Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nosferatu – the Vampyre – review

Director: Werner Herzog

Release date: 1979

Contains spoilers

This is the remake of the Murnau classic. It has the names of the characters reverted to those originally meant for the 1922 film, based on Stoker’s Dracula, before copyright considerations got the better of the earlier film. That is except for making Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) the wife of Jonathon Harker (Bruno Ganz) and relegating Mina (Martje Grohmann) to a minor role.

This is a love it or hate it movie, and I will state now that I love it. Many find it quite slow as Herzog fills the screen with breathtaking scenic vistas and infiltrates the film with a dreamlike quality that I can only liken to the filmic equivalent to reading Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – in style not content. You watch a dream, are caught within the vacillation between nightmare and flitting beauty and this can be off putting. From the opening shots of mummified corpses with the musical theme haunting the vision displayed before you, you know this is not in the realm of Hollywood anymore - indeed, as a kid, just the opening sequence terrified me.

Bar the dark ending (which I won’t spoil) this follows the plot laid out by Murnau pretty closely. Thus I won’t go into it in too much depth, however, we begin – after Lucy awakens from a nightmare - in Wismar. Clerk Jonathon is asked by, the clearly insane, Renfield (Roland Topor) to travel to the Carpathians and visit Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) – who wishes to buy a house in the town. Lucy is not too happy with this but Jonathon leaves anyway. Of course Lucy’s feeling of foreboding is spot on and for me her character becomes one of the strongest roles in the film.

Jonathon is warned off the journey by gypsies who know the castle to be a place of phantoms. He cannot even get a coach from the inn he stays in, and during a brief but darkly comedic moment the coach driver insisting that there is no road, and that he has no coach or horses – when they are all before the bemused Harker – we see the depths of the terror the castle holds for the locals. Harker ends up completing part of his journey on foot and it is here that some of the most breathtaking scenic shots come.

It is Harker’s meeting with the count, however, when the dream turns to nightmare and we get the defining role in the film. Bald headed, rat eared, with sunken eyes, talon nails and permanent front fangs – this is no beauteous vampire. Dracula is portrayed as ugly and the power of the performance comes when we realise that he is unhappy with his fate and yet he does not whine, he accepts his misery with, almost, a grace.

Dracula, the nosferatu, is the plague carrier and we see this in full force with the state Harker is left in, with the hordes of rats that infest the ship that carries the Count to Wimar and with the devastation of plague that crashes down upon the town. Parades of coffins are carried forth and the desperate carry on with an almost depressed carnival in the town square – musicians play, people dance and a last supper is held as the townsfolk wait for death.

There is a definite nod to the original film in the use of shadows. The Count’s shadow up a wall, or the shadow of his hand touching Lucy as his reflection fails to appear in a mirror. It is within this scene that the power of Lucy’s character comes to the fore – if Stoker wrote about new woman and made Mina (in his original tale) the bastion of new woman, Lucy in this embodies that spirit.

At first she seems little more that a cipher for Jonathon. She has a sense of foreboding. When the Count approaches Jonathon in the castle she sleep walks, her ghost like vision mirror the Count. When she awakes and screams she interrupts the attack all those miles away. She seems a psychic reflection of her husband, nothing more.

Later, as he is ill and does not recognise her, she comes into her own strength. As in Murnau’s film her self sacrifice is the way in which the vampire can be defeated, she must offer herself to him and distract him from the coming dawn. However, before then she takes charge – when authority fails her, in the form of the dissolved town council and more personably through Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), she must take control. She hunts for the Count’s coffins, she ensures that he cannot return to them.

A beautiful dream, as I say, with many sub-texts that I have only briefly touched upon. Some will hate this movie as slow moving and dreamy. The characters are often two dimensional, such as the virtually pointless Mina who falls to the Count’s clutches and acts more as a prompt for Lucy’s positive action. To be truthful, a firm knowledge of both Stoker’s story and Murnau’s film helps in the moments when the narrative becomes too flitting.

However, for me this is a giant amongst vampire movies and one of the most beautifully filmed movies available, as well. Deserving of 9 out of 10 and a must own for vampire fans.

The imdb page is here.


The T said...

This is it. The absolute most magical Dracula movie ever. Can't get more atmospheric than this. More desolate. More Carpathian. The travel scenes to the castle are magnificent. The gypsies. The castle itself, old, empty. The count and his clothes. The town. It reeks of pure art. And the Demeter scenes, with that music. Popol Vuh + Wagner + Gounod at the end are the perfect soundtrack ever. It's impossible yet it's true: i think is as great as the original.

Can't believe if only gets 2.5 points more than Queen of the Damned... I'll comment that review soon lol

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers the T - when you put it like that (iro Queen of the Damned) but... horses for courses...

Queen of the Damned is not as good a film as this (obviously) but is actually more accesible for many.

Re this actual film, however, I do think thatsome aspects of it are under explored (Mina for instance) but then, perhaps there is a place for ciphers within dreams.

cheers, as always, for the comment