Nosferatu the Vampyre (Scream Factory, NR)

dvd nosferatuThere are many brilliant moments in Herzog’s film, but also many moments when it goes off track.



There have been many movie versions of the Dracula story, but the best for my money is F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, a silent film that’s a prime example of visual storytelling as well as a veritable dictionary of German Expressionist tropes. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) also has a lot to recommend it (mainly Bela Lugosi’s performance, plus some amazing visuals), but it’s also a total mess at times, due largely to Browning’s lack of interest in the project.

Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre is something of a tribute to Murnau’s 1922 film, with some of the visual elements and shot sequences directly modeled on the earlier film. You can’t go wrong stealing from a master, and the Murnau-influenced (or copied) scenes are among the most effective in the film. Unfortunately, there seem to be several other films fighting for supremacy within Herzog’s Nosferatu—a heritage TV series, a giallo, and a Hammer Studios flick among them—and this uncomfortable mix makes viewing the film a less-than-satisfying experience.

The style of Murnau’s Nosferatu was dictated in part by limitations faced by the director (and all directors of the period), and the film’s success is due in large part to his skill in using strong, deliberately stylized sets and a evoking a heightened style of acting from his cast. These features emphasize the fact that Murnau intended to create an artistic experience for the audience far removed from the look and feel of real life.

Herzog had far more technical capabilities to draw on—including color, sound, and mobile equipment, as well as a budget that facilitated shooting on a variety of locations—when creating his Nosferatu, but never solved the problem of organizing all those elements to create a unified film. The result is that there are many brilliant moments in Nosferatu, but also many moments when it goes off track.

Most disappointingly, Nosferatu is not suspenseful or scary; instead, it frequently feels dutiful, and sometimes is unintentionally comic or annoying. Browning got more effect out of a few rats than Herzog gets with thousands, and Klaus Kinski’s (Count Dracula) over-the-top makeup and acting, seen in color and with many close-ups, is just too much for anything other than a Hammer Studios film (he’s better in the more restrained, Murnuau-tribute sequences).

Isabelle Adjani fares better as Lucy Harker, although her scenes are typically in giallo style mixed with heritage TV. (Honestly, there were times I wondered if someone hadn’t discovered some extra chapters of Buddenbrooks and decided to shoot them in the style of the 1979 miniseries.) Bruno Ganz (Jonathan Harker) mostly appears in the heritage TV sequences, with some Hammer Studios scenes thrown in there, as well. Roland Topor (Renfield) is just annoying, as is his laugh.

For all that, it’s worth watching Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre for what’s good in it, as well as for a lesson in how not to mix cinematic styles. One of the most effective sequences, which is pure Herzog, is the opening shot of mummies in a Mexican museum. Strictly speaking, it has nothing to do with the story of this film, but it’s a great visual that creates exactly the right mood for a tale of dread. Too bad that tale never quite arrives.

The blu-ray sounds great (the soundtrack is mostly Popul Vuh plus classical music), yet only looks great in some of the scenes and not in others. The outdoor shots in full sunlight (mostly the heritage TV sections) are stunning, like Romantic paintings come to life. Unfortunately, the clarity of the blu-ray makes some of the interior scenes look as if they were shot on sets, even when they weren’t, and there are noticeable flaws in the low-light scenes.

Nosferatu the Vampyre is distributed on blu-ray by Scream Factory. The release includes two versions of the film, in German and in English; they’re similar but not identical, and I prefer the German version (it has English subtitles), in part because the lead actors are speaking in their first language. Herzog’s not-to-be missed commentary is also available in both German and English (with English subtitles), and they’re not identical, either. The final extra is a making-of documentary (13 min.) that, true to Herzog’s spirit, is both informative and eccentric. | Sarah Boslaugh

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