Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 20 
16 Dec
2002

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Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979) HORROR
An adaptation with fangs
Werner Herzog's
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
(Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979)

Detailing the cultural background, production history, and critical reception of Herzog's Nosferatu remake, Garrett Chaffin-Quiray explains the film's complex relationship to the horror genre while providing insight into the filmmaker's "purposefully austere aspiration to beauty."


Strangeness has always been Herzog's major theme. A friend of mine once told me that she heard Herzog claim he wanted the world to appear in his films as it would to a Martian who just arrived on Earth. His method for achieving this is incongruity. [1]
A view from today

On 26 October 2002 I visited Manhattan's Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine for the "Halloween Extravaganza & Procession of Ghouls." An annual production, the conclusion of the night's program was a puppet parade. Directly preceding this exhibition, though, was a screening of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1922 classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors) with a live organ accompaniment.

Having previously seen Murnau's film, I anticipated a creaking relic of histrionic acting and anachronistic special effects. Indeed, I watched the film while listening to alternating snickers of disappointment and simultaneous thrills of wonder in a crowd several hundred strong. As a result, I was reminded of the importance of context concerning Nosferatu with some eighty years having passed between now and its original release.

Subsequently I binged on all things of unholy origin. I read reviews, fingered library books and compared images handed down through a lifetime spent consuming vampire movies. In so doing, I completed the Nosferatu trifecta.

After attending the Cathedral Church screening, but only after reading Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, I watched Werner Herzog's 1979 adaptation, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht and finished off with E Elias Merhige's insider-peek-cum-alternative-history, Shadow of the Vampire (2000). What follows, then, is the result of my dive into the subject at hand.

Frames of reference

What we recognise as das neue Kino, or the New German Cinema, was a movement born from generational conflict. Following Germany's defeat in World War II, the coherence of its national identity was split among occupying allied powers, just as the country was riven with foreign cultural products, sold piecemeal to external combines and dwarfed by memories of its former status under Adolph Hitler.

Along with the rapid Americanisation of West Germany confronting Soviet-styled East Germany, there was a coincident malaise about the unassimilated Nazi past, the "unbewältige Vergangenheit." Turning the war generation against its offspring, another baby boom, Germany's future was a portrait of contradiction, not least because the Holocaust prosecuted during the war led directly to the post-war Economic Miracle.

German cinema, itself a reflection of national sensibilities, exhibited these tensions on-screen. Decimated by an exhausting war effort, filmmakers in the 1940s largely produced works of narrow interest. Continental development and the popularity of television expanded the canvas just as a backlash against Hollywood's control over local movies was unleashed.

At the Oberhausen Film Festival of 1962, "an acute sense of alienation and anomie"[2] bubbled to the surface. Alexander Kluge and Norbert KŸckelmann, both filmmakers and spokesmen for the unrest, shaped the moment and lambasted the conventional system. One result was the Oberhausen Manifesto aimed at disrupting then-current cinematic practice.

Finding American dollars easy to secure for distribution and exhibition channels, though not for investment in local movie production, the Oberhausen group envisioned a way out from under their cultural colonisation. Lobbying the Budestag, or West German parliament, they successfully set up the Koratorium Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Film Board), to support funding and distribution of members' work along with establishing film schools in Munich and Berlin and an archive in Berlin. From 1965-1968, the Koratorium supported the debut of several dozen new filmmakers. Yet the fundamentally inconsistent source of film finance continued to haunt das neue Kino.

One method to solve the problem was the Film Förderungsanstalt (FFA), which gave money to film producers according to fairly loose standards and which led to soft-core porn and sex comedies. The second method was an FFA reform, the Filmberlad der Autoren (Author's Film-Publishing Group), a private company intended to distribute members' films with monies collected from television network subsidies and tithes, and to ensure artistic products with careful sponsorship. A fertile period resulted and the world was introduced to filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, although they were typically only celebrated abroad in countries like France and America.

The youngest of these prominent three, Wenders, was born on 14 August 1945. Stylistically his work tends to blend Hollywood genres while thematically exploring the Americanisation of post-war Germany in pictures like Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, 1977) and Der Himmel Ÿber Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987).

Fassbinder, the middle child whose death is commonly regarded as the end of das neue Kino, was born on 31 May 1945 and overdosed on 10 June 1982. Multi-generic in scope, his movies reference 1950s Hollywood melodramas overlaid with spot-on social criticism. Detractors malign his prolific output as indistinguishable from Hollywood's conventions while admirers argue he both satisfies and subverts spectatorial expectations in films such as Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) and Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978).

Herzog, the oldest of the trio, was born Werner Stipetic on 5 September 1942. A "holy fool," [3] he possesses a legendary need to confront danger. His well-documented production difficulties forever shadow his work, in which fans admire grand landscapes and enigmatic heroes while detractors see self-indulgence, recklessness and failure of storytelling.

Though his biography is riddled with hyperbole, the general facts suggest he grew up in a remote Bavarian village, wrote his first script at 15 and made his first short film at 17. To earn money he worked blue-collar jobs. Eventually he earned a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied film and television. In 1964 he won the Carl Mayer Prize for promising screenplays, finally making his feature debut four years later with Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life, 1968).

During this period, vacillating (as the rest of his career always has) between documentary impulses, poetic grandeur and epic journeys into the souls of madmen, Herzog offered a pithy aphorism about the cinema for which he is famous: "Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates." [4] Such an idea is useful for unpacking Herzog's fascination with Murnau's silent classic.

Cognisant of his fame, with its particular focus after Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1974), Herzog recognised the shifting climate of film finance and production. Namely, "a major problem for the filmmakers of das neue Kino was distribution. While the Film Subsidies Board generously supported independent production of all sorts, the films of the New German Cinema grew too elaborate and too numerous for the exhibition outlets available to them." [5] To fill the void and continue making movies, many enterprising, even exploitive, filmmakers like Herzog cultivated international co-financing deals coupled with certain artistic concessions, especially yoked to Hollywood. As Timothy Corrigan writes,

The connection with the Hollywood circuit and the audience it controls throughout the world is...a crucial dimension not only of Herzog's work but of the entire New German Cinema. As much as its filmmakers were nurtured by their strained relation with their pre-war forefathers like Lang and Murnau, the historical and economic roots of contemporary German film were, formed during the postwar 1950s when American occupation of West Germany fostered a peculiarly displaced relation between the two cultures. [6]

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979)Enter Nosferatu, a recognised title in the cinematic pantheon, a European co-production between Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Gaumont and ZDF, and with a fully enabled distribution channel provided by Twentieth Century Fox.

The boon was a production budget of DEM 2.5 million (USD 1.4 million), the biggest in Herzog's career to that time, [7] along with an international release to existing syndicates and a cast and crew ready to risk the remake. The sufferance, however, was a dual-language production shot simultaneously in English and German, maintenance of the irascible Klaus Kinski as star and an ongoing struggle to live up to Murnau's original upon which Herzog's picture could be pilloried.

Child of the night

Unable to shoot in Bremen, as Murnau did in 1922, Herzog contracted the Dutch town of Delft. Embittered over memories of Nazi occupation, though, the Delft citizenry were less than enthusiastic about hosting a German production crew. When Herzog finally announced plans to release 11,000 rats for a particularly important scene, Delft's city fathers refused him after citing their extensive efforts to rid the city of vermin. Inconvenienced, Herzog moved his production, along with its Hungarian-bred white lab rats painted gray for the sake of realism, to the more accommodating Dutch city of Schiedam.

At the same time, Kinski was enduring several hours of daily make-up to enliven his part as Count Dracula, although he was also weathering a personal hell. Estranged from his third wife, he laboured under the knowledge she was about to divorce him, taking with her their son. Everywhere mythologised as being wildly manic in his habits, Herzog managed to help channel his star's private pain into a form of helplessness more conducive to the part.

The resulting film is not a clear copy of its source, though it does offer an occasional shot-for-shot echo. "It is an homage to the 1922 Murnau classic of the same name, from which it is freely adapted, and is thereby a tribute to the purity of vision of the silent cinema and also a lament of the loss of innocence represented by Bram Stoker's original 1897 novel, 'Dracula.'"[8] Developing the idea of lost innocence, Herzog's version makes a careful nod to female empowerment, offers a dystopian finale suggesting total failure and employs the relative richness of colour film stock and a recorded soundtrack.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979)Opening in Wismar, we meet Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a property clerk newly wed to Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), for whom he wishes to provide a comfortable home. When a large commission is offered to him for transacting with the far-off Count Dracula (Kinski), Jonathan eagerly accepts the job.

After an arduous month traveling through the Carpathian Mountains, he stops at a roadside inn for refreshment before meeting the Count. Mentioning his client by name, the establishment falls silent before Jonathan listens to rumors of Nosferatu. He discounts such talk as peasantry run amuck and soon meets the Count, a lonely and unloved "man." Very quickly, Dracula becomes fascinated by a photograph of Lucy and accepts Jonathan's offered property, which makes them neighbours. Long nights ensue and the Count begins feasting on his clerk before sailing for Wismar, bringing with him death and the plague in an army of rats.

Jonathan belatedly realises Dracula's threat but loses his memory while returning home because he is gradually stricken with vampirism. Arriving after the plague has already been loosed, bodies pile up in the city square and Jonathan is delivered into Lucy's care, vegetative and absent of any love for his bride.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979)Faced with the destruction of her world, Lucy contacts Dr Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) requesting help, but is ultimately forced to act alone. She researches Dracula's whereabouts and uncovers his weaknesses, killing him through self-sacrifice as a sensual meal under the cast of morning sunlight. Unfortunately, Jonathan is already made the Count's successor and is last seen riding into the stretch of tomorrow, unmarked by his past life or the original ambition that drove him to the Count in the first place.

Then versus now

Enjoying a debut in Paris on 10 January 1979, Nosferatu was a mixed viewing experience. Though it received the Berlin International Film Festival's Silver Bear for Outstanding Single Achievement in production design for Henning von Gierke and a nomination for the Golden Bear for Herzog, and though Kinski received a German Film Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in acting, critics and viewers alike were troubled by the picture.

Perhaps best summarising the issue, William Wolf wrote, "Unquestionably Herzog's version is a stylistic triumph. But do we need yet another encounter with the count?" [9] Vincent Canby echoed the sentiment and wrote, "Mr Herzog has done what he set out to do, but when you come right down to it, one wonders if it's worth the trouble. Dracula, after all, is not Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He's not some profoundly complex character who speaks to us in more voices than most of us care to hear. Dracula is Santa Claus turned mean. He's a fairy-tale character. Though he represents something vestigially scary, he's not endlessly interesting." [10]

Given these indirectly complimentary remarks responding to a late-1970s spate of vampire motion pictures (including John Badham's Dracula [1979] and Stan Dagoti's Love at First Bite [1979]), and a certain reverence towards Murnau's original, the critical reaction divided among those preferring 1922's version to that of 1979. Pondering the adaptation, Ernest Leogrande asked, "What was its special fascination for Herzog?" [11] before serving judgement: "Murnau's version still stands above Herzog's. The 1922 movie is a tidy little package that causes viewers to marvel at the sophistication of its technique even when they're laughing at the broad-stroke silent movie acting, acting that incidentally adds to he movie's charm." [12]

His pleasure at outmoded acting styles notwithstanding, Donald Barthelme roughly agreed, writing, "The problem here is that Herzog was unable to bring new life to his much-handled material." [13] "But comparisons are unnecessary in sizing up this new Dracula tale as a major disappointment, often pictorially striking but singularly unengrossing," [14] continued a Variety reviewer who equally placed the film in a wider social context. "The renewed vogue for Dracula vehicles will give Herzog's film a certain commercial success, though there will undoubtedly be many disappointed spectators. Herzog is being true only to himself, which will continue to delight his followers and further alienate his detractors." [15]

Yet while detractors clung to artistic primacy in Murnau, or else to a general dislike of Herzog due to an avoidance of horror film tropes conventionalised in the 1970s-including gore, jarring soundtracks and fast editing for kinesis-fans like David Denby perceptively gathered how "the young German director has made not a conventional horror film (there are no shocks) but an anguished poem of death." [16] Herzog's undead monster is a threatening force from the deep well of Nature, even as he is an obviously self-centred killer of men. But he is also a deeply sympathetic monster spurned by a blood lust of unusual proportion and buoyed by the desire to die while lacking any method for accomplishing that end.

For Jack Kroll, "When the Dracula figure lurches ashore in FW Murnau's classic 1922 'Nosferatu,' carrying his coffin filled with native earth, it was a chilling premonition of Hitler's imperialism of death, the desire to necropolize the world. Following Murnau, Herzog's 'Nosferatu' mixes such resonances with a surprisingly successful attempt to humanize Dracula." [17] It follows that Herzog's film "can...be appreciated as a contemplative work of art rather than as a horror thriller, which it is not," [18] because "the familiar becomes arrestingly odd; ineffable mystery is presented as the basic of condition of human life." [19]

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979)Associative editing practices display this mystery in connecting Lucy with Dracula, her nightmares of flying bats to his hunger suggested in the shadow play of his fingertips. Beauty thus inscribes the beast who, for all his cruelty and deathly intentions, wishes only to ingratiate himself to the ethereal woman (Adjani) and receive her honest affection. "Where the nightmare exaggerations of Murnau, preditary [sic] wolves, Venus flytraps, the rat-like vampire and his kingdom of vermin are easily recuperated into a scheme of symbols for a repressed but vital Nature, Herzog's expressionism is pure spirit, a sulfuric image of hell." [20] Though readable as a continuous symptom of the unassimilated Nazi past, the always-already present capacity of evil, symbolised by Dracula, is a condition defining the goodness of humanity, as attributed to Lucy.

What detractors and supporters both remark on is the powerful use of images in the film. Arguments about the superiority or inferiority of Herzog's production are interesting conversation pieces. Typically burdened by tautological assumptions, however, little can be gleaned from such comparison since the real value of panning or praising it comes from noting what it succeeds at over and above what was possible in Murnau's moment.

Reflecting on the Count

Critic John Azzopardi has claimed that Herzog's Nosferatu is, "one of the greatest horror films ever made." [21] Though clearly a judgement call, his remark has merit, especially when one considers the picture itself and in particular the cinematography of Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Rich in the distinctions of dull colours bleeding between light brown, yellow, white and occasional splashes of blue, Herzog's picture moves through Wismar into Transylvania with an accompanying change in palate. Colours grow darker, red appears, the Count dominates the screen and time slows to long takes of shadow and inexplicable shapes in the night.

Also, none of what appears in the film is precisely horrific. At least not in the way of nightmares or much of what audiences and critics expected of any self-titled horror movie in 1979. Still, Kinski's performance, surely one of the richest of his career, is both nuanced and other. Dracula is obviously pained by his very existence, but like any animal capable of surviving the gaps between discomfort and salvation, he consumes his way through the lack of love and is finally ground up in the sacrifice of an innocent equal to his evil incarnate.

While a symptomatic reading yields the vampire as analogous to das neue Kino's relationship with Hollywood, one of endless colonisation and co-optation of changing local circumstances to its own end, I think such a reading is off the deep end. So too is the implicit lesson of how primal human nature can be perpetually tamed by virgin sacrifice. Even notions about how unbewältige Vergangenheit appears within the text, informing characterisation, is far-fetched since the film responds more to the socio-cultural conditions of the 1970s than it does to World War II, or even to the post-World War I moment that offered Murnau his inspiration.

Instead, what I find most rewarding is the visual, and to a lesser extent aural, wash that is Nosferatu's overall affect. Because art for its own sake is often a dead end, Herzog's purposefully austere aspiration to beauty still trades on generic expectation to offer familiar, though slightly unconventional thrills.

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979)Remembering his attitude about the cinema being meant for illiterate spectators, the motive for a slow-moving spectacle seems obvious. Images appear and linger, eliciting a visceral reaction without having to support cause and effect. Throughout the film, visual storytelling takes centre stage away from a more literary approach because the script is deliberately slim. By capitalising on a well-known narrative, the plot is thus everywhere revealed through action, movement and the constantly changing colouring, lighting and emotional pattern of the cinematic canvas.

In short, the effort to transport an audience into the space of reflection and wonder is what makes Herzog's adaptation of Stoker's monster via Murnau's camera into something of value. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the dominant image of the film, indeed of the entire Stoker-derived vampire franchise. When Kinski's tortured monster first appears, but even more impressively when he hunts Lucy in her bedroom, he becomes one of the master icons of the cinema. His extended fingertips and open mouth outline his monstrosity turned into familiar desire and materialise our repressed fantasies, neither spoken nor dictated in everyday life. As a result, Nosferatu is part of us and Herzog's film reflects on this condition with impressive vigour.

Garrett Chaffin-Quiray

Also of interest

Kinoeye articles on the legacy of Europe's Nazi past as a horror motif:

See also:

About the author

Garrett Chaffin-Quiray was educated at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. Having sponsored a film festival, taught courses on TV and cinema history and published variously, his research interests include pornography, American cinema and the 1970s. He is also a novelist and former information technologist.


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Footnotes

1.Noël Carroll, "Creatures of the Night." The Echo Weekly News (11 October 1979): 35.return to text

2.David A Cook, A History of Narrative Film (3rd ed) (New York & London: WW Norton & Company, 1996), 661.return to text

3.David Robinson, The History of World Cinema (revised and updated ed) (New York: Stein and Day, 1981), 375. return to text

4. Alan Greenberg, Herbert Achternbush and Werner Herzog, Heart of Glass (Munich: Skellig, 1976), 174. return to text

5. Cook, 681.return to text

6. The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, ed Timothy Corrigan (New York and London: Methuen, 1986), 7.return to text

7. Ibid, 217.return to text

8. Kevin Thomas, "New 'Nosferatu' a Tribute to Murnau." Los Angeles Times (29 October 1979): D35.return to text

9.William Wolf, "Nosferatu, the Vampyre." Cue New York (26 October 1979): 19.return to text

10. Vincent Canby, "Screen: 'Nosferatu,' Herzog's Dracula." New York Times (1 October 1979): C15.return to text

11. Ernest Leogrande, "The chills are hollow." New York Daily News (4 October 1979): 87.return to text

12. Ibid.return to text

13. Donald Barthelme, "Nosferatu." The New Yorker (15 October 1979): 182-84 (184).return to text

14.Variety, "'Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht' ('Nosferatu, The Vampire')" (24 January 1979): 23.return to text

15.Ibid.return to text

16.David Denby, "Nosferatu." New York (22 October 1979): 89.return to text

17.Jack Kroll, "Thinking Man's Count Dracula." Newsweek (15 October 1979): 133.return to text

18. Andrew Sarris, "The Real McCoy." The Village Voice (8 October 1979): 40.return to text

19.Carroll, 35.return to text

20. John Azzopardi,"Herzog: Last Breath Of German Expressionism." Chelsea News (18 October 1979): 11. The writer's choice of spelling is quoted intact.return to text

21.Ibid.return to text

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