Why I Love… #53: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) moves in on Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani)
Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) moves in on Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani)

Year: 1979

Director: Werner Herzog

Stars: Klaus Kinski (Count Dracula), Isabelle Adjani (Lucy Harker), Bruno Ganz (Jonathon Harker), Roland Topor (Renfield), Walter Ladengast (Dr. Van Helsing)

Genre: Horror

In 1976 Werner Herzog reportedly had his actors hypnotised for their performances in his somnambulist movie Heart Of Glass. But for his 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece it was the audience who were to be hypnotised. Herzog’s film may just be the greatest remake of all time, equaling the enigmatic stranglehold on the viewer that Murnau’s expressionistic treasure manages, and possibly surpassing it. Shot simultaneously in German and English, his Nosferatu is unforgettable. An exquisitely photographed dream that lulls you into a world of dark possibilities and tremendous dread.

I finally read Bram Stoker’s Dracula last year, framing my journeys to and from my day job with its vivid prose whilst listening almost exclusively to Sigur Rós’ “Valtari”. The two worked sublimely together. One of those rare-but-perfect moments when two different forms of art create a stylistic synergy. That same haunting connectivity is present in Herzog’s film, as his ghoulish visuals (all shadows and insinuations) are complimented by one of the most extraordinary soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Popol Vuh’s music for the film, drawing on inspirations from classical as well as folk and prog-rock, is mesmeric. It sets the film to a measured heart rate. Consequently the viewer feels slowed, numbed, swayed by an influence. The sensation of perpetually falling forward, as if under the Count’s thrall, is astonishing.

It’s not all in the music though. Herzog’s film conjures incredible atmosphere from its first frame. Even as the obligatory credits crawl we are confronted with a seemingly endless row of tormented figures, what appear to be sculptures of the damned and the tormented, locked in pained and grimacing tableaux, as though condemned forever. They are actually mummified corpses, shot by Herzog at the Mummies of Guanajuato Museum in Mexico. As Herzog’s camera glides by them – at times taking us obtrusively close – a sense of doom is evoked. Even those not familiar with the story of Dracula will sense the deep foreboding cast by these images, which are inter-cut with slow motion archival footage of a swooping bat. The reverie quickly evoked in this brief opening – despite those distracting credits – is brutally cut short by a piercing shriek. Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy wakes screaming. It’s a jolt that throws us back into the world. We realise that within minutes Herzog already has a hold on us.

From here Herzog straddles a line, remaining faithful to Murnau’s reimagining of Stoker’s story whilst also returning the original names to many of the characters, names lost in Murnau’s version due to copyright concerns. Thus we follow Jonathan Harker as he is dispatched to Transylvania to help Count Dracula finalise an agreement on some property in Harker’s native Black Sea port town Varna. Bruno Ganz is a fine if unremarkable Harker (evoking, in retrospect, a washed-out Rik Mayall), though certainly he is better than Keanu Reeve’s iteration in Francis Ford Coppola’s disastrous 1992 adaptation.

Having received no help whatsoever from the locals, Harker arrives on foot at Dracula’s castle, at which point Herzog introduces his next masterstroke; Klaus Kinski in the finest depiction of the mythic vampire since Max Schreck. Herzog and Kinski are clearly keying in to Schreck’s performance here, knowingly recalling it by aping the iconic costume and make-up. That bald head. Those stiffened claws. Here however Kinski’s Dracula is gifted the power of speech. He uses this to cast the Count as a hopelessly forlorn creature, yet one of determined will and cold-blooded villainy. You want a monster for your movie? This is it.

With its rolling mist and dank exteriors, Dracula’s castle is incredibly eerie. Within, shadows flood whole rooms, barely kept at bay by naked candlelight. Truly this feels more like a lair than a home. And who is this young boy with a violin? An unusual and unexplained element that only steeps the film in further atmosphere by connecting it spiritually with the folk-horror of 70’s Britain. The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan’s Claw whisper their way through the back of your mind when you see the strange child.

Unlike so many modern horrors where unease and disturbance appear only in spikes, Herzog’s Nosferatu is evidence of how these feelings can be sustained over a whole film. Just as Murnau did, Herzog fillets the middle of the story out entirely, almost completely removing Dr Van Helsing, inexplicably switching the roles of Lucy and Mina, and further exploring the theme of disease and contamination. Now Harker’s wife, Lucy waits for the Count’s arrival (in a cemetery, appropriately enough) and his crossing of the sea is as mournful as anything else here. Kinski prowls the sailing vessel like a dreadful sleepwalker. There is an almost insufferable sense of waiting. Lucy and Dracula, divided by miles are locked in on one another, we can do nothing but watch as they are drawn together, feeling one another out like copulating snails.

His inevitable arrival in Varna is not marked by the drawing of blood but by plague, foretold by Renfield (an unhinged Roland Topor). His prophetic knowledge adds to the sense of Dracula’s unstoppable influence, as though he has sent a pall ahead of him to cover the land in preparation, evidenced by the returning footage of the bat.

Rats dominate the second half of the film as Varna is blighted by disease. The indiscriminate ruthlessness of the plague is as chilling as the vampire’s power. As Dracula’s shadow casts itself tall on the buildings of the town, so the inhabitants are drawn down, cursed to die. The spread of the vampire and the spread of disease are one, and this fear of infection is an integral part of the vampire myth.

Seemingly wooden performances throughout might ordinarily blight a film, but they add a curious quality to this picture. They only enchance the sense that Varna’s inhabitants have been mesmerised. Herzog’s aforementioned Heart Of Glass recalls itself in their numb speechifying, words recited as though in sleep. But then there is Isabelle Adjani. Like a lost star of the silent age, her haunted beauty is accentuated and venerated by Herzog’s camera, her eyes wide, her gaze piercing. She is as magnetic as Kinski, and their slow dance to the film’s finale succeeds thanks to their intensely committed performances.

Interestingly, Herzog grants Lucy far more power and spirit than she has ever been afforded before or since. The men of the town are weak and feeble, succumbing to disease or loathe to act. It’s a masterstroke, affording her the role of heroine as opposed to that of a mere victim. I’d argue it improves the tale tremendously, even if the final victory here may turn out to be the Count’s.

One of the most beautiful and compelling horror films I have ever seen, Herzog’s movie inhabits the viewer, infecting us. There are stories of its production I could have recited here, controversies over the treatment of rats and so forth, but my strong connection to this film is not wrapped up in the lore of it’s making but in the fact of the finished result. Few films feel as dreamlike, as poetic, as dreadful. F.W. Murnau’s version of this story is undeniably a masterpiece (see Why I Love… #25), but Herzog’s respectful retelling is no less of an achievement. The kind of film that it’s near impossible to turn off once it has started, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is a Gothic masterpiece, plain and simple. If you’re looking for a vampire film of genuine power, this is it.

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