Killtoberfest 3 – #17: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

In All, Movies by Kyu

“I am descendant of an old family. 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. There are things more horrible than death. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futile things?”

Once while giving an filmed interview, Werner Herzog was shot in the stomach by a sniper using a BB gun rifle. Apparently unfazed, Herzog insisted on completing the interview. That has absolutely nothing to do with today’s Killtoberfest 3 film and the middle in my Nosferatu sounder, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), but I never miss a chance to tell a Werner Herzog story. From the About page for his infrequently held Rogue Film School seminars:

  • Excerpts of films will be discussed, which could include your submitted films; they may be shown and discussed as well. Depending on the materials, the attention will revolve around essential questions: how does music function in film? How do you narrate a story? (This will certainly depart from the brainless teachings of three-act-screenplays). How do you sensitize an audience? How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth?
  • Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance.

This would be unbearably pretentious if Herzog hadn’t lived every word of it. A fascinating, driven man, Werner Herzog’s filmography is an eclectic mix of arthouse classics (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) and astonishing documentaries (Grizzly ManCave of Forgotten Dreams). Whether real, fictional, or (as with films like his Rescue Dawn) fictionalized, the human subjects of Herzog’s films are those equally driven to achieve the absurd, whether that’s living in Antarctica, transporting an entire ship over a hill between two rivers, exploring a jungle in an airship, or living peacefully among wild bears. Nature, human and otherwise, is Herzog’s obsession, and if his work has a thesis, it is that the world is an unforgiving place in which people are merely aberrations. He is a brilliant and talented director. He is the wrong choice for this movie.

But then, I doubt anyone else could have done better.

Herzog has made three remakes in his career, as far as I know. One was an adaptation of his own documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, into a fictionalized drama with Christian Bale, Rescue Dawn. The most recent was 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a fascinating remake of Abel Ferrara’s very Catholic bad cop Harvey Keitel vehicle, with a mega-acting Nicolas Cage replacing Keitel as the lead. But Herzog’s first remake took on an even greater challenge: updating one of the great silent classics, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Herzog has nothing if not chutzpah. But I can’t help but feel that this isn’t the right material for him.

I said that the original Nosferatu‘s best element was its star performance, Max Schreck as the weird, bestial Count Orlak. Oddly enough, the remake’s best element is the same thing, frequent Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula. (Presumably Stoker’s novel had entered the public domain by this point, because Herzog uses character names from the book, rather than carrying over from Nosferatu.) Kinski and Herzog had a long and complicated relationship; at one point on set they either shot at one another or threatened to do so, and that’s just the most obvious example. Herzog would go on to shoot a documentary about him and Kinski called My Best Fiend. He might have been referencing Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre, because the man is simply electric. In the original film, Schreck works because his appearance and mannerisms are so bizarre compared to the other characters, a true example of evil from outside civilization. But Kinski has to speak, and that automatically makes him more human. Instead of an obvious monster, Kinski’s Count exists at the far edges of humanity–a titled European in a remote, ruined castle, pale, unused to social graces, with the kind of odd teeth and long fingernails you expect to see on Howard Hughes. In these crucial early scenes with Jonathan Harker, he doesn’t read as vampire, he reads as a creepy eccentric–one who is unbearably lonely and unbearably sad. I actually felt for him in this film. Kinski’s facial expressions are so miserable that the Count’s whole existence seems bereft of joy, his later violence an expression of instinctual need rather than conscious villainy. At once a more complex and haunting figure, he’s easily the best part of the film, and one of the better Draculas in cinema.

Unfortunately, the other characters do not fare so well in this remake. Foremost among these is Harker (Bruno Ganz, best known for his phenomenal portrayal of Hitler in Downfall and Youtube parody recuts of Downfall). As in the original, much of the film rests on his shoulders as the perspective character and the protagonist whose goals drive the film. But this Harker is a pretty boring sod, stiff and artificial. In the original Nosferatu, “Hutter”/Harker and his wife are thinly sketched at best–they care about one another, and she worries about him leaving on his business trip–but that’s okay because it’s a silent film, and a fairy tale at that. Thin is all we need. Herzog’s remake promises a chance to bring emotional realism to the story, and although he often succeeds on visual terms, he fails to achieve any greater depth with Harker, his wife, or their relationship. In fact, it feels less impactful this time around, because Herzog is obligated to restage through generic dialogue what Murnau had to do visually. It shows either an unwillingness to alter the story or a lack of vision as to how, one that exists throughout most of the film and is the movie’s chief weakness.

The side characters and perspectives also leave much to be desired. Renfield, Harker’s boss, is a cackling troll even before he’s meant to have gone insane under Dracula’s mental influence; there are a couple of hints of more emotionally honest stuff there, but they’re mostly buried under the cartoon. Harker is just boring here, with none of Hutter’s comedic obliviousness but no more depth to make up for it, either. And his wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), is just weird. I liked how she takes over the film even more so in this version than in Murnau’s, becoming the perspective character for the last act. Her horror at seeing what the plague has done to her town is some of this movie’s best material, partially because it’s the place where Herzog feels most comfortable inventing his own scenes. But her big scene with Dracula is a bizarre exchange of pseudo-philosophical dialogue that seems totally out of character for her, to the extent that she has much of a character at all. Moreover, the original’s use of documents and alternate perspectives to show a world reacting with confusion and horror to Orlok is recreated poorly here; rather than actually staging some of the scenes the original only describes in journals and diary entries, Herzog simply has his characters reading aloud instead of using title cards. Often it doesn’t feel like the addition of sound does anything for this story, although I do like the score by German electronic band Popol Vuh (who also scored Herzog’s Aguirre); I think it would work just as well scoring the original.

Visually the movie is sometimes splendid and sometimes frustrating. One gets the sense that Herzog’s interests align most clearly with the film in the margins, whether that’s portraying the Carpathian wilderness that swallows Jonathan up along his journey or going into more detail on Harker’s hometown’s dissolution in the face of the plague. (Probably my favorite moment in the whole film comes at the end, when an old gentleman finds it difficult to arrest and process Van Helsing because the police, the jailers, and the court officers have all died of the disease.) But the movie is at heart a horror film, and in those scenes Herzog’s heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. Murnau’s original is chock-a-block with iconic horror images–the Count rising out of his coffin, the black ship, the creeping shadows–most of which Herzog either avoids entirely or restages poorly. Herzog’s style is one of realism, especially considering half of his movies are documentaries, and when moments of realistic horror occur in this film they work very well: swarming, plague-infested rats, an opening scene depicting mummified victims, the death ship’s casual drifting into town, an extraordinary (and ominous) sunset on a mountain, and especially an extraordinary sequence where Lucy discovers a group of well-dressed townsfolk having a macabre feast in the middle of the square–they’re all infected, and this is their last supper, a meal among the rats. Moments like these are truly chilling; but when it comes to Gothic fantasy, Herzog is as adrift as Dracula’s plague ship.

Nosferatu the Vampyre works when its director allows it to step out from under the shadow of the original, but in the end it just doesn’t do that often enough. It’s hard to blame Herzog; as I said, I doubt any other director would have done better at the time. Herzog obviously respects the original, and went out of his way to film on some of the same locations (including the Count’s house in Wismar). And at a certain point, once you scrap enough of the original, you’re no longer making Nosferatu, but just your version of Dracula. It should probably be considered an achievement that the film isn’t a total waste of time. I’m certainly not sorry I watched it. But I think that when I feel like revisiting this little corner of cinematic vampirism, I’ll return to the Murnau.

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.