November 15, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

by Nick Schager

Nosferatu the Vampyre

[This week's Retro Active pick is inspired by the teen-vampire franchise capper The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.]

The dawning apocalypse arrives with trancelike grace in Nosferatu the Vampyre (originally subtitled Phantom of the Night), Werner Herzog's remake-cum-homage to F. W. Murnau's seminal 1922 silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Though following the narrative template of Murnau's expressionistic masterpiece—which, without rights to Stoker's book, took some plot-detail liberties—Herzog's film is nonetheless its own living, breathing monster, a strange, hypnotic work indebted to the style of silent cinema, 19th-century realism painting, and his own documentaries. There's a hallucinatory quality to Herzog's vampiric saga that often drags momentum down to the point of torpor. Yet like so much of the German director's fictional output from this period, what's sought isn't excitement or horror in a traditional sense but, rather, an enveloping atmosphere of unreality, of madness, of the animalism that belies civilized society and human behavior. To that end, Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is the embodiment of man's baser urges and impulses, not so much tormenting Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz)—the man who falls under his spell via neck bite after visiting Transylvania to help close Dracula's real estate deal in Wismar, Germany—as unshackling him from his staid, conformist nature.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

If Nosferatu carves its own path, it's in its portrait of Dracula as a figure of borderline-tragic pain and suffering, all of it wrought from the lonely agony of eternal life. Kinski, Herzog's longtime combative collaborator, assumes an outward appearance that resembles that of the original Nosferatu's Max Schreck, his bulbous head bald and pasty, his ears enormous and fingers long, his eyes surrounded by dark rings, and his two front fangs protruding from his mouth like a rat. In not only looks but in the way he pounces on Harker's bloody finger during dinner at his castle, Kinski's Nosferatu comes off as a beastly creature. And still, Kinski, suppressing his anarchic wild-man theatrics, imbues Dracula with a soulfulness that's piercingly human, his forlorn eyes exuding misery of the solitude forced upon him by his vampiric condition. His lust for Harker's wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani)—a figure of pale, porcelain delicacy defined by her own large, wide eyes—is less sexual than romantic, with the Count pleading at film's conclusion for Lucy to bestow him with a measure of the love that she has for Harker, and of which the Count has never been a recipient.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Repressed desire defines much of Nosferatu, and can be felt in its measured rhythms and quietly mournful score by Popol Vuhl. Herzog shoots his material with a patience that allows one to scrutinize the naturalistic details of his period settings and scenery, and which heightens the mannered silent-movie comportment and reactions of his cast, who gasp and cower with an artificial theatricality that meshes nicely with their grimy, gritty surroundings. The meticulously staged action often makes the film feel like an old-world painting come to slow, tortured life, with everything coated in a sense of otherworldly dread and menace, of dark things slowly emerging out of the shadows and—as in the case of Dracula's first encounter with Lucy—into seemingly safe, private abodes. When chaos finally materializes, in the form of Harker's employer Renfield (Roland Toper) cackling with lunatic glee while encased in a straight jacket in a grungy mental hospital cell, or of Dracula's cargo ship arriving at port—its inhabitants missing, its dead captain tied to the wheel, and its deck overrun by rats—it comes like a plague, gradually and unstoppably.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Nosferatu's signature sights are of those rats, not only on the ship but, afterwards, on the streets of Wismar, crowding on top of each other while men carry lines of coffins through empty courtyards, the population undone by the Black Death that's followed in Dracula's wake. Animal pestilence destroys everything civil and pure in Herzog's spin on the iconic vampire story, leaving only death and insanity. In Herzog's most notable addition to his material, Lucy wanders through the town square as people gaily dance, drink, hug (and attempt to ride) goats, and sit in formalwear at long banquet tables for feasts, all of them heralding their doom with crazed revelry. This vision of anarchic decay fittingly ends with a quick cut to reveal the dining table devoid of guests and overrun by rats, and carries with it an air of hopelessness that continues to film's conclusion, during which it's made clear that—no matter Lucy's ability to use the promise of love as a lure to trap, and destroy, Dracula—the lethal hungers brought to life by the Count are, ultimately, timeless and inescapable.

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Posted by ahillis at November 15, 2012 7:07 AM