Wednesday, October 20, 2010

31 Days Of Horror: Day 20: Nosferatu (1979)

Decade’s before Gus Van Sant tried his cheeky little post modern expiriment with Psycho, Werner Herzog did much the same thing remaking FW Murnau’s Nosferatu on the same locations.

In all fairness unlike Van Sant Herzog was never attempting a shot by shot remake, he makes some significant changes, both to the story and in the style. He wanted to recapture the feeling of decay and menace so paltable in the original. A laughable idea from anyone else, from Herzog another entry in his “just crazy enough to work” file.

Nosferatu does make a tempting target. It is after all one of the finest movies ever made, and has never dipped into the realm of camp. It’s power enough to make it one of the few silent movies that is remembered by “civilians.” But Murnau and Herzog were such opposites as directors.

Murnau was the master of artifice, the one of the first to realize that a studio was more then just a convenient place to shoot but a place that could manipulated until it was no longer something like reality, but something more so. The finest user of the crane this side of Scorsese. The Master of the close up.

If Murnau composed in close up even in his long shots, then Herzog is the master of the level thousand yard stare, even when his camera is six inches from his subjects face. If Murnau’s style depended on the studio’s flexibleness, Herzog’s depends on his subjects and settings inflexibleness, the “voodoo of location.” Murnau figured out what artifice is for; Herzog desperately seeks ecstatic truth, even when he’s just flat out making shit up.

It’s an odd mix that produces some interesting frisson.

Though the story is mostly the same in the broad strokes some interesting changes have been wrought both by Herzog and just the advancement of film itself. Color and sound change the film more then I would expect it to. Particularly in our attitudes towards the count (Klaus Kinski in the most subdued performance he ever gave for Herzog. Yep an undead demonic creature whose lived for centuries really brought out the subtle in Kinski). Max Shrek’s count was so buried beneath layers of makeup so thoroughly inhuman, that it’s simple just to look at him and think “Monster.” That’s why hearing him speak, in precise Teutonic tones, is such a shock. Speech is a humanizer in a way intertitles aren’t, and Kinski’s Orlock instantly becomes more decrepit, pathetic and sad than simply monsterous.

Not that he’s not frightening, he’s just an entirely different kind of frightening.

As always in Herzog, the imagery is astounding. The endless stream of pallbearers bearing pine coffins that cross against our heroine, the opening montage of mummies, the plague ship with its blood red sales heavy in the water, the 11,000 rats (all painted grey because Herzog could only find white mice) who stream through the streets.

Nosferatu does have a few problems. The movie is well, let’s just say a little bit slow. Herzog took the movie from 91 minutes (in it’s most complete prints) and extended it to 110. Most of that extra time is taken up with people wandering around staring at things. An image that if do not have an affinity for you will soon find maddening. It’s a film that is dependant, to say the least, on you synchronizing with its wave length. Also, though most of the changes that Herzog makes to the text work for his own purpose, the strange “Gotcha” ending is not one of them.

Unlike its ancestor Nosferatu may not be a perfect film, but like its predecessor, it is a haunting one.


stonerphonic said...


Another victim of the English speaking presentation of Herzog's interpretation of the Murnau classic.

I juuuuuust so happen to own the double disc of this little baby, having seen it originally on the big screen when released (yes, i'm that old, now piss off).

Much, much better when the actors deliver their lines in their native tongue. Yes. That Herzog guy shot every single scene... twice. In English and in German. Them crazy Krauts... I tell ya...

If you get a chance Bryce, do the German version. Sure, you gotta read the subs, but it def feels like a totally different perfomance when delivered "au naturale".

Go on, you know you want to...

Bryce Wilson said...

Huh. I did watch, the English.

I actually own the Anchor Bay double disc myself (one of their best releases IMO). Though I do agree the German one is superior, the language barrier in the English one gives it a strange "Heart Of Glass" feel. Particularly when they try to arrest Van Helsing, and the townsman points out that just about everyone with authority in the town is dead, there's no police or prison guards to keep him.

Still, I'm curious what my tell was, as far as watching The English Verison goes. I thought I kept it pretty ambiguous. Is there some huge difference I'm forgetting about.

Samuel Wilson said...

I saw the English version too, long ago, and found it interminable. It was the first Herzog I ever saw; I've seen more since and appreciate his tactics now. Another look at either version might be rewarding; knowing the director, I'd guess that the English isn't just some sop to subtitle-phobic Americans but one of his experiments in alienation, as you say.

I was impressed by your comments on the demystification of Orlok by giving him the power of speech. That puts me in mind of Shadow of the Vampire, in which an articulate Orlok/Schreck must himself enact the silent performance of the Murnau film. I don't recall that idea weighing very heavily on the film, but I was too busy being annoyed by its hatchet job (motivated by what?) on poor Murnau.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Sam: Well interestingly enough, the parallel was as stonerphonic pointed out, motivated by, business not art (one of the few cases of that you'll find in Herzog's career). From how I understand the story Fox was cofiancing the picture, and wanted an English version, so Herzog agreed to shoot it for them. But like I said, it does give everything an eerie air so it really worked out well for them.

I think the difference between Dafoe (who I adore) and Kinski, is that Dafoe still plays everything as very sinister and bestial like Shreck. While Kinski, is very enfeebled. Even just walking around the castle feeding Harker dinner, he's moving very slowly, almost arthritic. You almost have to feel sorry for him, and then he LUNGES for the blood. And that repulsion kicks back in.

I do like Shadow for what it is (a canny metaphor about movie making that manages to be pretty funny) even though what it isn't (fair) is all too evident.

stonerphonic said...

@Bryce i know you watched the English. I want you to watch the German again dude!!!

Honest injun, the feel of the acting, the delivery of the script, the whole atmosphere of the film ups the "creep" factor half a dozen notches imho.

The difference is between "ambiguous" and "shining like a 1000 watt globe".

Biba Pickles said...

OMFG Brice! I was just talking about Werner Herzog. Are you a mind reader?

Neil Fulwood said...

As big a Herzog fanboy as I am (dammit, I titled by blog after a Herzog quote), I gotta agree that 'Nosferatu' is glacially paced, particularly in the mid-section.

Still, it's one of Kinski's most controlled and agonising performances, the business with the rats is truly creepy and that opening is about as atmospheric as movies get.

Bryce Wilson said...

@stonerphonic: Fair enough. I'll get back to it ASAP.

@Biba: Yes. Yes I did.

@Neil: Kinski, really makes the movie for me. I mean, he's just so fucking sad. Which isn't something I associate with Kinsey period, let alone when he's playing undead creatures.

That opening though... brrr...