Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

(Nosferatu the Vampyre, West Germany/France - 1979)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor, Walter Ladengast
Genre: Horror
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog based on Bram Stoker's Dracula
Cinematography: Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein
Composer: Popol Vuh
Runtime: 107 minutes

"I am a descendant of an old family. Time is always an abyss profound as 1000 nights. Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. Death is not the worst. There are things more horrible than death. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futile things?" - Count Dracula

Rarely will you find me spending time writing about a remake for they are essentially inferior by design. There are aspects where they can improve upon the original, mainly technically since each year more and more is possible. However, the originality is rarely there. Even though most remakes are not masturbatory exercises like the Gus Van Sant travesty known as Psycho, it's hard to add much in the way of new material because the film's identity has already been established by the original. With his remake, director Werner Herzog certainly intended to pay homage to F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphony des Graunes and the German expressionist movement in general. He was mainly going to stay true to the conventions Nosferatu created for the horror genre, but he also intended to add a lot of depth and dimension to it. The result is something that feels like a different movie because, in spite of many of the basics being very similar, he gives the picture its own mood and make it take on a meaning of it's own.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is not a horror film by most people's definition. It moves slowly. The dialogue is even delivered very softly and deliberately with a sense of pain, emptiness, and loss in the voices. In addition, Nosferatu never really has any action, violence, or gore. The film is rarely boring though because there's a certain hypnotic quality to the exceptional artistry it offers. It's a successful horror because of its foreboding atmosphere. The visuals, performances, settings, mood, and score all add up to a splendorous haunting film.

You'll obviously find it in the horror section (if at all), but Nosferatu is predominantly a tragedy. At the center of the film is Herzog's Best Fiend, the late Klaus Kinski. Although more than ever you wonder how he fathered such a striking daughter as Nastassja, he does not approach the ghastliness of his predecessor Max Schreck's Dracula in spite of a similar yet less abnormal look (Willem Dafoe understandably looks much closer to Murnau's Nosferatu in the very good Shadow of the Vampire). Kinski doesn't need to look as horrific because he is not a vermin, insect, beast, or sadistic monster. That would normally make him a debonair, but that's not the case either. That leaves the nobleman of culture and esteem, but we've just struck out.

Kinski's Dracula is unique. What stands out the most is he's hands down the most cursed vampire. While most films glorify the vampire's immortality, Herzog's film instead focuses on the curse of being undead, a curse that will last until the end of time. Dracula doesn't take pleasure in seducing women, or in anything else for that matter. He is a miserable wretched individual. I've noticed a lot of people complaining about Kinski's fragile frame, but it is actually a plus because he's not supposed to be intimidating. Instead, he's a hollow and soulless individual that wishes someone could break him in two. He exists only on a perfunctory level, repeating his sleep all day and suck some blood at night existence because it's all he can do. He is very lonely, having not had any servants in ages and never getting a visitor because the locals know better and are kind enough to warn the outsiders. On the rare occasion he gets to interact with a human being, he's torn between his desire to be human and his blood sucking instinct. He cannot help himself from breathing heavily at the site of a fresh neck, and has an extremely hard time resisting the urge to take it even though he doesn't want to put an end to his company.

Dracula wants one of two things; give him humanity or give him death. He longs for the things the humans he prays on take for granted, things he cannot have like companionship and love. He'd even like to grow old! His immortality only brings him sadness because he's forever doomed to deprivation. He is an enigmatic character, torn between his lust for humanity and the plight of his existence. This and the overall complexity of his "life" give him a level of intensity that exceeds his bloodsucking peers. In addition, this is the Dracula where you truly feel as sorry, perhaps sorrier, for the vampire than for his victims.

Dracula has such a sad existence that he's not afraid to more or less tell people what he is. He needs someone to talk with that badly, but has nothing else to talk about. He's a philosopher in need of a headshrinker, but his problem is one that can't be fixed. One could say he's also not afraid because he knows they can't do anything about it, but that would miss the point that he would like them to. Sure, even though they can't kill him like he wishes they could try running or something, but they wouldn't get very far since it's miles to any sign of human life. Dracula's primal side is waiting very impatiently to take over as it is, so giving him a reason will only serve to speed up your conversion process. Kinski's gives Dracula an amazing mix of mournful regret and explosive carnality. He might not be the best actor to portray Dracula since Gary Oldman and Willem Dafoe have taken their turns, but certainly he gives the deepest and most memorable performance the horror icon has ever seen.

Dracula's visitor is Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz). He is incredibly oblivious and naïve. He ignores every sign and warning that he shouldn't make this trip and recruit the count to be his new neighbor. His intentions are good. He wants to use the money he'll make on the sale to provide a better life for his incredibly beautiful wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani). Of course, Jonathan doesn't realize that his wife could care less about material goods and only wants to be with him, which his long trip will prevent in more ways than one.

Bruno Ganz is a great choice to play Jonathan. Aside from being a much better actor, he's an actor the audience always connects with and cares about. He's best known for his later role as the angel that wanted to be human in Wim Winders' Wings of Desire. In the original Nosferatu, Gustav von Wangenheim seemed a bit too lame and oblivious to feel too sorry for and you want to laugh at Shadow of the Vampire's Eddie Izzard before he even gives you reason.

Ganz performance is very strong, showing his cluelessness in a way that isn't annoying and then having a more subtle battle between his hopes this trip will provide a better life for his wife and the realization that it will end life as they know it. After he's bitten, he becomes ten times more out of it than he was before. The bite has robbed him of his humanity, so he can only sleepwalk obliviously through his now incredibly shallow and depressing existence. It's also robbed him of his wife, whose undying love remains unflinching even though he no longer knows who she is. The best demonstration of this is the scene where Jonathan returns home to a warm welcome from Lucy, but Ganz looks confused, empty, puzzled, and lost then says, "who is this woman?"

Lucy Harker is Jonathan's pure wife. Her purity is not necessarily a good thing for her though because it's the purity of a baby rather than the purity of a woman. It exists more because there's a void in her life that her husband seems incapable of filling; he has not consummated their marriage. Although Lucy will never love anyone other than Jonathan, this is why she needs Dracula even though this realization terrifies her. Jonathan only attempts to act as Lucy's guardian, while Dracula sees her as a woman and a lover. The ideal combination of the two of them could make her whole, but Dracula's condition is such that he can't love a woman and can't replace a man without destroying his very essence, his humanity.

Isabelle Adjani's ethereal beauty punctuates her ghostlike performance as Lucy. I'm used to Adjani's vehicles where she overshadows even the likes of Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu. This however is a far more reserved albeit less confident performance because her character is incomplete, empty, and unfulfilled. She seems distant, disconnected from the rest of the clueless town that treats her like a fragile child who is too young to understand what's really going on. Her character grows by far the most of any in the movie out of necessity. Although she is unsuccessful in waking the people around her up, she finally takes control of her life. Unfortunately, life is also the price she must pay.

The film is compassionate to all its characters. Even Doctor Von Helsing (Walter Ladengast), whose science is constantly wrong, is someone whose problems are real and that we can feel sorry for. He clings to his beliefs because he believes they are grounded in fact and logic, but they blind him to what's actually going on. In many ways he's very similar to Jonathan, thinking he's on top of things and doing the right thing, but actually it's just the opposite. Even though he hasn't been bitten, he's actually not even that much livelier.

Herzog's version may not be credited with inventing any techniques, but he reaches if not exceeds the exceptional level of artistry displayed by Murnau. The film is exquisitely filmed, contrasting the beauty of the settings with a pale color palette and occasionally vice versa. A lesser director would have given us lush photography, especially during Jonathan's classic 10 minute long journey through the Carpathian Mountains to Dracula's castle, but Nosferatu is a film of mood. It's cold and hopeless because of the impending doom during the early scenes and then obviously "the plague" when Dracula travels to Virna.

Very few scenes are shot conventionally, with most not only showing technical mastery but also a great deal of imagination. Some of my favorite shots include Dracula hovering over the ship he's about to "plague" and the seemingly inverted frame that turns out to be reflection from the water of Lucy sleepwalking in terror because hundreds of miles away Dracula is devouring her husband.

Any number of scenes could be considered classics, but there's a few that in my opinion stand above the rest. The bleak opening sets the tone for the entire piece. We see several sickly skulls, mostly of children, that are the remains of the last village Nosferatu and the rats that come with him destroyed. This is made more horrifying by the fact that some have withered versions of their cute little hats and shoes on. Although it's not dressed, the first skeleton we see is probably the one that startles us the most because it looks like Yoda died screaming for help. The soundtrack is equally brilliant, with a human heart throbbing over eerie gothic music. After a cut to a slow motion sequence of a bat flying set against a blue tinted night sky that signifies Count Dracula journeying to the next land he'll leave in such shambles, we suddenly understand the source of the racing heart when we see a pale as a sheet Lucy wake up screaming from her nightmare and a bat fly through her open window. The scene establishes the psychosexual link between Lucy and Dracula, and sets her up to be the only one to understand the real cause of the forthcoming plague. Doom is foreshadowed after the nightmare when we switch from the latest place Nosferatu left in ruins to Lucy's town, where we hear sweet lyrical music as kittens play with Jonathan's necklace that has Lucy's picture in it.

After failing to talk Jonathan out of going to Dracula's because she has an awful feeling that he'll be in danger, Lucy gets Jonathan to spend some time with her by the sea. This is all Lucy wants ever from her husband, but Jonathan never has time because he's always busy working to provide the material goods that don't interest her. The scene almost seems like a dream sequence except it's much too cold and Lucy can't be happy because she is unable to prevent her stubborn husband from embarking on a journey they'll both regret. It's shot as a distant wide angle where they walk away from the stationary camera. Although we associate the beach with fun in the sun, we get a virtually colorless scene where almost everything is a pale washed out unpleasant shade of gray. They have their arms around each other, but with the wind blowing so heavily one gets the sense that Jonathan only holds Lucy because he feels it's his duty to keep her warm. There's always that distance in their relationship. In the two closer angles, we see Lucy snug her head on Jonathan's shoulder, but Jonathan doesn't respond to this at all. He's incapable of showing any affection, instead taking a fatherly role that doesn't allow him to respect Lucy in a way where he can trust her judgement about the trip.

The film contains one of the tensest scenes I've ever witnessed. Right after finishing his long and tiring journey, Dracula serves his guest dinner. Jonathan tries to act normal in spite of being horrified by this pale as could be clawfingered incarnation. Meanwhile, Dracula's eyes are fixated on his new prey. He tries to show some reserve as Jonathan makes a sales pitch he doesn't need to make because there are plenty more necks where Jonathan came from. However, in spite of Dracula's subtle head movements, Jonathan can't help but notice he's being scoped down. Suddenly, the coolest clock in history begins to chime as the midnight hour strikes. This thing has to be seen to be believed. It has a human skull on the top that opens up where the forehead was and a smaller skull worker pops out and hits something in his hand at every beat. As this is going on doors open in the front of the clock and another skull figure exits the left one and enters the right after passing by some sort of lizard. As the doors quickly shut on this skull at the 12th chime, the skull on top crashes shut. Between the vampire and his clock, Jonathan is so disturbed and distracted that he cuts through his bread all the way to his finger. Dracula immediately locks in on the blood and utters on of the funniest come-ons ever, "The knife is old. It could be dirty. It could give you blood poisoning. Please, let me do it. It's the oldest remedy in the world" as he tries to suck the four drops of blood that have come out of Jonathan's thumb. Jonathan tries to talk Dracula out of it saying it's hardly worth mentioning. Dracula turns around slowly groaning in disappointment, but immediately whips his body back around, seizes Jonathan's hand, and starts sucking for all he's worth until Jonathan pulls his hand away. Dracula, breathing heavily, says, "you know it's only for the best." Again, Dracula considers leaving perhaps the only guest he'll have in the next decade alone. They just stare at each other, neither knowing what to say, until Dracula's primal instinct becomes too great and he bashes a chair between them aside and slowly backs Jonathan across the room. What I love about Kinski's performance here is how he lunges his head forward with each step, but is always able to restrain from the neck attack. Ganz is scared shitless, turning his head left and right in his best attempt to make like he doesn't notice that something is very wrong with his host, who continually picks up the pace of his stalking. Ganz stumbles backwards until he falls into a chair where he sits petrified as Kinski hunches over him. Ganz is saved for the time being because Kinski is so lonely he is able to calm his heavy breathing, disengage before the fatal bite, and suggest they sit up for a while. Ganz is relieved enough to start breathing again, but too shocked to say anything the rest of the scene. Of course, in spite of being driven to the point where he's lucky he has a strong heart, Jonathan doesn't consider leaving the castle and is even able to fall asleep.

Another brilliant display of horror is the scene where Dracula sneaks into Lucy's room while she's doing her hair. Herzog could have simply recreated the famous scene of Schreck's shadow creeping up the stairs, but throughout the film he constantly chose to provide original and artistic scenes that are along that same lines as the original so both would be must see films. We see the back of Lucy's head as she's playing with her beautiful long hair in the mirror. As the door slowly creaks open and the shadow (from a wall since Dracula casts no reflection) of a large head emerges in the mirror, her eyes bug out like they do when she dreams of Dracula, but this time it's real. What's cool about Dracula's entrance is his shadow disappears behind Lucy's head as he door closes. For a second we think maybe he was only looking in on Lucy, but then his shadow reemerges in front of the closed door. We hear his heavy breathing and see his long clawed fingers coming up behind her head. Lucy tries to make it look like she's still adjusting her hair, but really what she's trying to do is bring her hands up to guard her neck, not that it would do much good. When it looks like Dracula is upon her, his shadow again disappears from the mirror. However, a shadow of a claw quickly emerges into the right of the screen and Dracula soon appears in front of Lucy, introducing himself and asking her to excuse his rude entrance. The scene shows that Lucy is stronger and more knowledgeable than Jonathan is. Although she lets out a small scream of surprise, she is able to function fairly normally in Dracula's presence. Her first ever words to the count are "I know of you from Jonathan's diary. Since he has been with you, he is ruined." By the end of their conversation where she turns Dracula's sexual advances down, she has worked up the resolve and bravery to taunt him by pushing her hair off her neck.

The difference between the two of the three best vampire movies of the 1970's (Martin being the other), Nosferatu the Vampire and Tobe Hooper's very good Salem's Lot, can be summed up by comparing this scene to the scene where vampires are crawling up behind Lance Kerwin while David Soul is trying to stake their master in the heart. Hooper's scene is a good deal scarier. What makes it so creepy is the audience knows their hero(s) could be victimized momentarily, but the hero(s) have no clue of the impending danger. Herzog's scene is much more meticulously framed, stylishly presented, and leads into a thought provoking discussion about the death, love, and what it really means for either to die.

The biggest difference between Murnau and Herzog's versions of Bram Stoker's Dracula is Herzog has not excluded religion like Murnau did. Lucy ("god is so far from us in the hour of distress") doesn't put much faith in god, unlike the clueless townspeople who think they've been plagued. Some of Adjani's best scenes in the film, the ones where she gets to be determined and forceful in trying to wield the power of logic over the people who consider her a fragile loon, are trying to convince the hypocritical townspeople (they have much faith they are leaving in droves) and Dr. Von Helsing (he claims her superstitions have been revoked by science) that Dracula is the cause of all the death and suffering. Even the scientist Von Helsing tells Lucy to have faith, for which she gives the classic reply, "faith is the amazing faculty of man which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue."

The film obviously is not perfect. Dracula's death from being exposed to the sunlight is a big letdown, probably the visual low point of the visually oriented tale. Even though it's wrongly accused of being too slow by impatient viewers who can't appreciate the painstaking detail Kinski has put into each frame that builds anticipation and creates a powerful atmosphere, one can't deny that the film occasionally gets sidetracked and does drag in certain points like the journey back from the Carpathians. Finally, the emotional impact of the ending is questionable, as it arguably tacks on unnecessary scenes that reduce the power of Lucy's great sacrifice for humanity. However, the intelligence and depth of the story combined with the exceptional production and strong performances make Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht the best of the modern vampire movies.


Gift Set DVD
Gift Set DVD


* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *