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.