Friday 18 May 2007

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) Werner Herzog

Actor Max Shreck, the first man to play a version of Count Dracula on screen, was so memorable in the title role of Nosferatu that rumours circulated for decades that he was a real vampire, not an actor after all. An excellent movie, Shadow of the Vampire, explored this very territory as fiction. But if Shreck was unique, how much more difficult it must have been to find an actor to reprise his role in this remake of sorts? Well in 1979, only Klaus Kinski could fit the bill. Unique is a word that describes him well. Given that this is also a Werner Herzog film puts the casting selection entirely beyond doubt. This was the second of five memorable films they made together, the first, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, being a unique, spectacular and truly awesome collaboration itself.

We all know the plot, because it's been told so many times before. The bizarre Renfield enlists Jonathan Harker to travel to Transylvania to close a deal with Count Dracula to buy property back in the west. He finds much more than he bargained for, because Dracula is a vampire and he visits terror and death on everyone he meets. As you can expect from the title, this is a remake of F W Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror rather than the Dracula story as such, but as Nosferatu was an unauthorised version of Dracula anyway, with only a few changes, it remains pretty close. Because by 1979 Bram Stoker's novel had entered the public domain, Herzog restored the names of the characters but as he was remaking Nosferatu, left the setting as Wismar rather than Whitby.

Renfield is always the character most obvious in any Dracula film, beyond the Count himself, and I always look for who played Renfield before any other character. Here it's Roland Topor, writer of The Tenant, which was later filmed by Roman Polanski, and he's a suitably memorable Renfield. He giggles distractingly when enlisting Harker, a giggle which apparently caused his casting when Herzog heard it on a French TV show. Later in the film after being institutionalised, he gibbers where he used to merely giggle. He's certainly a worthy addition to the Renfield canon that includes such other luminaries as Dwight Frye and Tom Waits.

He's far from the only actor of note here though. Lucy is played by Isabelle Adjani, who appears to be overacting terribly with very few words, but I came to realise that she was deliberately playing her part more like a silent actress and found her portrayal intriguing. Jonathan Harker is more obvious here than in any other Dracula film I've ever seen, partly because of the way Herzog handled the story but also because he's played by a young Bruno Ganz who does a fine job, while remaining completely unrecognisable to me as I know him only as a much older man. He degenerates well as the story progresses.

It's Kinski's show though, absolutely. Kinski, the most intense and wildly insane actor that any of us have ever heard of, is a marvel. He's so calm and gentle, even when sucking out someone's life blood, but he's also bizarre and unnerving: bald, corpse white and attentive in all the wrong ways. He's unearthly down to his weirdly long fingernails, pointed rat teeth and prosthetic ears that helped to require him to spend four hours a day being made up. He doesn't read or breathe or move like the rest of us and he truly exudes menace. It's astounding how he can keep his face completely immobile and act with his fingernails. He's the centrepiece of the entire film, but he is also somehow completely detached from everything around him. It seems almost unreal when he interacts with anyone, like time is unfolding for him at a different speed to both the other characters and us watching. It's a spectacular performance, fully up to his previous and similarly amazing role for Herzog as Aguirre.

Herzog infuses plenty of ethnic realism into his film. The locals look and sound like locals, probably because they were locals. Similarly the Carpathians look just like the Carpathians because they probably were. Herzog was always one to literally go that extra mile for realism in setting. Just like in Aguirre, he gives us a real flavour of things, even making Harker's journey through the Borgo Pass taken an interminably long time because after all it was. Nobody would lend or even sell him a horse so he had to walk most of the way. Of course it took time! Probably more so than any other director since perhaps Leni Riefenstahl, Herzog also knows precisely how to depict scale, showing us the majesty of creation and how it completely dwarfs us. His choices of music really help too.

The film is notably slow but hallucinatory in its slowness. The pace, or the lack of it, merely aids the unearthly feeling that accompanies the story. It's also memorable in its slowness. The boat docking itself with nothing but a dead captain lashed to the wheel is powerful indeed. Just as the Carpathians recall the Andes in Aguirre, the rats recall the monkeys on his raft. They may be small and insignificant compared to man, but the world belongs to them. There are awesome scenes here: the rats flooding the dock, a room being deserted as the plague is mentioned, the processions of coffins through Wismar Square. I also noted that the most lively scenes, with the most accompanying noise, are shown silent, more like dream sequences, with unaccompanied choral music as a background.

I've seen this before, but many years ago when I was young and didn't see many of the things I saw this time around. I didn't get it then and found it a long, slow and boring film, certainly nothing that could compare to the other Dracula I was watching so much of at the time, Christopher Lee in the Hammer horrors. However now I'm much older, and with hopefully much more insight. I still think that this is long and slow but it isn't boring in the slightest. It's long and slow for a reason and a good one, and if you've got to the same level of insight or beyond, you'll be rewarded amply for your troubles.

Incidentally, I technically didn't watch Nosferatu the Vampyre but Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, the German version with English subtitles. The film was shot simultaneously in both languages but I'd heartily recommend the German version.

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