The following notes on Werner Herzog's NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE were written by UW Madison student Ryan Waal (class of 2015). A screening of the restored, German version of NOSFERATU to benefit the Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival will occur on October 29. Tickets, $20 each, can be purchased in advance here: https://itkt.choicecrm.net/templates/UWFF/ or at the door (cash only) the night of the performance. Come in costume - door prizes!
What is it that makes a film scary? Horror films can employ any number of tricks to make their audience jump in their seat, scream or get a queasy feeling in their stomach. But while most films produce these responses through cheap jump scares or over-the-top violence, true masters of horror sustain their audience’s fear not through gimmicks, but through a general feeling of unease.
Enter Werner Herzog, whose 1979 horror film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is among the best films in the vampire genre I’ve seen, a picture which captures the full terror, absurdity and perverse humor of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula story. Conceived as an homage to F.W. Murnau’s landmark 1922 silent film of the same name, this film is emotionally expressive and scary in ways most films only aspire to be, and a fantastic demonstration of Herzog’s abilities to curate and display pure weirdness on the screen. The film doesn’t try to be conventionally “scary,” but rather instills the viewer with pure dread.
The story, if you’re not familiar: Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a real estate agent from Wismar, Germany, is sent by his employer Reinfeld (Roland Topor) to close on a offer from the mysterious Count Dracula (the always disturbing Klaus Kinski). When he arrives, Dracula’s real intentions, involving the courtship of Jonathan’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) and the endless pursuit of human blood, become clearer.
This story has been done countless times cinematically, but previous Dracula movies haven’t the astonishing pictorial beauty that Herzog achieves. With his cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, Herzog shows a solemn, sad and harsh German countryside, with rich green hills enveloped by endless grey skies. The film hearkens back to techniques of German Expressionist artistry, most notably that of rückenfigur, in which human figures are displayed from behind looking out into the massive, overpowering environment. For a story that aims to portray the futility and weakness of humanity against dark, inhuman forces, Herzog’s visual style adequately conveys a kind of existential dread that any good horror film should strive to achieve.
One suspects that Murnau would’ve been proud of Herzog’s visual accomplishment, which incorporates nearly all of the filmic breakthroughs developed between the two films luxuriously. Besides the obvious inclusions of color and sound, Herzog incorporates mobile and handheld cameras to great effect; an early dinnertime confrontation between Jonathan and Dracula is perfectly realized with jittery camera movements that display the unease and paranoia of the situation. It also includes an absolutely majestic score by German band Popol Vuh, which emphasizes the scale of Jonathan’s journey and the ensuing terror he unleashes upon Wismar.
Complementing Herzog’s superb cinematic acumen is a cast which could not have been better calibrated for their roles. Ganz is an effective leading man and Adjani is hauntingly beautiful as his wife, a reservoir of fear and longing. Reinfeld, later revealed to be Dracula’s servant, is a character which requires an actor to luxuriate in madness, and Topor accomplishes this masterfully, creating a credibly mad human with his maniacal laugh and wild, bulging eyes.
But in the end, this really is Klaus Kinski’s show. As Dracula, he is constantly unpredictable, always on the edge of exploding with murderous energy upon his victims. His performance has a lot to do with small details-the way his lips part, his breathing, his tired, yet terrifying rhythm of speech-but these details coalesce into an overall impression: that this man, this thing, is positively other worldly, something beyond human. Herzog and Kinski are famous for the collaborations on projects concerning wildly obsessive, passionate human beings (Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo), and his portrayal of Dracula in this film reminds us of the power of their collaboration. It truly is one of the finest meetings of actor and part the vampire genre has ever seen.
The film is also notable for its simultaneous production of both English and German-language versions. Supposedly, this was done as conciliation towards 20th Century Fox, who wanted an “International” version-realeased as Nosferatu the Vampyre to sell in America along with the original German version.
The German version is simply superior. Admittedly, the structure and look of the film is essentially identical across both versions (barring a few minor alterations of shots). However, the principal actors, particularly Ganz, are more capable performers in German than English. Adjani and Kinski are serviceable in the English version, but the whole cast seems more comfortable and emotionally expressive in Phantom der Nacht. Additionally, some scenes in the English version incorporate dubbing and voiceover work that ultimately ends up distracting and unsatisfying. There is dubbing the German version as well; according to an article on “movie-censorship.com,” some scenes were reportedly too expensive to shoot twice and Roland Topor’s voice was dubbed for the German release. Still, Phantom der Nacht’s overall sound design is altogether more seamless and believable. This was clearly conceived as a German film, and should be viewed as such.
As is the case with many of his films, Nosferatu is chocked full of memorable flourishes of Herzogian weirdness. Consider a random villager playing a violin for no reason around Dracula’s castle, or Renfield’s inexplicable joy as Dracula shoos him away after completing his mission. Consider the unusually high prevalence of cats throughout Wismar, or a brilliantly executed scene of gallows humor towards the end as a townsperson realizes he can’t arrest someone because the entire city government is dead. All of Herzog’s movies attempt to visually realize, with as much seriousness as possible, various forms of insanity. How fitting that he would make a horror film then, a genre where such insanity is not only allowed, but welcomed.