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Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) – The Unwanted Guest

June 22, 2009

There is no greater testament to the evolving nature of genre than the Vampire.  Once upon a time, the vampire was the poster boy of the gothic romance.  He stood for the dark side of the Victorian heart; The swarthy foreigner whose powers of evil and sensuality lured upstanding Victorian women to their fall not through force but through mesmerising gazes and hushed words.  The horrifying nature of the Vampire lay in his mastery over the very elements of human nature that Victorian society sought to deny.  His was the worst kind of evil.  The evil that one wanted to give in to.  As society changed and cultural attitudes shifted, the Vampire’s evil seemed to dim.  As Horror peeled away from the gothic and what remained sank back down into Romance, the Vampire changed from a dangerous sensual evil into the kind of sensual creature that you would love to date, even if your parents wouldn’t approve :  Male Vampires became leather-trouser clad pretty boys with fashionable hair styles and either a fondness for violence or a deep and brooding sense of artistic self-loathing.  Female Vampires became invariably bisexual and more or less freaky.  The kind of freaky that would scare you but which would also allow you to indulge all of the stuff you see in porn films but would never dare to ask of a real sexual partner.  In other words, good freaky.

In the space of a hundred years Vampires have moved from creatures of pure evil to pathetic sexual Mary Sues for frustrated and repressed Westerners.  The Vampires themselves haven’t changed.  What has changed is our attitude to what the Vampire represents.  That which the Victorians feared and denied in themselves, the people of the 21st Century indulge to the point of solipsism.

However, some attempts have been made to keep Vampires true to their role as creatures of Horror.  Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) saw in Vampires creatures more in tune with the violent and self-destructive urges that animate humanity as a whole.  Creatures for whom the rational mind serves as an organ or self-justification rather than control or repression.  Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) presented Vampires as users, creatures who adapt themselves to the demands of the marginalised in order to slowly suck the life out of them.  This essay is about a film that returned to one of the first non-romantic presentations of Vampirism.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) is a remake of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu : A Symphony of Terror (1922).  But while the remake is, at times, almost shot-for-shot, Herzog’s version presents Vampires as creatures that are not only deeply lonely but whose power is entirely dependent upon the Humans whose blood it drinks.

Film Poster

Film Poster

The most startling difference between Herzog’s version and that of Murnau lies in the film’s opening section.  Gustav von Wangenheim’s Thomas Hutter (Stoker’s Dracula was still in copyright when the film was made, prompting him to change the character names) is very much what you would expect from a silent movie leading man.  He is not only happy, but almost maniacally so.  His love for Greta Schröder’s Ellen Hutter is expressed through his every smile and gesture.  The couple not only come across as a loving couple, they also come across as profoundly contented.

Thomas Hutter

Thomas Hutter

Frau Hutter

Frau Hutter

Herzog’s Harkers (the copyright on Dracula having lapsed, Herzog restored the characters their original names except for the puzzling decision to swap Mina and Lucy around) are an altogether different affair.  Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Harker is a more withdrawn and taciturn man while Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy Harker is a much more ethereal and mystical character.  Perhaps better explaining the psychic link with her husband.  When the couple spend time together they do not laugh or even smile, instead they go for long walks along bleakly deserted beaches.

The Harkers at Breakfast

The Harkers at Breakfast

Harkers on the Beach

Harkers on the Beach

From Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) to Fitzcarraldo (1982), Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Herzog has built a career exploring the lives of men who feel compelled to step beyond the boundaries of our world.  Men who, in Nietzschean terms, stare into the void and have the void stare back into them and change them.  As a result of Herzog’s thematic preferences, it is easy to see in Harker not an ambitious family man lured away to the Carpathians, but a man who wants to step beyond the boundaries of the map.  A man who, in some ways, is destined to have his encounter with Dracula.  Harker’s arrival in Transylvania is met with the necessary warnings from the local peasantry.  But rather than merely stating that a werewolf is out and about (as in the Murnau version), Herzog’s gypsies utter warnings that grow more abstract and bizarre as they go along :

He says that there is a great chasm on the way that swallows the unwary.  If those won’t get you, he says the huge cracks will.  And in the Borgo pass… the light suddenly divides and… and then it drops.  No one has ever returned from that place.  The gypsies say that no such castle exists there… except maybe in the imagination of man.  There used to be a castle there.  But now it is a ghost castle.  It’s only a ruin. And whoever enters that land of phantoms is lost… and never returns.

Harker’s face throughout this is impassive.  Bored even.  On one level, he is a middle-class man of the 19th Century with scorn for peasant superstition but on another level, he knows exactly where he is headed.

Harker tries not to yawn as gypsies warn

Harker tries not to yawn as gypsies warn

Herzog’s depiction of the journey to castle Dracula is rightly famous both for its stunning visuals and for its use of Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.  The introduction to the first of the ring cycles, the prelude welcomes us into a fantastical realm.  A world full of gods, great heroes and ring-forging dwarves.  The warning combined with Harker’s journey and the music suggest that Harker is not simply travelling to a castle, he is leaving the world of moral men behind and stepping into a place filled with and defined by death.

Kinski’s Dracula builds upon the Kabuki gestures and rodent-like appearance of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok.  He fills the role not only with an unearthly presence but also a deep sense of loneliness and sadness.  Dracula claims that the servants  “are not at our disposal” but the state of the castle grant this phrase an eerie sense of finality.  Dracula is a creature whose loneliness is not only apparent in his facial gestures but also in his social awkwardness.  When Harker enters the dining area, Dracula stands in a corner and then stares him in the eye with a degree of quite impolite fascination, curiosity and yearning.

So Alone

So Alone

Kinski as Dracula

Kinski as Dracula

Having been fed upon, Harker spends the daylight hours exploring the castle, finding it to be a complete ruin.  The only person present seems to be a young gypsy boy who plays the violin incredibly badly, granting the already sinister and mournful castle a bleak and surreal edge.

Castle Dracula

Castle Dracula

Given Dracula’s loneliness, it is perhaps unsurprising that he should decide to travel to Harker’s home town.  As in the Murnau version, Herzog has him travel down stream in a series of black coffins.  When the coffins are checked by customs officials, they find only rats.  Whereas in Murnau and Stoker’s stories, the coffins serve to carry Transylvanian earth as well as the count, Herzog’s version suggests that the earth and the rats are Dracula.  As a rat he is the bringer of plague and death, as the earth he is what all humanity must ultimately become.  Like the spectre of death, he is both the cause of death and the embodiment of what it is to be death.  An event and a state.  Dracula’s loneliness is akin to that of death.  Death cannot exist on its own, it has to be the death of something or someone.  It craves the company of humans.

Dracula looks in from outside

Dracula looks in from outside

Indeed, we can see in Harker the hallmarks of the depressive.  He is a man alienated from his loved ones, incapable of experiencing joy, filled with maudlin thoughts and a desire to escape.  In a sense his journey to Transylvania is an act of suicide.  However, having committed himself to the grim and ruinous castle on the hill, he is suddenly animated by fear and love for the woman he left behind.  He realises that his own death will also touch her and he returns home in the hope of saving her.

The Coffins Progress

The Coffins Progress

The Coffins Progress Once More

The Coffins Progress Once More

Dracula’s arrival in the town has an almost instant effect.  As in Murnau’s film, his arrival is associated with the coming of a plague and the huge casualties that go with such a plague.  He fills the streets with coffins.  However, Herzog adds to this.  What Harker has unleashed on his home town is not simply death and plague but also madness.  Harker intentionally sought out the void.  He travelled across Europe and was completely unsurprised when he found it in Transylvania.  By contrast, the inhabitants of his home town are forced to look into the void by circumstances beyond their control.  Unprepared and unwilling to see what lies beyond they descend rapidly into madness; Dancing and dining amidst the bodies and the rats as their entire world comes apart at the seams.  These are people in the same mental state as Kurtz at the end of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.  They dance and eat though they could just as easily be putting heads on spikes or fucking each other in the streets.  This eruption of madness is neatly symbolised by the lunatic Renfield escaping from the asylum.  Begging Nosferatu for instructions, Renfield is told to follow the rats to another city.  The rats bring plague, Renfield heralds the arrival of the madness that inevitably follows that much suffering and destruction.

The End of the World

The End of the World

Food avec Rats

Food avec Rats

The intensely lonely Dracula stalks Lucy Harker but is rebuffed.  Lucy does not feel the call of the infinite in the way her husband once did.  Indeed, it is only when she realises that by sacrificing herself she could kill the beast that she allows Dracula to feed upon her.  She kills Dracula sure enough but soon after her husband reveals that he has been turned into a vampire.  Death can be defeated and outwitted but only particular deaths.  There will always be others striking in other ways and in different places.

Unlike the Vampires of the Gothic romances, Herzog’s Vampire is not a dandy.  He is not seductive or glamourous or sexy.  He is the unwanted visitor.  The guest who refuses to leave.  the ugly, stinking, poorly socialised outcast who is only ever actively sought out by the marginalised and the unhinged but who we will all invariably wind up inviting to dinner sooner or later.

N1Bedroom

N1Sunrise2

N2Bedroom

N2DressingTable

N2Beach

7 Comments
  1. June 22, 2009 8:29 pm

    Interesting … although what you say doesn’t really account for the fact that the original Nosferatu is often genuinely eerie and creepy (if never, I suppose, outright scary) whereas the Herzog remake is as eerie and scary as a nice warm cup of Marks and Spencer’s cocoa.

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  2. June 22, 2009 9:10 pm

    I agree with you on one level.

    The original film is directed with an eye to pacing and the kind of fine emotional manipulation that makes Horror work on an affective level. The use of negatives to make the forest look like a mist of ghosts, the under-wound cameras to speed up the carriage and Orlok when he is loading up the coffins. These and the film’s remarkable expressionist imagery undeniably create a film that is still incredibly creepy.

    Herzog’s remake ‘samples’ some of Murnau’s imagery but the general language of the film is not that of a work of Horror, but rather that of an art house film : It is filled with long awkward pauses, shots of scenery and Herzog frequently casts amateurs for the small parts meaning that a number of scenes come across as deeply weird because of the clashes between the way the amateurs speak and the way the actors do. These are all part of the European art house director’s tool box but none of them really give the film much affective power.

    Herzog’s film works on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one. It isn’t particularly creepy at all. But the ideas contained within it are not only better developed than those in Murnau’s original, they’re actually a good deal more disturbing if you actually unpack them.

    Still, as much as I think Herzog’s film fails as a work of technical Horror, it’s still endlessly superior to Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the story.

    I was also struck, upon rewatching it, by just how much Murnau’s film benefits from the decision to essentially cut out all of the stuff about Lucy and her suitors. In the Francis Ford Coppola version they completely overshadow the Harkers, who are the real heart of the story.

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  3. June 24, 2009 10:40 am

    I have always felt the Vampire in cinema has suffered from being infinitely more powerful as an abstract idea – rather like a rock star, say – than a functional protaginst for a film. Curiously, too many Vampire films get swept up with the mythology and end up bloated costume dramas rather than compelling narratives. Classic examples of this would be ‘Interview With A Vampire’, ‘ The Hunger’, ‘Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula’, even ‘Twilight’.

    What I love about Herzog’s depiction is it gets to the existential dread at the heart of the myth. The film oozes a crippling sense of alienation. You’re right it’s not a horror, but a European Art house, but then that’s where its power lies. It’s part of that tradition of weird East European Folklore. It even evokes the dread in Kafka.

    That said, I’m not sure a Vampire film has to be horrifying. Some of the most effective uses of the character have been comic (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), or simply to explore childhood and adolescence (Lost Boys, Near Dark, Let The Right One In).

    Re The Addiction. I had problems with this film when I last saw it, despite an excellent cameo from Walken. It felt extremely exploitative, trying to hitch a ride towards horrifying an audience by playing old news footage of Aushwitz. Given the Punky nature of the film, I couldn’t help sensing Ferrera kind of thought he was making something ‘cool’ – which sits uncomfortably with his use of the Holocaust.

    *It’s worth rewatching Ferrera’s King Of New York through the prism of the Vampire genre. Walken’s ‘back from the dead’ presence as Frank White is pure Nosferatu, and the lighting is constantly evoking his ghostly pallor.

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  4. June 24, 2009 11:45 am

    I adore the phrase “crippling sense of alienation” :-) I think that perfectly captures Nosferatu. That sense of alienation also goes some way to explaining his utter selfishness as well. He’s trapped in a castle in Transylvania and feels lonely so he travels to northern Germany, completely unconcerned that this will bring plague and death.

    Alienation is the enemy of empathy after all.

    There’s something deeply pretentious about The Addiction. The character wanders round the Holocaust museum spouting this utter heavily intellectualised gibberish. Where I disagree with you is that I don’t think that Ferrara is being serious. I think he’s holding the character up as a way of mocking how humans can explain away anything. In effect, she thinks about the holocaust and the Vietnam war and concludes that humanity is essentially rotten, therefore making it easier for her to feed on them. It’s telling that the film’s biggest scene of blood-letting comes AFTER her successful defence of her doctoral thesis.

    Doctoral studies, to a certain extent, are about showing that you are fit to join in academic conversation : that you know how to argue, you know how evidence works and your opinions aren’t completely beyond the pale. When she’s granted her doctorate she effectively gets a stamp of academic approval on her self-serving beliefs. This stamp having been acquired, she can let rip.

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  5. June 24, 2009 11:56 am

    I shall revisit The Addiction with this in mind. Back when I saw it it was difficult to think the man who made ‘Driller Killer’ might shun the exploitative and find a way to navigate the Holocaust footage that didn’t feel – well, a bit wrong. But I have found depths to ‘King Of New York’ and ‘Bad Lieutenant’ with revisits, so maybe I need to take another look. I’m quite happy to listen to Walken quote Byron either way.

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  6. June 24, 2009 3:43 pm

    You know, I didn’t realise until quite recently that it was the same Ferrara who made Driller Killer :-) I encountered him through Bad Lieutenant so I had no idea of his exploitation roots (though, to be fair, they should have been obvious).

    My reading of The Addiction is based upon seeing it once whilst too sleepy to completely unpack what she was saying so I might well be completely wrong but I did get the sense that we were supposed to have contempt for the main character.

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