Monday, 16 March 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Karlstadt

Re: Children of the Night (let’s call it Stepchildren of the Night if you like). Well, they say confession is good for the soul, and it can sometimes lead you to discover that you are not alone after all. The indifference with which Herzog’s Nosferatu was greeted may have been due to its incongruous status within the predominantly realist trend of the new German Cinema which arose during the sixties and seventies. Directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotte and Volker Schlondorff drew on many traditions of German (and Hollywood) film and storytelling, but gothic romanticism and the fantastic weren’t amongst them. Perhaps the nation’s descent into the Wagnerian nightmare of the nazi era with its propogandistic appropriation of the national mythos had tainted such associations. However, Wenders turned away from American dreaming to the very European, Cocteau-esque fantasy of Wings of Desire, and Fassbinder’s final film was the opium haze of sunset dreaming Querelle, so perhaps realism exerted only so much fascination for the German psyche.

Herzog, always more in tune with the numinous, was reaching back into older traditions both of cinema and of German literature and folklore. One of the interesting things about both Nosferatus, in fact, is how German they are. Nosferatu is as much a creature of the dark forest, of Walpurgisnacht folk tales and bloody Grimm Rumpelstiltskin fairy stories as he is Stoker’s Carpathian monster. Herzog’s version is also steeped in the imagery of German romanticism, of Casper David Friedrich’s wanderers gazing over the sublimity of mountain wilderness. The presence of music from Wagner’s Ring cycle and from the modern hymns of Florian Fricke’s Popul Vuh on the soundtrack further underlines its Germanic flavour.

Murnau’s Nosferatu was made at a time when the German tradition of the fantastic, with its emphasis on the gothic and the grotesque, still exerted a significant influence on German cinema. Murnau’s own Faust, Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, Paul Leni’s Waxworks, Robert Wiene’s Hands of Orlac and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and the Nosferatu scriptwriter Henrik Galeen’s The Student of Prague were all products of the silent era, and their style and even some of their scenarios found their way over the ocean into the Universal horrors. It’s therefore easier for them to be accepted into an identifiable and (essential for scholars) categorisable canon.

Herzog’s (or should I say Kinski’s) Nosferatu is an etiolated, anaemic character, showing all the signs of that very German condition, weltanschauung. Here, his attenuated, Struwellpeter fingernails and elongated incisors seem less the characteristics of the goblins of the dark forests or mountainsides than the self-neglect of world-weary lassitude. The plague which accompanies him on his travels is an outward manifestation of his yearning for death. The sense of an endgame being played out reflects the feeling of a now aged, page-worn myth, one whose weary players are seeking the suitable moves to reach a conclusion. A similar atmosphere is found in Christopher Lee’s final Dracula outing, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he attempts to spread a deadly plague whose apocalypse will wipe out the lifeblood which sustains him. In Herzog’s Nosferatu, the flame is passed onto a new generation, however, with Kinski granted his final peace. His ending is twitchilly physical with its spider-like death throes, as opposed to the spectral fading out of Murnau’s less corporeal phantom of the night.

The nationalisation of the Dracula story perhaps points to a way in which the ‘problem of Dracula’ can be solved. And yes, it’s interesting here to wonder what Polanski might have done with the story. His Hammer parody The Fearless Vampire Killers certainly had a pungently East European flavour. This regional relocation was really what Hammer did, too. Their films may have notionally been set in a vaguely sketched middle Europe, with everyone seeming to be travelling to or arriving from Karlstadt, a common destination most likely indicative of a bit of thrifty pragmatism allowing for the re-use of signage. But Lee and Cushing’s characterisations of Dracula and Van Helsing were indelibly English, and it’s noticeable that the superstitious peasantry tend to mumble and grudgingly serve visitors at the inn in stage-Devonian yokel-ese.

Dracula himself seems to be rooted in a particular time. Other characters from the Victorian period can be transported across the decades with some success, with a possible play on the anachronisms between their era and the world in which they find themselves. Sherlock Holmes is an obvious example, and Jack the Ripper seems to make the transtemporal journey in several stories. But Hammer’s attempts to locate Dracula in a contemporary setting found him strangely adrift, enclosed in restricted settings such as the church in Dracula AD1972 and the corporate penthouse office in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (quite an effective idea but not well seen though). The action all took place elsewhere, and there was a sense that Lee’s token presence was just an excuse to have the word Dracula on the poster (not that his absence stood in the way of Brides of Dracula’s slightly misleading title).

The firmly established image of Dracula as the anachronistically (even in Stoker’s late-Victorian novel) Byronic figure, which has led some writers and film-makers to mistakenly cast him in a romantic light, is now so inflexible that it would take a fairly radical and necessarily strong re-imagination to tear him free from the stereotype and allow him to live again. Until then, the cloak and stiff, aristocratic mien hold him back from being resurrected in all but the hyperkinetic cgi-soaked gothery that he is currently condemned to.

I look forward to Neil’s further confessions of a Nosferatu Herzogophilist. Maybe he’ll convert us all to his sinister Kinskian cult.

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