The Dracula Movies #8: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)

10 Jun

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Melancholy and visually captivating, Herzog’s re-make of Marnau’s seminal 1922 classic Nosferatu, certainly sits head and shoulders above the average vampire picture in it’s stylish expressionistic presentation. A far more European take on the tale than most are perhaps used to. Rather than a shot for shot re-make of the earlier film though, Herzog takes the style and content of the 1922 picture and presents it fresh, in colour and with sound. Whereas the earlier film could not explicitly reference Stoker’s novel, here all the character names and events are generally in place, although the look is undeniably Marnau.

However, despite it’s presentation, Nosferatu fails for me through it’s inability to entertain and keep me watching. I found it slow and difficult to engage with. The direction is wonderful, as are the locations (especially Dracula’s castle and the scenes in the mountains. Elsewhere there are some captivating scenes, that could well come from the silent age, such as the sublime shot showing the dead ship’s arrival). But despite all these touches of brilliance, the film consistently failed to touch me. I didn’t even see it in one sitting, and had to go back four times.

Ironically for me then that I did think Klaus Kinski’s performance was actually captivating- and unique as anything else on show. It made me go back and see the film through. His Dracula is a cursed being loathing his existence, who seems resigned to his role in the world, and perhaps driven quietly insane by his curse as well. A gloriously macabre pivotal role, that expands upon Shreck’s more unsympathetic original. Needless to say the great makeup job on Kinski also adds to the performance. This is not a Dracula to charm you- he’s a diseased animal. Other performances were not as enjoyable, and several characters were either overacted or depressingly underplayed (which may have been the point).

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I suspect repeat viewings could endear this film to me more than is currently the case. I found the whole production macabre and creepy, which would normally be a great thing for a Dracula adaptation. However, this version of Nosferatu is also cold and distant, and any potential captivation in its horror feels too far buried beneath clever direction and design to be as captivating as Marnau’s raw original was. There’s something in the style and content that eludes my full approval, but all the same enough that does to convince me that Herzog’s film is a worthy and intelligent addition to the Dracula film legacy. I sense it was trying to pay homage to the 1922 film by presenting a similar version with a more modern appeal. It’s trying to build upon what Marnau did in 1922, rather than go down the route that Todd Browning took in his film, which has become a template for most versions. There are no cloaked and handsome aristocrats here.
I don’t think this is a film to force one’s self through for the sake of a review, as I suspect I may have done to catch up with this series. Some films are like the blood the Count drinks- I suspect they are much more appreciated when slowly savoured. As it stands, I didn’t really enjoy it, but I can certainly see its occasional brilliance.

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