Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
West Germany/France, 1979
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 07 October 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
Features: October: 31 Days of Horror
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s remake of F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu pays tribute both to early German cinema and to the country’s rich culture and history before the rise of fascism. Herzog’s film quotes liberally from the earlier work, but the specter of Hitler haunts the film as it does so much of the New German Cinema.
As in all vampire tales, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to George Hamilton’s Love at First Bite, Herzog’s Nosferatu is a weighty aggregate of symbols: unbridled lust, disease, immortal and unrepentant evil. And as this evil sweeps across Germany, exterminating all in its path, the vampire’s coded associations with Nazism, while unspecific, are nonetheless difficult to miss.
Still, it is Herzog’s stylistic emphasis on nature and the grotesque, as well as Klaus Kinski’s unnervingly believable performance in the title role, that make this Nosferatu truly horrifying. In general, Herzog’s style is marked by a fondness for documentary material. Often, the camera will pause to ruminate over small, accidental details (a child sneezing, a town teeming with rats, or a pig defecating in a deserted town square) or manipulate time to observe nature in motion (the often used slow-motion shots of bats in flight or the time-lapse photography of clouds moving across the sky). Such naturalism departs from the typically fantastic portrayal of the Dracula story (as in Murnau’s expressionistic film, or Coppola’s special effects extravaganza), lending tangibility to the story’s supernatural elements. The opening credit sequence is a macabre gallery of what appear to be real, mummified corpses, providing an almost perverse verisimilitude just as the use of gypsies and local culture serves to contextualize the film in Germany in the 19th century.
But as with any retelling of the Dracula story, the film’s level of terror depends largely on the actor in the title role, and here, Nosferatu has found a startling interpreter in Klaus Kinski. The performance’s most striking aspect is its utter believability, and the viewer may wonder if it is the character of Count Dracula himself or Kinski’s complete absorption in the role that is the more frightening. And yet, Nosferatu’s inherent pathos and helplessness finds expression here as never before.
As with the film’s more naturalistic elements, Herzog’s camera merely hangs back from the action, observing Kinski’s slow, spidery movements and terrifying outbursts of bloodlust. The film avoids any kind of special effect or manipulation, with the minimal exception of strange lighting to emphasize the shadows on Nosferatu’s pale, veiny cranium. And instead of the violent surprises and loud noises that account for the shocks of a more routine horror film, Herzog lingers on the intricate creepiness of the performance. In long single takes, Dracula stalks over an absurdly passive Jonathan Harker in his bed before he strikes, or slowly gropes Harker’s wife with long white fingernails before sinking his protuberant teeth into her.
This fascination with detail in both the natural world and in the actors’ performances creates an altogether different approach to the horror genre. Herzog’s film underscores the proximity of death, decay, and evil in reality, and in so doing, it draws this horror story out of the realm of fantasy and into history.