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Nosferatu The Vampyre  

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu is a very strange excuse for a horror film, I'll grant you that. The film deals with the big daddy of vampires, which would be Dracula, of course, but Nosferatu is definitely not scary, or bloody, or graphic in any sense of those words. And this is coming from a guy who has no taste or stomach for horror flicks. Nosferatu is an art film, and will most likely bore all but the most patient of viewers.

Nosferatu is the 1979 remake of the famous 1922 silent version, also German, directed by F.W. Marnau and considered the first filmed version of the Dracula story. The reason that the silent version was called Nosferatu and not Dracula is because Bram Stoker's estate would not sell the film rights to the filmmakers. Undaunted, film plans went ahead, resulting in the changing of names, small details, and, eventually, a lawsuit. The verdict was that all prints of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. Obviously, since the silent version is still available, the plan did not succeed. Now that the book is in the public domain, the 1979 version uses the original names, but is still a remake of the original German silent.

I have not seen the original film, but the most notable aspect of it was the performance of Max Schrek as the vampire. He played him not as a dashing or appealing creature, but as a hideous, pathetic and withered freak. Klaus Kinski successfully replicates this nature in his Dracula. And, for the film as a whole, Herzog creates an overall feeling of gloom and dread, instead of action, suspense, or violence.

The story is well-known. Jonathan travels to Transylvania to complete a property transaction with the Count Dracula. His wife, Lucy, dreads the thought of his departure, especially after having grim nightmares of bats and mummified bodies. Jonathan does make it to the castle, and is "entertained", if that's possible, by the Count, who almost immediately tries to get his fangs into his neck. Jonathan has already been told by people along the way of what he is to expect, and eventually he is convinced that the Count is indeed a nosferatu, and even sees Dracula resting in his coffin during the day. One night he sees Dracula loading up a wagon of coffins, which is headed to a ship that will sail to Jonathan's home town. Immediately, even though he is weakening from all the times that Dracula had his neck for lunch, Jonathan attempts to return to town, and Lucy, before the ship does. He fails to make it in time, however, and soon a deadly plague nearly wipes out the town.

The performances vary. Isabelle Anjani is certainly beautiful, and pale-faced and wide-eyed enough to look terrified, and she faints a lot, but there is, unfortunately, not much else to say about her. Bruno Ganz is not bad (he was in Wings of Desire), although I was much more amused with him near the end of the picture, as he returns in vain from Transylvania, unable to keep ahead of the ship. The rest of the movie shows him moping in the corner of the living room, white as a sheet, until the very end when he seems to take on the physical characteristics, at least, of Dracula.

The only performance that is probably worthy of discussion is Kinski's Dracula, which is a very unique creation, at least to those who didn't see Max Schrek's nosferatu. Dracula is not elegant, handsome, suave, but pathetic, weak, almost frightened - and very, very ugly. This is evident in his first scene, where he utterly fails to turn on the charm, but instead stares at Jonathan as if he is conflicted: should he or should he not stick his fangs into the neck of his guest? The progression of this scene is not scary, but dryly comic.

Of course, the reason that Dracula acts this way might be because he is a sad creature, unable to love, unable to die. There is no purpose for him; all he can do is suck the life out of others greedily, and then mope about the rest of the time. But with Jonathan, Dracula also discovers that there is a girl back home, a woman pure of heart. The legend has it that if a woman pure of heart can keep the vampire at her side until sunrise, the vampire can be defeated. Eventually, of course, Lucy and Dracula meet, but what transpires is not a love story but a desperate attempt by Dracula to be rid of his misery. At least, that was how I saw it

Herzog directs as if he was working on a period epic rather than a horror flick, which is probably to be expected. I haven't seen any of his other films, but the stuff I've heard about such works as Fitzcarrado, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God tell me that Herzog's style is very consistent to what I've seen here. And while gore fans may be disappointed (hey, they might even be offended) by the absence of the gross, others might enjoy the great and memorable imagery. For me, I will certainly remember such things as the sad, slow drifting of the ship as it enters the harbour, bringing no survivors and a lot of dread to come. I will also remember Jonathan's long trip to Transylvania, in which even the surroundings change and morph into something sinister and dreadful. And probably everyone will receive some kind of reaction upon seeing the hundreds and hundreds of rats scurrying about the town. After the appearance of the ship, rats populate nearly every single shot, culminating in a bizarre shot of an upper-class gathering right in the town square, happily telling Lucy as she passes by that they might as well enjoy what time they have left. After this, the camera pans the table again to show that the people are now absent, and that the rats have literally taken over even the dinner.

Nosferatu is, like I said, a very strange film. I can't say that I`ve fallen in love with Herzog's vision, just yet. The film is too slow to be fully convincing to an unaccustomed viewer such as myself. But the film does contain a lot of eerily beautiful images, and a very unique performance by Kinski as possibly the most pathetic example of the undead that you will ever see.

David Macdonald

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