Sunday, July 25, 2010

March 12, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht’

When I first saw Wener Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu, I was a bit unmoved by it all. The lingering shots of nature, the inclination toward brightly lit interiors rather than the kinds of shadowy Gothic cinematography more common in Dracula pictures, and Klaus Kinski’s weirdly insular performance didn’t really tickle my Monster-Movie sweet spot. Seeing Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht again some 15 years later, I realize my problems with the movie weren’t the movie’s fault; they were mine. At the time I was not well-versed in the very specific and very idiosyncratic Herzog style, and his rendition of Nosferatu is a very-Herzog Monster Movie even as it remains surprisingly faithful to Murnau. There are recreations of the scene in which Dracula stalks through a small village casting large, looming shadows on the cottages. There is a return to a subtly surreal seaside graveyard. Kinski’s make-up is clearly patterned after the get-up Max Schreck wore in the 1922 version, although Kinski looks more bat-like than Schreck, who was intended to look like a rat. And though Herzog makes some very effective use of live bats (as opposed to the rubber bats on strings that proliferated the vampire movies of old), he enthusiastically picks up on Murnau’s parallels between Dracula’s arrival and the arrival of the ratty, ratty Bubonic Plague. If you were at all creeped-out by the writhing mass of monkeys at the climax of Herzog’s first masterpiece, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, you’ll want to claw out your eyes while watching the sea of rats that swarm through Nosferatu. Characters literally have to wade through rats to get from A to B or to just enjoy their breakfast. Kinski’s performance, which didn’t appeal to me when I first saw the movie, actually synchs brilliantly with the rat infestation that surrounds him. He oozes disease as Dracula. His Dracula is utterly devoid of the power radiated by Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee or even Max Schreck. He plays the vampire as a simpering, sickly creature, and when he feeds on his victims, he isn’t dominating them; he’s desperately scrambling to self-medicate.

Even with his faithfulness to Murnau’s film, Herzog crafted a Nosferatu that remains instantly recognizable as his work… and not just because it stars his best fiend Kinski. Dracula may be the main monster, but the real threat seems to arise from nature. The vampire isn’t nearly as daunting as the billowing storm clouds expanding overhead or the stretch of untrodden land Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) must cross to reach Dracula’s castle or the wailing wolves surrounding his castle or that horrible sprawl of rats. Herzog also plays with other character archetypes besides Dracula. In most Dracula pictures, Lucy (who became interchangeable with Mina Harker in many movies) was nothing more than the vampire’s favorite meal. Here she is cagey and clever and incredibly brave even as gorgeous, kohl-eyed Isabelle Adjani maintains her air of Gothic etherealness. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), however, is a completely useless skeptic and Jonathan Harker remains weak throughout. Meanwhile Roland Topor does a fairly effective Peter Lorre impersonation as Renfield, although his incessant giggling gets irritating pretty quickly. Herzog concludes his film on a far more cynical note than any other Dracula, which is also keeping with his most consistent theme: humans may think they can outsmart nature, but if nature intends to… say… bring us all to our knees by turning us into vampires, nature’s gonna win in the end.
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