Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic ‘Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens’ (‘Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors’ is basically an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ but with a different title, Van Helsing written out of the story and name of the vampire changed from Count Dracula to Count Orlok. The fact that Stoker’s novel was still in copyright at the time accounts for these changes.

‘Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens’ is still an incredibly creepy film, eighty-five years after it was made; like Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932), it retains an immediacy, a power to shock. The key element in Murnau’s film is the casting of the appropriately named Max Schreck (his surname is German for ‘terror’): bald, hollow-eyed, a rat-like mouth and bat-like ears, fingernails like a prototype Freddie Krueger, his appearance is genuinely unsettling.

There is a tradition in cinema of the vampire as suave and aristocratic. Not in German cinema, though. In German cinema the vampire is the stuff of nightmare. There was only ever going to be one casting option for the remake.
Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Klaus!

Kinski’s ‘look’ in the film is one of several direct quotations from Murnau’s original: there’s also the iconic image of a deformed shadow creeping across a wall, as well as a scene the vampire rising from his coffin to stalk the empty decks of a ship by night (the fast clipper with its bustling crew has become a ghost ship by the time it makes land).

Elsewhere, however, it’s pure Herzog. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz)’s journey to Castle Dracula is a study in landscapes. His arrival by night is strikingly lit, a visual hyper-stylization that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dario Argento movie. Harker encounters suspicious innkeepers and superstitious gypsies (and with good reason), and finally Dracula himself. These scenes are effective slices of gothic, and contrast well with almost clinical neatness of Delft, where the second half of the film is set.

Herzog restores the name Dracula to the character, as well as bringing Van Helsing back into the picture. Interestingly, though, Van Helsing is portrayed not as a dedicated vampire-hunter but a non-superstitious man of science. Herzog also deviates from Stoker’s archetypes with Harker who, after his against-the-clock race back from Castle Dracula, arrives in Delft delirious and unable to recognise his wife. Dracula, meanwhile, recognises her only too well.

Dracula goes to Delft in pursuit of Mina Harker (Isabelle Adjani), his desire for her terrible yet strangely poignant. He brings with him a plague of rats. The town is overrun. The council flees its crisis meeting. Order crumbles. A group of wealthy merchants, infected and resigned to their inevitable fate, hold a massive valedictory feast in the rat-strewn town square. This scene in particular – reminiscent of the monkeys swarming over Aguirre’s raft in ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ – marks out ‘Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht’ as unforgettably Herzog.

Image is of primary importance in telling the story: Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, a frequent Herzog collaborator, was cinematographer. Cast-wise, Bruno Ganz gives a straightforward performance as Harker, writer and occasional actor Roland Topor steals every scene he’s in as a manic, giggling Renfield, and only Isabelle Adjani seems at a loss, given little to do but look wan and romantic as Mina. But it’s Kinski who stays in the memory, even though he has only twenty minutes’ screen time. Appropriately enough, he casts a shadow that permeates the whole film.

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