Saturday, 29 July 2017

1,001 Films: "Nosferatu the Vampyre/Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht" (1979)

2009’s Bad Lieutenant fostered a good deal of hoopla, for various reasons, but it’s worth remembering this wasn’t Werner Herzog’s first remake. Arriving just as German cinema had started to address the country’s chequered history, Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre rejects the breathless narrative sweep of the Murnau film – or, indeed, the faux-eccentricity of his Abel Ferrara redo – to do the very Teutonic thing of looking death squarely in the eye, as its opening panorama of a cryptful of embalmed corpses proposes; this being a Herzog film, you just know these are the real deal, sourced Gott only knows where.

The feature proper reframes the Dracula legend – any Nosferatu’s lifeblood – as a very Herzogian journey, up mountains and across oceans, between one world and the next. A study in the transportation of evil, this version actually feels like the director’s own version of the contemporaneous Apocalypse Now – that most Herzogian of American enterprises – complete with its own bald-pated killer at the end of the line: and here be Klaus Kinski’s Count, a comparatively restrained outing for this actor, mouthing philosophical discourse on the themes of love, death and salvation.

The whole re-emerges as more than a little stiff, performed by those for whom English was at best a second tongue: its own, rather florid strain of Germanic poetry never quite manages to mitigate against the creaks and creases of an original that will remain the essential text – and, with his revisionist ending, Herzog adds a few debatable wrinkles of his own. For a vampire movie, it’s also oddly sexless, generally more concerned with the local livestock than with Isabelle Adjani’s most luscious of Lucies.

Nevertheless, this Nosferatu is worth revisiting for several moments unique to the Herzography. The arrival of a ghost ship into a town shortly to be overrun with rats is like nothing seen in any Dracula before or since: even Coppola’s grandiose 1992 folly couldn’t compete with the sheer physicality wrought into the celluloid by a filmmaker warming up for Fitzcarraldo’s big push. There’s also a certain bleak beauty in watching rows and lines of coffins containing plague victims being precisely manoeuvred into place, like dancers in a Busby Berkeley routine.

Auteurists will discover a possibly surprising degree of continuity with the rest of this director’s CV: he dispatches his regular cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein to peer restlessly and inquisitively around the Alps and Carpathians, while Popul Vuh’s score is as eerie as ever. Herzog may have been passing somewhat closer than usual to generic territory here – but the same dreamy, misty atmosphere as prevailed in Aguirre, Wrath of God or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser comes to gather around us, beckon us in, and ultimately chill the bones.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Nosferatu the Vampyre is available on DVD through the BFI.

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