Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Dracula, Bram Stoker's hugely influential novel first published in 1897, could be considered the Hamlet of the horror genre; it's been adapted and remade for both the stage and the silver screen so many times - the Internet Movie Database has at least 200 entries with the word somewhere in a title -  that any adaptation by design, if it is to be successful, must focus less on the story and more on its presentation and style.

The first recognized motion picture of Stoker's novel is Nosferatu (1922), the masterpiece of German Expressionism directed by the great F.W. Murneau. The plot was fairly faithful with some elements stripped down, altered, or removed entirely, but the most notable change came with  the changing of the character names, Dracula now known an Orlock (The result of a lawsuit by Stoker's widow). Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), directed by the mad German director Werner Herzog, is a remake of this earlier version. In this version, because the copyright had expired, Herzog was able to use the original character names from the novel.

Real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) of Wismar, Germany is sent by his boss Renfield (Roland Toper) to Transylvania to complete a transaction for Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Harker meets the count, a ghastly pale and hideous being, and soon finds himself his prisoner. Even more horrifying, Dracula is a vampire, and he feeds on his guest. At the same time, Dracula, because of a portrait in locket, becomes obsessed with Harker's wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) and sets off for Wismar, bringing with him his coffins and plague-carrying rats.

Character's in Herzog movies often find themselves alone in the extremes of nature where a combined sense of awe and despair threatens to envelop and destroy them. Considered the doomed conquistadores searching for the mythical El Dorado in the rainforests of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast of the documentary Grizzly Man who himself was killed by what he loved. Against the power and indifference of nature, what is the strength of man? Herzog's films often display a worldview in which there is no greater nobility or meaning in existence, only chaos and death.

Nosferatu carries a similar philosophy. The vampire here, while definitely a supernatural being who has lived hundreds if not thousands of years, is revealed as a lonely, pitiful creature who longs for companionship and love. Yes, he is a dangerous and powerful predator, but unlike other silver screen bloodsuckers, he is not a dashing, glamorous romantic figure. Much like the rats he brings with him, Dracula is an ugly creature, hidden from the light (figuratively and literally) of civilization until he became a monster. "Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights," he tells Lucy. "Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. Death is not the worst. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities?" He may be immortal and a being superior to humans in a lot of ways, but in his undying existence, Dracula has not found peace, happiness, glory, or power, only darkness.

Herzog's pessimism extends to civilization. In the novel and other adaptations, the character of Professor Van Helsing is portrayed a keen man of science, a rational, modern man capable of analyzing the unknown and developing ways to confront it, a man who makes you feel safe at night. Here, as played by Walter Ladengast, Van Helsing is a befuddled old fool who refuses to consider anything outside the realm of science; instead of confronting the problem, he tries to explain it away. He does not accept the possibility of the supernatural until it is too late. Nor is he alone. When the plague sweeps through Wismar (covering Dracula's reign of terror), law and order all but collapse, and the few survivors descend into partying and merrymaking as they await their deaths, dancing among rats, coffins, and dead horses and ignoring Lucy who tries to get help to fight the vampire.

Vampires have been showcased in just about every genre and style imaginable, from horror to action to comedy to parody to comic book to porn to serious to funny to campy. Herzog's film is unique in that the tone is serious, but it's not a horror movie. Sure, it's unsettling, eerie, and creepy, but Herzog does not film it like a scary movie with things going bump in the night, claws and fangs whooshing in from just out of frame, and Dracula stalking his victims. The pace of the film is slow and dream-like. It's a story told through images of death - the ruins of a castle, mummified bodies, lines and lines of coffins - and foreboding atmosphere - Harker's solitary ride through the mountainous countryside, the ship bearing Dracula's coffins across the sea. Sure, it's easy to get an audience or to gross out a viewer, but to truly haunt them is something all together different.

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