Sep 4, 2013

Nosferatu the Vampyre

 The German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) aka Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror directed by F.W. Murnau will always remain permanently impressed upon my soul, not least of all because it was both the first silent film and first German film I had ever seen, but also because the film features what I consider to be the most physically grotesque yet strikingly iconic creature in film history. Needless to say, the idea of a remake of Nosferatu sounded like an interesting yet ridiculous prospect to me when I first came to this realization after seeing Murnau’s film while still just a preteen, even if the film itself was illegally adapted from Bram Stoker's gothic horror masterpiece Dracula (1897) and has been adapted in various, less impressive, and oftentimes more ridiculous forms from the blaxploitation Blacula (1972) to Paul Morrissey’s anti-communist satire Blood for Dracula (1974), yet the Bavarian filmmaker belonging to German New Cinema by the name of Werner Herzog (Even Dwarfs Started Small, Stroszek) managed to breath new life into the classic undead German expressionist flick. Indeed, Werner Herzog's version, entitled Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) aka Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht aka Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night,  is not so much a remake of Murnau’s Nosferatu as it is an idiosyncratic adaption and tribute, or as the crazy old Southern kraut stated himself, “I never thought of my film Nosferatu as being a remake. It stands on its own feet as an entirely new version. It is like both Dreyer and Bresson, who made films about Joan of Arc: one is not a remake of the other. My nosferatu has a different context, different figures and a somewhat different story. It is a very clear declaration of my connection to the very best of German cinema…” And, indeed, Nosferatu the Vampyre—a work released more than half a century after Murnau’s version—is the closest thing to a postmodern neo-völkisch horror flick that, unlike most of the films and filmmakers of German New Cinema, takes pride in its cinematic ancestral heritage, whilst adding new ingredients, including krautrock music by Herzog favorite Popol Vuh, a perversely post-Spenglerian message that makes Nosferatu (1922) seem like a feel-good fairytale, and actors of mixed Germanic racial stock, including Klaus Kinski (of Polish descent via his father), Isabelle Adjani (of Algerian and Bavarian blood), and Bruno Granz (of German-Swiss and Northern Italian stock). As Herzog stated in an interview, “I have said many times that as children growing up in post-war Germany we had grandfathers but no fathers to learn from. Many men had been killed in the war or were in captivity. My own father was alive but not around for much of the time, and Fassbinder’s father abandoned his family very early on. As filmmakers coming of age in the early and mid-1960s, we were the first real post-war generation, young Germans with no one around who could give us points of reference,” thus he looked toward the grandfather generation, which was led by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, deciding to cinematically adapt the former’s most popular film Nosferatu (1922), stating of the work, “For me, Nosferatu is the greatest of all German films, and feeling as strongly as I did that I needed to connect to this ‘legitimate’ German culture in order to find my roots as a filmmaker, I chose to concentrate on Murnau’s masterpiece, knowing full well it would be impossible to better the original.” Indeed, while I concur with Herzog that no one could top Murnau’s Nosferatu, it is hard to think of a ‘remake’ as respectful to the original while also authentic in its own right, yet immaculately tailored for the post-Hitler zeitgeist where there are no happy endings, but only the strangely hypnotic stench of death and destruction. 

 Beginning with eerie footage of real-life mummies on display at the Guanajuato museum in Guanajuato, Mexico that were victims of a 1833 cholera epidemic that director Werner Herzog personally took out of their glass display cases and propped against the wall, Nosferatu the Vampyre immediately establishes itself as a gorgeously grotesque work that unflinchingly wallows in death, decay, and madness. Set in Wismar, Germany (it was actually shot in Delft, Netherlands, but Herzog pays tribute to the original 1922 Murnau flick, if in name only, which was filmed in Wismar, though set in the fictional city of Wisborg), Nosferatu the Vampyre initially centers on the protagonist Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a gentlemanly real estate agent who loves his wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) so much that he takes a dubious offer from his exceedingly eccentric boss Renfield (French-Jewish artist/writer Roland Topor, a founder of the Panic Movement) to travel eastward over the Carpathian mountains to Transylvania (although Herzog shot the scenes in what was then Czechoslovakia because the Ceaușescu regime prevent Herzog from filming in Romania proper) to meet with a seemingly nefarious nobleman named Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) who wants to buy property in Wismar. Showing no inkling of fear for “wolves, bandits, and ghosts,” Harker makes his way east with his pack of deeds and documents that will be ostensibly used for Dracula to buy a house and on the way, the eager beaver estate agent stops at a village full of medieval-like gypsies, who warn him not to go to the Count’s apparently cursed castle. Indeed, it says a lot about a person and place when gypsies see it as horrifically evil, but Harker is no superstitious untermensch, so he makes his way to Count Dracula’s ruined yet lavishly decorated castle. Undoubtedly, Dracula—a pale as a ghost and greatly grotesque rodent-like being who seems perennially lonely and macabrely melancholy—makes Harker feel rather uneasy, especially after the Count sucks blood from his finger after the real estate agent cuts himself while eating, but luckily the aberrant aristocrat instantly decides to buy the home in Wismar, especially after realizing the Harkers will live next door (the Count seems especially interested after seeing a small portrait of the ethereal, lovely lady Lucy in Jonathan's locket). During the night, Harker suffers a number of perturbing phantasmagorical encounters with the Count, while simultaneously, all the way back in Wismar, Lucy is plagued by fierce and foreboding night terrors of the penetratingly prophetic fashion. When the sun rises, Harker goes to investigate around the Gothic castle and finds Count Dracula sleeping in a ruined coffin, thereupon confirming he is a vampire. Meanwhile, Renfield is unsurprisingly committed to a mental institution after biting a cow and attempting to attack a guard, all the while spouting nonsense like “blood is life” in between rampant bursts of maniacal laughter. At night, Count Dracula packs a bunch of black coffins with cursed dirt, rats, and himself and makes his way to Wismar via ship, thus siring in the pernicious plague that will ultimately obliterate the small Teutonic town. 

 Weakened by his stay at the horrifying home of the bloodsucking blueblood Dracula, Jonathan Harker feebly attempts to leave the castle but realizes he is locked in, so he creates a makeshift rope via bedsheets and attempts to climb out a window, but severely injures himself in the process, thus leading to the beginning of the end of his sanity. While sailing to Wismar, Dracula kills the entire crew of sailors manning the ship, making it seem as if the deaths are merely the result of the plague, but as the captain (Jacques Dufilho) notes regarding the dubious deaths in his ship log, “A rumor of a mysterious stranger on board scares everyone to death.” When the plagued ship of the dead finally arrives in Wismar with no one aboard aside from the corpse of the captain who has tied himself to the helm in a manner not unlike Stoker's source novel, Renfield announces from his cell that “the master has arrived” and a couple doctors, including vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), decide to investigate the curious fate of the ghost ship, finding a ship-log in the process that reveals clues in regard to the dead sailors' fate. On top of bringing death in the form of Count ‘The Lord of the Rats’ Dracula, the ghost ship has also brought an ugly underground army of rodents that totally occupy Wismar, at which point darkness and destruction totally consume the town, killing virtually all of the unsuspecting inhabitants in no time. Meanwhile, Harker, who has a rather nightmarish stay in a Transylvania hospital, finally arrives in Wismar, but he is now deathly pale and his mind seems to have been replaced with that of a babbling old man with Alzheimer's disease. Seeming to suffer from amnesia, Harker no longer recognizes his wife Lucy, but Count Dracula certainly does and attempts to get some from the little lady, absurdly commanding to her, “Give me some of your love which you give Jonathan,” but she respectfully declines, stating, “I never will. I won’t even give that love to God,” for she is a woman that knows all too well the purity and faithfulness encompassed in true love, especially among soul mates such as herself and her now unfortunately brain-damaged hubby.  Horrified by the Count’s sinister presence, Lucy suspects that Dracula might be involved with the deaths in Wismar and tries in vain to warn the townspeople, who pay her no mind as the mayor and all the government officials are dead and the rest of the people are more interested in burying the ostensibly diseased corpses and dining on fine wine in what they suspect to be their last feast as their very probable fate with the grim-reaper awaits. Probably the most selfless femme fatale who has ever lived, Lucy states to herself: “And if a pure hearted woman, diverts his attention from the cry of the cock…the first light of day will obliterate him” in regard to what she needs to do to rid the world of the vile vampyre. Making good on her statement, she lures Count Dracula into her bedroom and hopes to distract him until his undead immortality can be vanquished at dawn, but in the process, she sacrifices her own life when the creature drains her blood. Though dead, Lucy is victorious as the first beam of light of the day causes Count Dracula to collapse to his death and not long after, Van Helsing drives a stake through his cold black heart just to make sure atrocious aristocrat is dead. On his way out of the house, Van Helsing is stopped by Jonathan Harker, who has the good doctor arrested. Jonathan Harker is now a vampire himself, stating to himself “I have much to do. Now!” and leaves Wismar in a hasty manner on horseback to assumedly continue his master and maker Count Dracula’s work. 

 Rather ironically, out of all the films I have ever seen featuring Klaus Kinski, never has the infamously lunatic actor appear so subdued, sensitive, and sympathetic as his role in Nosferatu the Vampyre, even if it is portraying a ghastly bloodsucking humanoid parasite who resembles a rat-like death camp survivor, as it seems the sadistic star, who was indubitably a 'psychic vampire' in real-life, felt right at home as a conspiring creature of the night who drains people of their vital fluid at their most vulnerable moments. That being said, what largely thematically differentiates Herzog’s Nosferatu from Murnau’s original 1922 film is that Nosferatu the Vampyre ‘humanizes’ the vampire, portraying him as not merely soulless and insensitive but as an accursed walking corpse of sorts who, as he states himself, suffers in the following manner, “Time is an abyss... profound as a thousand nights... Centuries come and go... To be unable to grow old is terrible... Death is not the worst... Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities?..” and is naturally willing to do anything to overcome his undying loneliness as an ancient aristocrat who has not had sun and sex in centuries. At the same time, Nosferatu the Vampyre also shows how a good man, Jonathan Harker, can degenerate into a brutal beast of pure, pernicious evil, thereupon making Herzog’s work a more thematically intricate film that is ultimately fittingly updated and more reflective of our more nihilistic and uncertain times, where parasitic 'blood-sucking' behavior is a given in the innately materialistic and capitalistic Occident. Of course, more than anything and most importantly, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a grand aesthetic achievement that, in the rather seemingly simple form of a hallucinatory horror film, manages to combine the best elements of Teutonic art and culture from the past couple centuries or so, including the music of darkly romantic compositions of Richard Wagner and celestial krautrock outfit Popol Vuh, a seamlessly hybridized hodgepodge of cinematic ingredients from German expressionist and mountain films by the likes of Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl of the 1920s/30s, but also the anti-heimatfilm of German New Cinema (which Herzog himself previously contributed to with his work Heart of Glass (1976) aka Herz aus Glas), and ethereal landscapes scenes echoing the paintings of German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the dark otherworldly völkisch mysticism of symbolist painters like Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, so it should be no surprise that director Herzog stated of his objective with the film, “What I really sought to do was connect my Nosferatu with our true German cultural heritage, the silent films of the Weimar era and Murnau’s work in particular. If his Nosferatu is a genre film then mine inevitably is one too. In many ways, for me, this film was the final chapter of the vital process of ‘re-legitimization’ of German culture that had been going on for some years.”

 Undoubtedly, one of the great ironies of the career of Werner Herzog—a filmmaker who has always blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction and documentary and narrative cinema, and rarely acknowledges genres—is that one of the greatest and most iconic, if not the most iconic, films of his career, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a classic horror genre flick, yet still manages to be pure Herzogian in its ominous oneiric yet rapturously romantic essence as a cinematic work that could have only been realized by a man with a deep connection to nature as a radical Bavarian peasant artist who would become one of the most important German filmmakers of the post-WWII era. Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre was followed up with an in-name-only sequel entitled Vampire in Venice (1988) aka Nosferatu a Venezia aka Nosferatu in Venice, which was also based on F.W. Murnau’s Noferatu and starred Klaus Kinski, but the Italian production went through many directors (producer Augusto Caminito took over after director Mario Caiano quit due to being rather tired of Kinski’s insults and belligerent behavior) and is ultimately a mess that is just as aesthetically troubled as the film’s production itself.  Indeed, as he proved with not only Nosferatu the Vampyre, but also Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987), Herzog was the only one that had what it takes to tame the blond polack beast Kinski. Undoubtedly, with the obvious exception of Murnau’s Nosferatu, Nosferatu the Vampyre is indubitably the greatest cinematic adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula ever made, even making the immortally iconic Dracula (1931) directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi seem rather tame, banal, and contrived by comparison, but especially exposing Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) directed by Francis Ford Coppola for the phony and truly ‘soulless’ pseudo-Victorian joke that it is.  In his rat-like appearance and propensity for bringing the 'plague' (Jews were blamed for poisoning wells and spreading the plague in medieval times) from the semi-Asiatic east, it is no surprise the film theorists time and time again have recognized Nosferatu/Dracula as a sort of Jewish figure, so it seems a great irony that a Hebraic Hollywood director was never able to concoct the ultimate Dracula flick, but rather two very different krauts did so instead. Of course, after Nosferatu the Vampyre, it seems pointless for anyone to attempt Stoker's Dracula ever again, especially considering the sorry state of German cinema today.

-Ty E

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