NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Adjani
Director: Werner Herzog
Audio: German Dolby Digital Surround 4.1, English mono 2.0
Video: non-anamorphic letterbox widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Anchor Bay
Features: trailers, "behind-the-scenes" featurette, director audio commentary, alternative full-length version of the film
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: July 9, 2002
young man, you're like the villagers who cannot place themselves in the soul of
takes a director with an insurmountable degree of self-confidence (or
self-denial) to remake a classic film. Any
such attempt would be second-guessed during the entire production by the
original's legions of loyal fans. Critical
comparisons with the original would be inevitable, and even the slightest
changes or alterations would be seized upon as ammunition with which to shoot
down the remake, no matter how earnest the effort.
were the obstacles that awaited a young German director in the late 1970's when
he decided to remake the German silent masterpiece, Nosferatu. Enter,
Werner Herzog! Herzog was an
idiosyncratic member of a celebrated new wave of German filmmakers that included
Rainer Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. Herzog,
for his part, was never one to back down from a cinematic challenge.
He braved the miserable jungles, mountains, and Amazonian rivers of South
America to film one of his masterpieces completely on location - Aguirre,
the Wrath of God. He built a
huge showboat and insanely lugged it up a mountain side for another film - Fitzcarraldo. But in the late 1970's, he set his mind upon remaking Nosferatu.
original Nosferatu was cinema's first
true vampire film and has had quite a controversial and utterly fascinating
history. I haven't the space to
discuss it in any depth here, but suffice it to say that even Herzog himself
proclaimed the original Nosferatu to
be Germany's most important film. Why,
then, would any sane director attempt to remake such an acknowledged
masterpiece? Indeed, the very idea
of remaking Nosferatu appears as
ill-advised as remaking other horror classics such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho
(ahem) or Robert Wise's The Haunting
(cough cough). Nonetheless, Herzog
went ahead with his plans. Miraculously,
his film, Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht
(a.k.a. Nosferatu the Vampyre) not
only turned out to be a very good film - it was also the artistic equal of its
course, this is mostly in hindsight.
its initial release, Nosferatu had to
compete with Frank Lagella's Dracula
and lost handily at the box office. Audiences
found the new Nosferatu to be too
staid and too boring. For a vampire
film, it was curiously devoid of blood, violence, or action.
It simply was not scary. Yet,
in watching the original Nosferatu
nowadays, one finds that it was not really a frightening film, either. Rather,
it was an atmospheric film with expressionistic designs and evocative
cinematography. Herzog's version is
exactly the same - it is an atmospheric and evocative film whose strength lies
in its imagery and strong performances, not its ability to scare the wits out of
from the start, Nosferatu's title
sequence signals that it is a departure from the typical horror film.
The film opens on a shot of dead children.
Their mummified remains lean against a cavern wall.
Desiccated and barely recognizable as human, they are just a few of the
mummies within the cavern. The
camera slowly pans by them all, noting their gestures and their faces, frozen
into grotesque death masks. These
are not special effect paper mache props, either.
These are actual human remains. The
title sequence finally concludes on a slow motion capture of a solitary bat. Then, the image fades and the film proper begins.
Herzog signals to us, right from the onset, that his story will be an
eerie and pensive tale, one not concerned with the escapism of conventional
horror cinema but rather a film that will try to convey a true sense of
the inevitability of death versus life as pain and weariness.
Perhaps, in that sense, the film is too realistic - far easier to eat
popcorn and enjoy the blood and guts of a horror film, knowing it all to be
Hollywood fakery, than to enjoy a film that attempts to exhume the regrets or
despairs that we carry deep inside our hearts.
Nosferatu is all the more
amazing in that it communicates mostly through imagery than through spoken
words, as the title sequence clearly indicates.
Nosferatu's vampire plot should be
immediately familiar to anyone who has seen any of a myriad versions of Dracula
films. Johnathan (Ganz) is a real
estate agent who has been instructed to travel abroad to Transylvania.
Once there, he meets with the Count Dracula (Kinski) to finalize a
property sale. While in the Count's
castle, he becomes a virtual prisoner as the Count comes across a photograph of
Johnathan's wife, Lucy (Adjani), and falls in love with her.
The Count leaves Johnathan to rot in his castle while he travels abroad
to find and seduce Lucy. With him,
he carries along the Plague, and death and disease mark his every passage.
Yes, Doctor Van Helsing makes an eventual appearance, but he is a useless
old frump in this film and saves no one's day.
It is Lucy herself who ultimately unearths the Count's involvement in her
homeland's desperate plight and resolves to end his reign of terror.
are many similarities between both versions of Nosferatu beyond the plot. There
are tranquil moments of journeying as Johnathan silently makes his way to the
Count's castle. There are surreal
passages aboard a merchant ship that has become little more than a ghost ship
under the Count's influence. There
are the increasingly expressionistic details in the film's composition,
concluding with the final bedroom confrontation between vampire and heroine.
And incredibly, there is Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, every bit the equal of
Max Schreck's original immortal take on the vampire.
there was ever an actor born to play a rat-faced vampire, it was Klaus Kinski!
This is not Bela Lugosi's stately, well-groomed vampire.
Kinski's Nosferatu is a sickly, walking corpse, more dead than alive,
more vermin than human. He is tired
and ancient, weary of his immortality. He
is a creature who perhaps longs for the completion that death would bring yet is
forever doomed to be a harbinger of disease and despair through the passing ages
of man. Kinski, in arguably his
finest performance, brings a grave, sorrowful depth to the Nosferatu role.
If he were not so terrible, perhaps we would mourn him.
collaborated with director Herzog on many films. Many considered Kinski to be a raving madman but also a
genius. He was always Herzog's
favorite actor, although theirs was a classic love-hate relationship, the stuff
of legends. They despised each
other vehemently yet were great life-long friends.
They relished the thought of each other's violent demise yet continued to
make film after film together. Herzog
himself has often spoken bemusedly of an infamous incident during filming of Aguirre
when they literally threatened to kill each other.
Perhaps their mutual antagonism and admiration for one another provided
the immeasurable energy and artistic impulse that made their best films together
such cinematic triumphs.
modern audiences find fault with Nosferatu,
it may be that the film sometimes feels too
much like a silent film! Some of
the acting mannerisms and some of the makeup are highly reminiscent of the
silent era. Film passages are often
slow and methodical. Numerous long,
ethereal sequences transpire without much dialogue and little more than
incidental background noises or eerie score music.
The decidedly east European flavor of the film can make it a tedious film
for some viewers, especially Americans more attuned to slam-bang actionfests.
Of course, the same can often be said for films by Kubrick or Tarkovsky. All these films share a common trait - they appeal more to
patient audiences willing to invest the time and mental energy to fully absorb
the director's vision.
the end, Nosferatu may not be to
everyone's taste but bear no doubt in mind that it is truly an impressive and
extremely rare film - a remake that is every bit the equal of its original
cinematography uses a very muted, grey palette that is consistent with the
film's somber tone. A lot of scenes
are photographed using natural lighting under cloudy conditions, which serves to
accentuate a sense of melancholy. The
color fidelity is fine in this aspect, so don't adjust your TV!
picture, however, is a little grainy. This
is only really noticeable during some dark scenes (of which Nosferatu
has surprisingly fewer than one might expect for a horror film) or most
especially during an extended travel sequence early in the film.
Contrast during some darkened scenes could be a bit better. The mastering is generally stable though does wobble rarely
from time to time (usually with tall, narrow objects like lampposts).
Overall, a decent but not spectacular transfer.
previously noted, the film has long passages without much more than incidental
music. The film has almost no use
for the .1 channel. Nonetheless,
the dialogue is always clear and up front in the 4.1 soundtrack.
The soundtrack is devoid of hiss or crackles but sounds a little thin
overall. Most of the film has a
very natural sound to it, as Herzog opted to pass on the typical post-production
polish job that most Hollywood soundtracks receive.
Overall, the audio is good if not resounding.
is something unusual here! This DVD
is a flipper (or a 2-DVD set, depending on which Anchor Bay edition you watch).
On one side is the film presented in German.
On the flip side is the film presented in English.
Herzog elected to photograph his film twice, once in German and once in
English! It is an old-school
technique that we rarely see anymore. But,
as Herzog's actors were all multi-lingual, it was possible to accomplish for
this film. Scenes without dialogue
are the same for both films but the scenes with dialogue are slightly different
- same actors, same sets, but subtle differences which are manifested in
diction, body language, or facial expressions derived from the spoken language.
General audiences will probably prefer the English-language version.
However, having seen both sides, I prefer the German version. The actors are more comfortable speaking German, and the
usage of a foreign tongue (to me, at least) enhances the existential,
otherworldly quality of the film. Watch
them for yourself and decide which version you prefer.
They are both official
renditions of the film!
trailers are somewhat disturbing and worth a look. They give a good impression of the film's overall tone.
13 minute featurette is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film.
It is enlightening though filmed in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.
Typical European fare! Herzog
occasionally narrates. Alas, there
are no shots of Herzog or Kinski strangling each other, but it's still worth a
commentary track is the best feature. Narrated
by Herzog, it is a wonderful look into the working mind of this noted German
director. Herzog has a sense of
humor! He delights in telling us an
anecdote about on-location concerns during an enormous rat infestation sequence.
The town folks were absolutely petrified that the thousands
of rats used for the sequence would escape and worsen the town's already
dreadful rodent problem. This and
And darn funny!
for the record, none of the rats escaped.