dead, as the remaining townsfolk dance, drunkenly carouse and sacrifice animals as the strains of the desolately beautiful and poignant Georgian folk song 'Tsintskaro' ('At the Spring Waters', perhaps better known to Western audiences through its sampling by Kate Bush on 'Hello Earth' from Hounds of Love) echo all around.  Herzog expertly conveys a populace in disintegration, the thin veneer of civilisation being so easily stripped away to reveal the ugly animalistic face of humanity as civilisation collapses all around, and as the town's remaining enclave of the petit bourgeois sit at repast, dressed in their finery and inviting Lucy to 'Join us - it's our last supper' as the plague rats crawl about their feast and anarchy howls all around them and Lucy stands appalled at the insanity surrounding her like a lone sublime rose in a graveyard of dead flowers.

Lucy's attempts to appeal to the town's remaining authority figures to convey the root of the disease ('I know the cause of all this!  Why won't you listen?' she implores) are met with deaf ears, and the character of Dr Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast, portraying the character as a closed-minded buffoon as far from the wise and heroic portrayals of Peter Cushing, Frank Finlay et al as can be imagined) is unable and unwilling to come to her aid.  Following the denouement of the Murnau film, Lucy uses her beauty to entice and entrap the vampire, willingly giving her life and her blood (the blood, of course, being the life) to the undead Count as a sacrificial lamb to keep the monster occupied and engrossed in his engorging upon her until the dawn wherein he will be destroyed by the cleansing rays of the rising sun.  This sequence of willing self-destruction for love and the greater good plays out without any music, and the grim naturalism of Dracula's puckered dead lips approaching the terrified Lucy's throat, and then the suckling sound as he drinks her blood whilst his taloned hands paw at her breasts and lift up her nightdress to claw at her thighs is an absolutely perfect image of the abhorrence of violation and of death ravaging beauty and youth.


Herzog saves his final devastating sucker-punch for last, however.  After Lucy has given her life to destroy the Count and breathed her last lying upon her bed strewn with flowers - the very image of a Rosetti painting as she passes beyond the veil - and Professor Van Helsing has finally summoned the courage to do the right thing and hammer a wooden stake into the dying monster's heart to prevent the revenant's return, the surviving bureaucracy of this blighted burgh descend upon the house to arrest him for murder.  'Is it true?' barks the town official (Rijk de Gooyer), 'Did you kill the Count?  With this stake, here?', indicating the blood-covered lump of sharpened wood clutched in the hapless academic's hands.  As Van Helsing is carted away to face the petty 'justice' of the bourgeoisie for helping to end the plague of death, Jonathan - who has been ill, recovering from his ordeal, and sitting in a chair that Lucy has surrounded by a circle made from crushed wafer of the sacred Communion host by Lucy to protect him - suddenly awakes and barks orders at the terrified maid to clean up. 'Can't you see', he indicates the circle around him, 'this place is full of dust?'  As the maid returns with a dustpan and brush to sweep away the fragments, Harker leaps from the circle and triumphantly pulls the crucifix from round his neck with taloned fingers, smiling a terrible smile to bare the ratlike teeth of the vampire.  'Bring me my horse.  I have much work to do.'

And our final shot is of the vampirised Harker riding away upon his steed across the shifting sands and into the horizon as dark clouds gather in the sky to signal an oncoming storm (shades of the end scene of James Cameron's The Terminator of five years later) and the Sanctus from Gounod's Messe solennelle en l'honneur de Sainte Cécile soars on the soundtrack.  All sacrifice has ultimately been in vain, as death triumphs over life and the Count is reincarnated in Harker to continue his works.  The undead is dead, long live the undead.

Nosferatus dominus.


  1. Aha! Now I know what film The Pet Shop Boys video "Heart" was based on now :D That was a fascinating read Glen.

  2. Cheers, Sophie. Both for the kind comment and the prompting to head to YT and watch that PSB video. I don't think i'd ever actually seen that! Ian McKellen as Nosferatu and i have been oblivious to it for years. Great song, too, of course. That was a really hard blog to write, actually, as i'd just finished the 1st paragrap when my computer coughed, spluttered and died. It's been a pain having to do it in bits and pieces every couple of days and if it even makes any legible sense then i'm happy.:)