Monday, May 8, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #165 - Nosferatu and Nosferatu The Vampyre

Two movies, 55 years apart, and yet they are the bookends of the cinema vampire phenomenon. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Symphony Of Horror” set the template for the entire style. Herzog’s 1979 homage to the original effectively closes the book on the genre. There have been and will be more vampire movies after Murnau’s and Herzog’s, however, none will make our Transylvanian friend a more humanely drawn or eerily depicted monster than those portrayed in these landmark films.

The plot of both these films should be familiar to all fans of the genre. A mysterious count (Orlok in Murnau’s, Dracula in Herzog’s) contacts a real estate firm to find him a castle. A hapless agent (Hutter and Harker respectively) is sent to the Count’s castle in Transylvania to consummate a deal, and both find themselves immediately drawn into the nightmarish world of a being who must consume the blood of other humans in order to live - a vampire. Murnau’s film almost defies description. Because it is silent and utilizes arcane film equipment and technology, it inherently has a dreamy quality. Count Orlok, as portrayed by the great German actor Max Schreck is more animal than human. His rat-like teeth, ears, long fingernails and hairless head make him as much bat as man. When Hutter arrives at Orlok’s castle, there is no pretense of normalcy, as the count lunges for human blood and wonders aloud at how beautiful Hutter’s fiancé is (especially her neck). Schreck’s appearance is the stuff of nightmares, and has remained so throughout the years. Even more than Bela Lugosi’s worldly seducer, Schreck’s appearance is what comes to mind when I think of vampires. Orlock makes his way to his new home and goes about seducing Hutter’s wife. After bringing death and madness to her town, Hutter’s wife tricks Orlock into staying with her until sunrise, thus causing him to vaporize with the first rays of the morning sun. Max Schreck’s make-up and movements remain one of the landmark performances in film. He is terrifying and mysterious, and truly the stuff of nightmares.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu The Vampyre,  puts much more explanation and psychological depth into his depiction of the vampire (played by the incomparable Klaus Kinski), and yet, it almost feels like an extension of the original, as opposed to a rewriting. Herzog invests more humanity into his protagonists, real-estate agent Jonathan Harker and his stunning wife Lucy (depicted with intense beauty by Isabelle Adjani). They are genuinely in love, and we share their sadness at being apart. Jonathan is delayed for weeks at Dracula’s castle, and when he finally does return he is devoid of all memory and personality. Dracula has stolen his soul and now has come to his home town to steal his wife and leave all he encounters in ruins.

Throughout Herzog’s film, there is a dread sense of natural disorder. With Dracula comes the plague and swarms of rats. Harker’s town of Wismar, Germany becomes a nightmarish hell of burning corpses, the few remaining townsfolk descending into madness. Rats are everywhere as the town falls prey to Dracula’s spell. Again, it is Harker’s wife, Lucy who determines that only she can stop Dracula – at the cost of her own life – by seducing him past the crack of dawn. Kinski’s depiction of Dracula differs from Shrek’s only in terms of technology. Because Herzog’s film is shot in sumptuous color, with languorous shots of natural beauty and horror, it feels as though we have a much more personal relationship with the vampire. His pitiful pleas of eternal loneliness seem almost sympathetic. Kinski is literally nauseating as the pale, groaning, insectoid loser. He seems more like a sniveling pest than a world-dominating immortal. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of Herzog’s film; he lends some humanity to one of the world’s great monsters.

There’s no fully understanding the Vampire genre without these two movies. They depict the monster as an aberration of the natural order as opposed to a dapper Count using his powers for seduction. While the earlier cuts a more mysterious figure, the latter is believable as an example of nature gone awry.

-          Paul Epstein

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