Werner Herzog Season – Nosferatu (1979)
Ominously opening in an eerie mausoleum, to a throbbing heartbeat score we are confronted with a wandering, hand-held mosiac of entombed cadavers and mummified corpses – clearly this isn’t going to one of Herzog’s earlier, ‘funnier’ works. I first became aware of Nosferatu at an early stage of one’s cinematic development, it was a horror movie and therefore included in the movie anthology books I rifled through for details of a new ghoulish conquest, equating this as probably the first Herzog film I ever saw. Klaus Kinski features in the titular role as the ominous 19th century vermin visaged count, a wretched soul who feeds on the blood of the living to prolong his unholy life, a ghoul currently seeking a decant from his Carpathian lair to stalk new hunting grounds in Western Europe. If that sounds familiar then of course it is, Herzog’s Nosferatu is a rekindling of F.W Murnau’s silent classic Eine Symphonie des Grauens, which in turn drew heavily from Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its sordid source material. Stoker’s widow sued the producers of the 1922 original which resulted in many of the original prints being destroyed, but some canny international distributors disobeyed the court instructions and world cinema retained a highly influential masterpiece. Both versions are back on the cultural agenda following the news of a planned remake and the rather odd incident of Murnau’s skull being stolen from his Berlin bordering mausoleum, in what has to be one of the strangest publicity stunts of recent years. So the time seems deliciously ripe to reassess Herzog’s 1979 iteration of one of the all time classic horror tales, and for Werner it’s a remarkably atmospheric and brooding affair, with definitive attention lavished on the mood and aura of the film. This movie feasts upon gloom and melancholy, rather than coagulating on character trials and tribulations, the usual medicine that beats at the centre of Herzog’s oeuvre.
Nosteratu closely follows the core text of Stokers gothic masterpiece, with a mysterious figure summoning a young property lawyer to his Transylvanian castle in order to negotiate the purchase of a new foreign property, only this time the location is Wismar in Germany rather than Whitby in England. Bruno Gantz plays the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker, animated by one of the most talented and recognisable German actors of the post War period, probably known best as the inquisitive angel in Wings Of Desire and the densely disseminated Hitler in 2005’s Downfall, exposing him to an entire generation via internet gifs and humorous hybrids. Kinski is a quiet revelation as the verminous, venomous count, a wonderful evocation of Max Shrek’s original nightmare inducing cladding, reigned in by Herzog to deliver a quiet, almost mournful performance of a beast succumbed to immortal and eternal dreads. This near perfect cast is completed by Isabelle Adjani as perhaps the screen’s most perfect evocation of Mina Harker, virginal, pallid and ethereally beautiful, yet with a courageous strength of heart to sacrifice her soul and entrap the count as dawn rises, her bravery scourging the land of his ungodly infection. Herzog engineered the film as a direct celebration of his homelands cinematic prestige, intending his ‘remake’ as a cultural resuscitation of Murnau’s original, placing German cinema back on the global map after many years of rotting decomposition. We should remember that before the second world war Germany was considered the equal of America in terms of its mastery of the adolescent art form, with the evolution of the entire Expressionist movement snaking its shadowy tendrils to influence the global cinematic culture, with prestige productions such as Metropolis and Sunrise combating Hollywood’s claims to dominate the form.
Having thundered through the work of Herzog over the past eight months this film is something of an unholy aberration for the worshippers of Werner, as the key word here is atmosphere. Normally (at least at this fatigued point of the season) Herzog trades in rather direct character centred tales, yet here he weaves a quite beguiling film with his groaning collaborators, a grimoire of grief which is shrouded beneath an overcast and oppressive sky. From the opening frames the film is amplified by another wonderful Popol Vuh score, indeed my entire discovery of this soundtrack pioneer has been one of the great discoveries of this entire expedition, as once again their eerie soundscapes perfectly complements the premonitions of Nosferatu’s anguished aura. Brilliantly utilised is also Wagner’s prelude of the Nibelungen, prefiguring Malick’s appropriation of immortal hymns by at least two decades. Most unusually for Herzog the film is quite clearly photographed and composed with a rich visual constitution, in rather a contradictory manner to his working method statements I replayed during the last review of Woyzeck. Cameraman Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein (whom has schemed with Werner since 1971’s Fata Morgana) deftly manipulates shadow and light, fog and filaments to drape the film with a suffocating shroud, a technique which Herzog acquiesced to as it operates as a natural homage to Murnau’s masterful command of visual aesthetics. The pace and movement of the film is similarly languid, the counts ruinous journey to Wismar glides with the momentum of an asthmatic zombie, with the spooky materialisation of a Marie Celeste deserted vessel emerging ominously from the mist. The slow decay of the town is also examined without purifying pomp or ceremony, including a memorable sequence where a small coterie of plague sentenced villagers enjoy a final Lewis Carrolesque last supper among the ruins.
Through these ancient, weakly pulsing influences the film remains saturated with history and time, an intended Xerox in places, before nodding toward a definitive destruction of a malignant, slumbering menace. Some of the images that capture the narrative events are particularly striking, primarily the flesh crawling images of a weary Wismar overrun with those plague spreading rats, they formed quite the logistical challenge for the filming with Herzog having to account for the health and mortality of each and every individual animal following the principal wrap. Kinski himself is the stuff of nightmares, with the crypt dusted skin, the gravestone incisors, those skittering, chittering elongated talons – all I can think of is woe betide the make-up artists who weathered Kinski’s legendary tantrums while applying those cosmetics to his furious frame for exhausting weeks of lensing. Curiously Tobe Hooper also resurrected this specific, hungry look for screen vampires in quite the terrifying fashion for the same years TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, it’s all an aeon away from contemporary emo-boyband Twilight Young Adult friendly bloodsuckers ain’t it?
Nosferatu palpably drips with a yearning menace, the count a more pathetic parasite than demonic killer, his eternal days wandering alone a Sisyphean curse instead of an immortal blessing. This is what Herzog is really driving at I think, he’s less interested in surface, traditional horror modules than dissecting the unfathomable dimensions of an immortal existence, as he decides to break with Stoker’s source material or the original film’s conclusion by having the once pure Harker elope in the films final frames to spread the plague of vampirism (Nazism?) across Europe and potentially usher in a new dark age of woe. As something of a satanic horror fan this film is precisely in my wheelhouse, a picture with a definitive, spine tingling atmosphere rather than those saturated in screaming chainsaws and bisected limbs. Now don’t get me wrong, those atrocities can be a lot of ghoulish fun but its always the films with a genuine mood and atmosphere that tend to withstand the ravages of time, and remain cold clasping classics for generations to come. So we are finally approaching the final bend of this seemingly eternal series, I have one more movie of the box-set to digest and I’m also going to throw together a hybrid post on two of the documentaries of Werner’s work and his key collaborators – My Best Fiend and the immortal nominee for possibly the best filmmaking documentary on film-making ever made, Burden Of Dreams. That kinda reminds me, I’ve also revisited Fitzcarraldo from that BFI screening a couple of years ago, just to be a good soldier completest you may be amused to learn that today I weathered through the commentary of that movies hilarious production as part of this marathon, as now we face the final stretch. For me though this is among Herzog’s finest work, scheming within the immediate and immortal, a grip of a gothic classic beyond a Hammer or Universal;