Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

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What would posses you to remake a classic such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eien Symhonie des Grauens? It’s such a great film to begin with that any chance to emulate it would fail. But put the slightly mad Werner Herzog behind the camera and one can expect something interesting. Herzog takes a classic and finds a way to craft something so fantastic and fresh that it doesn’t merely live up to the original, it surpasses it.

Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) takes a journey to sell a home to the elusive Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) who lives in the mountains of Transylvania. Along the way he is dissuaded by the locals who live under the shadow of Dracula. They insist there is a dark supernatural force there and the castle is now nothing but ruins.  Harker presses on regardless and arrives at the Count’s home only to find they were right. Dracula is indeed a vampire and makes his way to England while Harker is taken by a sickness. Harker knows he must return to stop the vampire, even more so since he knows the vampire is after his wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani).

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What does Phantom der Nacht add that the original didn’t have? The advances in technology allow for two major technical differences: sound and color. With Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s cinematography the film is a lot more beautiful although not quite as haunting. However, when it comes to the score I would say that the music by Popol Vuh is just as creepy and foreboding as the original. Since Dracula the book is now public domain the film calls the vampire Dracula, the solicitor Harker and the wife Lucy. However, it remains faithful to the eien Symhonie des Grauens narrative instead of adding element from the original novel.

Perhaps the key difference from the original is since this film is a Herzog project there is a fascination with nature. The best scenes of the film are when Harker strikes out across the countryside to cross the pass to the castle on his own. He walks alongside a swelling river, making is way upstream and the water roars around him, the turmoil of the water foreshadowing the wave that is about to descend upon him and all of England. The next scens is Harker atop a mount, fog and clouds surrounding him as he takes it all in. Das Rheingold swells in the background as the film takes in the landscape as well.

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Yet for all its beauty Herzog had no qualms about expressing the harsh and formidable view he had of nature. Here he uses vampirism as an example. There are perfectly normal examples in the natural world, such as the bat that keeps flying in and waking up Lucy. There is also the plague itself that Dracula brings over. Any disease takes on a parasitic relationship, living off its host. And, of course, humans themselves tend to often have vampiric relationships, particularly the disabled and the insane. And there is, of course, the vampire himself. And while he’s a freak of nature there’s nothing unnatural about the concept.

Klaus Kinski as Dracula provides a rendition of Dracula that does credit to Max Shreck’s original performance. Once again, a lot goes in the way of makeup. The exaggeration of the ears, the prominence of the two front teeth and the long fingernails add a lot to the creepy look. But Kinski was notorious for having a short temper and a fiery passion and we can see the intensity in his eyes, even in the most mundane scene. The way he lurches and carries himself is both unnatural and assertive, constantly keeping himself in power. In real life Kinski was a formidable person and it shows on screen.

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And much like Kinski this film dominates almost every aspect of the original. The acting, directing, cinematography and music all surpass the original. The ending in particular is fantastic and ranks among the top endings of all time in this review’s opinion. And when you consider how well crafted the original was you don’t get a great film; you get one of the greatest films ever made and the greatest vampire film of all time.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Nosferatu (The Ultimate Two-Disc Edition)