In 1979, Werner Herzog made Nosferatu the Vampyre. Today it stands as one of the strongest among over 200 film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.
At least, the German language version does. American audiences were shown a somewhat uncannily different version: At the request of 20th Century Fox, Herzog shot the same film once in German (a language in which the films two stars Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani were both fluent) and one in English. While the English language version is still a good movie – Herzog’s directorial choices are exactly the same – the performances and tone comes off as a little unnatural.
Thankfully, this May marks the film’s 35th anniversary, and the German version will become more available to U.S. audiences than ever before. A beautifully packaged Blu-ray dropped on May 20, the streaming site Fandor made it available to subscribers (along with other Herzog titles), and, most impressively, a restored 35mm print of the film was struck and screened for the first time in American theaters.
Last Friday Los Angeles arthouse organization Cinefamily premiered the print to a packed house with Herzog in attendance, to take questions and mingle with fans at an afterparty featuring blood-themed drinks, copious candelabra, cosplaying characters, and a Gothic bedroom set where people could have their picture taken with a very convincing Nosferatu impersonator.
In a short introduction to the film, Herzog told the audience he considers the German language version to be the “culturally authentic” one. This is true not only because it feels more natural, but also because the film is in conversation with F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent Nosferatu: Germany’s other great vampire movie. Herzog meticulously recreates scenes to pay homage to Murnau’s vision; notably when Dracula silently enters Jonathan Harker’s bedroom and oh-so-slowly hovers towards his prey.
But the dialogue between the two films isn’t all quotation. Herzog has his own vision to offer. His signature touch is on display from the start of the film’s sad and haunting opening credits. The documentary-style footage shows mummified bodies, chronicled from infants to old age as the sequence progresses, propped against a cave wall. The expressions and contortions of the corpses are so vivid that it seems the agony and terror they felt at the moment of death has stayed imprinted on their bodies for hundreds of years. It’s easy to imagine that someone killed by a vampire would look this way.
Herzog told the audience the footage was shot at the Mummies of Guanajuado museum in Mexico; where dozens of victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic are preserved. During the 1960s, Herzog had seen the mummies in the open as they had been found in the tombs; however, when he returned in later years they were displayed behind glass. “You do not exhibit a human being in a glass cage like you exhibit a bird species that has died out,” the director says now. “However, I did my transgression as well by filming them.” That night, after the museum closed, Herzog bribed the guard to remove the mummies so he could film as they were during the ’60s.
That was one of many behind-the-scenes stories Herzog shared at Cinefamily, demonstrating his legendary conviction to do whatever it takes to make a film. For example: when Nosferatu sails a ghost ship into the canals of Wismar, he brings with him a plague of rats. For these scenes Herzog obtained 10,000 white laboratory rats, each of which had to be dyed gray, with elaborate safeguards put in place to prevent the rats from escaping during filming. Despite these measures, a health inspector showed up with two police in tow to shut down production. Leading them away from the truck that contained the rats, Herzog pretended the rodents could be found in a nearby bar. After the inspector and two officers entered the bar, Herzog locked them inside and ran to the truck to make his escape, only to find the truck’s path blocked by one of the police cars. Enlisting the help of his crew members, Herzog rolled the police car into a ditch, clearing his path for a clean getaway.
So Herzog really means what he says when he tells the audience that he goes about making films with “a natural amount of criminal energy.” Not as sensational a story, but equally bold in its defiance of authority, Herzog went about tricking the Czechoslovakian bureaucracy into unwittingly letting him film another movie, Woyzeck, on the same permits that were issued for Nosferatu. And how did he do it? He fed the bureaucracy, “which is the natural enemy of art, what it craves most: paperwork.” Feeding the beast with false but official looking documents, Herzog finished Nosferatu… and went about making Woyzeck on only a five day turnaround and using the same 16 crew members and Kinski in the lead, Herzog in essence got two films for the price of one; not to mention maintained a high level of artistic momentum in both his direction and Kinski’s acting.
Speaking of Kinski, Herzog had a lot to say about his legendary (infamous) collaboration with the actor. He is very proud that the five movies he made with Kinski are the actor’s most memorable films. “Kinski was in 200 other movies,” Herzog said. He paused dramatically, “…Where are they?” Out of all his other memorable roles, Nosferatu may have posed the greatest challenge to Kinski, judged as he would inevitably be against Max Schreck’s iconic performance in Murnau’s Nosferatu (in which Schreck is so terrifying, there’s a movie called Shadow of a Vampire dedicated to the idea that he was a real vampire). Yet Kinski and Herzog overcame the odds and created a vampire that set the bar even higher.
They were successful for a number of reasons, the first being that Kinski was physically scarier than Schreck. The end result shows echoes of Schreck’s version, but there’s also a touch of Captain Howdy from The Exorcist layered in, with the help of expert costuming, set design, and lighting. Certain shots completely isolate Kinski’s white head and hands amidst a void of black. A Japanese artist named Reiko Kruk was hired to do the makeup, and Kinski had to sit for four hours every day for her to shave his head, pale his skin, affix rat-like teeth, sculpt pointy ears, and attach long sharp nails to his fingers. You would think all of this would make a volatile actor like Kinski furious, but Herzog attests that he was totally docile during these make up sessions because Kruk had “something magic about her – which I didn’t have.” Of course, once Kinski was released from make up, “he would immediately start destroying the set.” Herzog made it his mission to capture this pent-up intensity into a great performance on film rather than have it “evaporize [sic] in wild tension and mayhem.” You can sense this rage in Kinski, and it’s amazing that Herzog managed to direct him towards such controlled body language and terrifying stillness.
The second and seemingly counter-intuitive reason Kinski’s vampire in Nosferatu succeeds is because it is funny. That very same controlled body language also contains humor as well as terror, because it disrupts the natural rhythms of human interaction that we are used to. The whole film, in fact, has an offbeat sense of humor mixed with horror that only few classics such as Rosemary’s Baby manage to balance successfully. That said, the film at times pushes its humor slightly too far, such as the French surrealist Roland Topor’s giggle-looped turn as Renfield. It’s a small complaint, really; the cool factor of Topor’s inclusion in the film in the first place outweighs any negatives.
In closing with a final thought on just what made Nosferatu so memorable, Herzog said it’s because Kinski played “a vampire with a soul,” not simply a monster. One astute audience member during the Q&A session pointed out that Nosferatu tragically yearns to join humanity and escape the loneliness of immortality much the same way that Timothy Treadwell (the subject of Herzog’s most famous documentary Grizzly Man) seeks escape humanity and join with a powerful force of nature. Herzog replied that he had never considered this connection before, but finds it “totally legitimate” to build bridges like these because he considers the films to be “interconnected, as if it had been one big film I’d done.
“No matter what we have seen about vampires so far, no matter what’s going to come at us in the next half-century, there won’t be another vampire of the caliber of Kinski again. When you see him you know he’s the best, you know you’ll never see anyone like him again.” And then, as only Herzog can, he mitigates this statement by adding: “at least not for another three hundred or four hundred years.” MM
This review is of the run of Bleeding Light Film Group’s new 35mm print of Nosferatu the Vampyre, which is playing in Los Angeles May 16 – 22 at The Cinefamily.
Pictures courtesy of Shout Factory / Bleeding Light Film Group.