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NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Adjani
Director: Werner Herzog
Audio: German Dolby Digital Surround 4.1, English mono 2.0
Subtitles: English
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

"Ah, young man, you're like the villagers who cannot place themselves in the soul of the hunter."

Film ****

It 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.

Such 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.

The 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 namesake.

Of course, this is mostly in hindsight.

On 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 people.

Right 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.

Nevertheless, 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. 

There 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.

If 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.

Kinski 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.

If 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.

In 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 inspiration.

Video ** 1/2

The 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!

The 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.

Audio  ** 1/2

As 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.

Features ***

Ah...there 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!

The trailers are somewhat disturbing and worth a look.  They give a good impression of the film's overall tone.

The 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 look!

The 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 more!  Macabre.  And darn funny!

And for the record, none of the rats escaped.

Summary:

Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht is visually one of the finest horror films ever created.  A true work of artistry, it represents the brilliant pinnacle of the Herzog-Kinski collaborations.  While the Scream crowd may find it a difficult film, those viewers who prefer methodical and deliberately-paced horror films (such as Kubrick's The Shining) will find Nosferatu to be its kindred spirit.