Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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*. Herzog just has an eye for visual themes, a sensitivity to the found poetry of the image. Why should a bunch of Mexican mummies (the mummies of Guanajuato) work so perfectly as an intro to a movie about a Transylvanian vampire? Just because of the way they look. I assume that as they’re used here they’re meant to be the desiccated corpses of Dracula’s victims, but they are never actually explained, and don’t need to be.
*. There’s an interesting bit of genealogy behind this film. Herzog thought Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu “the very best German film ever,” “the most important film made in Germany.” This film was thus an act of homage — it was not, in Herzog’s mind, a remake — to the grandfathers of German film (grandfathers because the generation of fathers had been erased).
*. Despite the extent of Murnau’s influence, Herzog makes some startling remarks on the commentary where he seems to be unconscious of significant parts of the earlier film (the funeral procession scene, for example). Of course it may be that he had just internalized all of it and was unconscious of his borrowing.
*. Also on the commentary is Herzog’s claim that he has never seen the Lugosi Dracula. Amazing.
*. Murnau had a reputation as a painterly filmmaker and Herzog picks up on this and runs with it. You can’t help thinking of Vermeer when watching Murnau, but you can’t help seeing Vermeer here.
*. The dominant colour motifs are black and white, both of which really are colours in this case. The range of tones is remarkable. The vampires (Dracula and Harker) look unhealthily white, and Dracula in particular is set off against various blacks, his head almost floating above his cloak like a white blob. Lucy, on the other hand, looks like she’s made of porcelain and is pale as a ghost, but in a way expressive of purity. She often appears as white on white on white.

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*. Just look at the scene where Dracula suckles on Lucy the whole night long. It’s a dark scene but it seems lit from within by all those shades of white: the pale faces, the blankets, her nightdress, the pitcher, the walls, the candles, the curtains. It’s a Whistler symphony.

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*. Herzog thought Murnau’s vampire to be too much “like an insect.” He wanted Kinski to have a soul, to be human and feel human emotions. And what a fascinating idea it was to have a depressed vampire. I wonder if this says something about the ’70s. It’s a sensibility you don’t get in any previous versions of the story that I’m aware of. Even the dying town is a downer, and the ending is unprecedented in its all-around unhappiness.
*. Shot on the cheap, and looks better for it. A low budget seems to help some historical pieces. The past was a low budget time, and when it’s filmed that way it lends authenticity to the proceedings.
*. Why are the town elders surprised and panicked to find a reference to the plague in the captain’s journal? The spread of the plague had been reported in newspapers that Renfield was reading. Rats were all over the ship. What else did they think had happened?
*. Filmed in both English and German versions, which probably wasn’t too difficult as there’s not a lot of important dialogue. As with Aguirre, this could have been a silent film. Because Herzog was a German filmmaker with an eye on the American market? Or just because dialogue doesn’t interest him that much? I think mainly the latter.
*. Herzog frequently adverts to having his actors just hold a pose, not wanting them to even try to act. Another partial nod to the silent tradition.
*. I’ve always thought Kinski was a natural silent film actor, so he’s in his element here. And he pulls it off by underplaying the part, at Herzog’s insistence.

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*. It’s not a scary movie. Murnau’s version was scarier. There are no frightening scenes at all, and Herzog appears to have deliberately eschewed the most frightening moments in the 1922 film. We never go below decks with Dracula on the ship, for example.
*. Popol Vuh came through with a great score: very simple and foreboding, built around a dirge-like moaning. Florian Fricke and Herzog just seem to go together, like . . . Herzog and Kinski.
*. The thousands of rats were an infamous disaster. I don’t know why Herzog bothered. In Stoker’s novel Dracula jumps off the ship as a dog. That might have been scarier, and a whole lot easier to shoot.
*. The shot where Dracula enters Lucy’s room behind her, opening and closing the door and having his shadow appear but without a reflection in the mirror, was a complicated one and quite effective until the end, when he is clearly visible in the mirror. It’s impossible to miss, and hard to figure why Herzog didn’t work around it or cut it out.
*. I love Isabelle Adjani’s look. But as far as acting goes, she mainly seems intent on just seeing how wide she can keep her eyes for long periods of time. The whites of her eyes are another bit of pale in Herzog’s palette.
*. Van Helsing is almost as useless here as he is in Murnau’s film. He’s an enlightened man and doesn’t believe in vampires. He also seems old and frail, and offers up platitudes that suggest senility. Even his role at the end is perfunctory and unnecessary. It’s interesting that when Norman Hill asks Herzog about this on the commentary, noting the unimportance of his Van Helsing, Herzog is totally silent, offering no response at all.
*. If I had to answer Hill, I would say that Van Helsing’s very uselessness is the point. He’s there to show how isolated, how much on her own, Lucy is.
*. Harker going to Transylvania is much like Aguirre heading down the Amazon or the Grizzly Man entering the wild: man, alone, going into a nature that is both beautiful and deadly. We can’t fight what we find there, and end up merely absorbed by it: swallowed by the jungle, eaten by a bear, transformed into a vampire and then disappearing into the haze like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, only in reverse.

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