Nosferatu The Vampyre, by Werner Herzog, Blu-ray (1979/2014)

by | Nov 1, 2014 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Nosferatu The Vampyre, by Werner Herzog, Blu-ray (1979/2014)

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz
Studio: Werner Herzog Film/Fox/Scream Factory (Shout Factory) SF 14952 [5/20/14]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: German or English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Subtitles: English, German
Two versions: German & English
Music: Popul Vuh, Wagner, Gounod
Extras: Audio commentary by Herzog; Documentary “The Making of Nosferatu;” Theatrical trailers
Length: 107 min.
Rating: *****

This was one of the first Herzog films remastered for Blu-ray, and it is sharp and super-clear. Herzog shot on 35mm film from the very beginning of his career as a director.  He wanted to establish a connection with the great German films of the 1920s and feels that F. W. Murnau’s original Nosferatu of 1922 is unsurpassed in the history of German cinema. But he points out that he didn’t just remake the original in color with sound, although he did shoot in the same neighborhood in Lubeck, Germany where Murnau had done the original, and even has a shot of Nosferatu in a window which he thinks may be the same window Murnau used. He also points out a few other places where he had Kinski move and framed the shot just like Murnau had done. It is a sort of re-interpretation rather than a remake, and as one reviewer said, Kinski is the “ultimate poster-boy for German angst.” Herzog also used some inspiration from the original Dracula novel by Bram Stoker.

The film has very little dialog, and it was interesting that both a German and English version were shot, since some of the main actors were French. They all actually spoke English for shooting the separate English version, but Herzog says the German version is “the most authentic.” He used an actor he had worked with before to play the real estate man Renfield, mainly due to his unusual crazed laugh, which he delivers with a Peter Lorre style. Herzog’s commentary track is most interesting, but was a bear to locate. It was only on the German version of the film, with the younger but still totally unmistakable voice of Herzog himself, but then when returning for the second half of the film I lost the audio portion and could only see the English subtitles, which alternated between what Herzog was saying and some of the dialog of the actual film, although the music was still at normal levels. Some of the subtitles only flash on the screen and then they are gone before you can read them. They don’t tell you any of that in advance.

Herzog goes into some detail about all his fights with the madman Kinski, but that it was worth it due to Kinski’s amazing portrayal of the wraith-like figure (they made special boots to raise his height) of the vampire. Coincidentally, Scorcese’s Dracula came out about the same time, but Nosferatu is far more expressionistic and languid than other Dracula movies. And Herzog did it at a very low budget, shooting in actual homes and halls in Delft, Netherlands, Lubeck, Germany, and in western Slovakia. (He couldn’t get into Transylvania at the time.) He even used real gypsies he ran into in Slovakia to tell “Jonathan Harker” about the horrors if he went to Dracula’s castle. Most of the first part of the film follows exactly the story of the 1922 version. Harker is asked by his boss Renfield to go to Transylvania to take a contract for purchase of an abandoned property near him to Count Dracula. Harker leaves his home (ostensibly in Wismar, Germany) and goes to Dracula’s castle, where he eventually realizes his wife Lucy will be in great danger when Dracula arrives there by boat with many coffins. He has been bitten by Dracula and will eventually also become a vampire. He escapes the castle and rushes back. Any more would be a spoiler.

The city of Delft, on a canal, had recently solved a public health problem of rats, when Herzog brought in 11,000 live rats from Hungary for the movie. No one else but Herzog was willing to get near the rats, so Herzog was bitten 30 or more times in arranging them for the shots. Fortunately Isabelle Adjani was not afraid of rats, because in one scene she has to move a coffin lid covered with rats to spread consecrated materials around where the vampire might come. She understood the evil that had come to the city and what she must do to stop it. (Herzog claims in his commentary that not a single rat was lost, but the Dutch biologist in charge of them quit after witnessing the inhumane way they were treated. Among other things, Herzog wanted the white lab rats dyed grey, necessitating their being submerged for several seconds in boiling water.)

The deeply-sunken eyes and shaved head of Nosferatu and his ridiculous long fingernails are not the only moody and terrifying things visually. But his role is perfect, both manacing and yet with an air of poignancy about him.  There are many haunting natural locations that burn themselves into one’s memory. Everything on the screen contributes to feelings of doom and dread. Herzog says he has a fascination with the medieval period, and as bodies begin to pile up in the town, he has an outdoor dance and celebration in the town plaza by those not affected, as occured in medieval times with the plague. The whole thing is almost like a bad dream. Both Murnau’s original and Herzog’s version may be among the best horror films ever made, and a far cry from the junk masquerading as such today.

—John Sunier


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