Saturday, 21 March 2009

Herzog's Nosferatu: Part 1.


Herzog. Nosferatu. Finally...

It’s funny that my favourite filmic takes on Dracula should be so completely different stylistically. Terence Fisher’s DRACULA (no ‘Horror Of...’ here, thank you very much), and Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT are, by far in my opinion, the most successful films to have been made from the material; the two that work the best as films (I’m not overly concerned with fidelity to Stoker’s novel here, I’ll save that for a later date ). Runner’s up include the BBC TV adaptation with Louis Jordan (a near perfect first part, but the second episode feels rushed – as if it really needed three), Murnau’s Nosferatu (though technically it isn’t Dracula I suppose) and Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s diary (Hammer's Dracula sequels don't count on this list, but for the record I love Prince Of Darkness & Taste The Blood...). Though my favourite take on Dracula, after the Fisher and Herzog adaptations is probably Orson Welles’, done for radio in 1938(currently available on CD, you can also listen to it here for free).

If only he’d gone on to make a film. Think of it, what if DRACULA was the ‘Greatest Movie Ever Made’ instead of CITIZEN KANE... there’s a world in which that might be true. Kim Newman’s probably writing about it as we speak – in fact didn’t he already?

As it stands, no one has really made a great film that actually sticks close to the book , we’re still waiting for Horror’s LORD OF THE RINGS. I’m confident that it will happen some day; a properly epic horror film, a good three hours long.
But this is all beside the point. The point here is NOSFERATU, as realised by Werner Herzog.

It really is a wonderful film – but as a horror film, it sort of fails. It isn’t scary.

It is however, unsettling. Creepy. Unnerving. It manages a kind of vertiginous awe, as the music and images sweep us up and lead us in, particularly in Jonathan’s approach to Castle Dracula. Watching it for the first time, I felt my stomach drop, my pulse raise, my throat and scalp go tight, the way it might standing on the edge of a cliff before a dramatic landscape, the beauty of which might be overwhelming, but only because it was laced with fear that you might, at any moment, step right off the edge.

Herzog’s film is sublime. But it is not scary. Not in the traditional sense. Not in the way a horror film is meant to be.

It is more in tune and in line with the classical Gothic or Romantic traditions. It is intensely beautiful, while simlultaeneously being obsessed with gloom, and the grotesque, and with decay.

Herzog embarked on the film in order to connect with a legitimate german cinematic tradition, of which he held Murnau’s film to be the pinnacle. He succeeded. But he also connects, just as powerfully, and perhaps more so, with an older Germanic tradition, in literature and the arts, the Gothic Romantic tradition.

What has been astounding to me in thinking about the film, reading about it, is how little has been said about the influence of Caspar David Friedrich, and I must thank Jez for pointing me towards his work.

There are frames in Herzog’s film that, to me, seem to mirror certain of Friedrich’s paintings. And even when they don’t, the way that Friedrich captured light, the way he painted landscape, and the way he placed figures IN that landscape, are very much the same as Herzog does in film. Indeed, while it is perhaps most pronounced here in Nosferatu, you can see it in all of Herzog’s early films. It is there in the opening shot of AGUIRRE and the opening of HEART OF GLASS, it’s there in KASPAR HAUSER – the grandeur of landscape. But most particularly in Nosferatu it’s the way he shoots the backs of people looking out into the landscape, a landscape that seems to speak so eloquently, so dramatically of what’s going on inside their souls.

Jonathan setting out on foot for Transylvania; Lucy sitting on the beach and staring out to see, Joanthan and Lucy walking down the beach AWAY from us, as the wind blows sand like mist across the beach. The whole of Jonathan’s later approach to castle Dracula, as he climbs into the mountains, leaving light and life behind (note how the lush greens of earlier disappear as he comes ever closer to Dracula’s domain) is like watching frame after frame of images that could be hanging in a gallery with Friedrich’s name inscribed in one corner.

For all that Herzog’s approach to film may be comparatively stripped down, and shorn of stylisation in terms of tricky cinematography, still the cinematography is outstanding. The texture of the film is so palpably real, solid, dramatic. As ever, because Herzog takes his camera to somewhere on the earth that expresses imagistically what he refers to in ‘Herzog On Herzog’ (a highly recommended read) as ‘the ecstatic truth’. Here, perhaps more than ever, the nature of the material he is working with, gives license to indulge in ecstatic imagery. The mountains, the sky, the clouds, the sea, a bat in ultra-slow motion, the mould upon the walls of castle Dracula, the peeling crumbling stonework, the bats that hang from the window of Harker’s room, Renfield listening to the flies, the rats - oh god the RATS!

Here Herzog visualises what Dwight Fry (perhaps the only thing in the Universal Dracula I actually like) was ranting maniacally about in 1930. Strangely perhaps, the rats, with their off white fur, have always reminded me of maggots more than anything. Something about the way they look en masse, seething, writhing... it’s a feeling and an image that’s reflected in the high shot that opens the dance of death scene in the square, once Wismar has succumbed to the plague, as white-ish coffins are lead in a slightly wriggly line through the grey town square...

The tangibility of Herzog’s imagery, his reliance on location shooting and natural light, lend the film a solidity and reality, that it seems to me was the intention behind Bram Stoker’s use of diary entries and letters to tell his tale – though there was more to it than simply this – it lends verisilimitude to a fantastical plot. It says, ‘these things are real’. Indeed, the first shots of Herzog’s film are of real death, real decay. Handheld shots of dried up corpses, their eyes empty, their skins shrivelled, their mouths an open scream, while the music of Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh chants and moans, laden with doom, and pierced with discordant cries. Herzog then cuts to a shot a bat flying in extreme slow motion, an image that is at once very real, and yet by virtue of the extreme slow motion, very un-real. Dream-like? Perhaps. Certainly the context of the editing as the scene progresses suggests that that’s exactly what it is. But is it something more? A way into the film?

The image has a certain resonance, a certain dark and simple poetry, especially in conjunction with the music, and it will return towards the end of the film, while Kinski drinks from Isabelle Adjani’s throat. Is it the vampire’s soul? Or merely a symbol? In the climactic scenes, the slow motion bat, appearing onscreen in the midst of Kinski’s feeding, as life slips away from Isabelle Adjani, seems symbolic of something – since the scene is played with overt erotic overtones, the image of this creature in flight, a creature associated with darkness and the night, seems almost to carry overtones of some kind of dark orgasm, and orgasm related to a complex sensuality/sexuality, an almost literal petit mortes?

At the same time however, it is an image which links the scene of kinski feeding and Adjani giving her life in the bedroom, and Jonathan downstairs, becoming fully vampire. It is only after Dracula’s death that Jonathan’s vampire infection finaly succeeds in transforming Jonathan from living to undead, and the image of the bat seems to link the two occurances, almost as if the bat somehow symbolises the dark thing (demon?) that inhabited the shellof Dracula’s human body. As if suggesting vampirism as as a kind of possession, or contagion, a thing which will inhabit and animate a dead human being/shell... in the shot of it in flight as Kinski drinks to his doom and the sun rises, it is as if the thing/the darkness within Kinski is fleeing – but where in Hollywood this might have been our end, Herzog ties it to the infected, tainted, Jonathan downstairs. As one vampire dies, another is born. Having shivered his way through so much of the film, looking ill and weak, Jonathan looks suddenly ‘alive’ and whole, the gleam in his eyes is devious. Herzog ends the film with the vampire Jonathan riding off into what is, by the looks of the lighting, a sunset: an ironic inversion of the Hollywood cliché. As this new born vampire gallops off toward the horizon, to spread his disease amongst the world, the clouds darken and gather overhead... like the end of The Terminator, ‘A storm is coming...’

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