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With the interest in the new movie Shadow of the Vampire, it seemed a good time to take a look back at the original Nosferatu and its color remake. The original is standard fare in film studies courses, one of the most screened silent films of all time, and now (thanks to this new Image DVD) possible to appreciate in something like its original form. The 1979 Herzog remake is also quite a show, an art movie for horror fans, that manages to recreate the original and still maintain an identity of its own. Plot-wise, the films are so identical, only one synopsis is necessary!Synopsis: (the altered character names from the 1922 film are in italics)
Renfield (Broker Knock), an eccentric real estate agent already under the vampiric influence of a distant client, Count Dracula (Graf Orlok), sends salesman Johnathan Harker (Thomas Hutter) across Europe to close a deal. In Transylvania Harker finds the locals so superstitious, that the last leg of his journey must be made on foot. In eerie castle, the cadaverous Count goes both for the property offered, and Harker's wife Lucy (Greta), whose cameo he admires on Harker's locket. Lucy intuits her husband's danger, and by some mysterious telepathy, communicates her love across the miles ... signals that the ghoulish Dracula senses while in the process of vampirizing Harker.
Dracula leaves in the night with a wagonload of earth-filled coffins, eventually travelling as cargo on a sailing ship. Harker manages to escape the locked castle and make his way back home, but not in time. The vampire king kills all aboard the ship, which drifts unmanned into harbor; the horde of rats infesting the coffins spread into the town, starting the plague. Sick and disoriented, Jonathan makes it home, but is unable to help Lucy cope with the threat of the undead. The good wife resolves to use herself as the sacrifice to destroy the monster, in the only way he can be destroyed.
What we have here is obviously Dracula; the events above have been part of the stage and screen versions of Bram Stoker's classic novel for a hundred years without major changes. The popular book was completely plagiarized by the original Murnau movie, which was just too popular to be exterminated in the flurry of lawsuits that accompanied its release in 1922. Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer have written reams of text as to its historical significance in the 1920s - there are more recognizeable iconographic images here than in the rest of the German Expressionistic output, put together. Just about every appearance of the bulbous headed, ratlike Nosferatu (an appellation synonymous with Dracula) is a classic shot.
What surprises on this viewing is the quality of the print used, which is surprisingly intact and well-framed. Savant has watched digest versions and 'full feature copies' of this film since 1967 and they were nowhere near as fluid and complete as this. Either restorer/archivist/Blackhawk owner David Shepard has improved the source material, or Savant wasn't reading those critical Video Watchdog articles from a few years ago correctly, because this copy plays just fine. Not only is this a good fifteen minutes longer than what Savant is used to seeing, but there are far fewer of those annoying jump cuts in the middle of scenes, where a few lost frames cause unnecessary pops in the action. And the framing is also greatly improved: heads are no longer cut off by long-ago optical re-framings. Previous copies tended to make Nosferatu look like a remnant.
Whatever transfer speed was used to make the video master for Image's DVD, it looks fine. I always tried to project it at 18 frames per second when possible to avoid the jerkiness. At that speed it was too slow, although it did play well with Bernard Herrmann music on the turntable! Frankly, this was the first time I saw Nosferatu that I could fully appreciate its acting and direction. I have a predilection for the melodramatic excesses of G.W. Pabst (The Loves of Jeanne Ney, Pandora's Box), but he wasn't as consistent as Murnau in his continuity of scenes, screen direction and camera placement. His actors are often allowed to behave very naturally. There's even an attempt at a matched action cut early on when "Thomas Hutter" runs across a room to hug his faithful frau. It stands out like a sore thumb against the later fluidity of MGM-style continuity cutting, but in the context of 1922's one scene = one shot direction, it's very impressive.
Image's DVD comes with two music tracks. The first is a Dolby Digital 5.0 score by the Silent Orchestra, a blend of acoustic and electric improvisation in 'contemporary and traditional styles', as the text on the packaging says. The second is a much more familiar organ score compiled and performed by Timothy Howard. We ended up mostly preferring the 5.0 score, but the choice was nice. What we couldn't take much of was the third audio essay, an analysis of Nosferatu that I'm sure has important academic value. The part we sampled was offering the old saw about Nosferatu somehow presaging Adolf Hitler, the kind of thesis that works far better in print. Among the extras offered are a photo comparison comparing the film's evocative settings, with recent photos taken at the same sites.
What was the most interesting thing about seeing this 1922 German vampire film? Recognizing in Murnau's potent visuals the entire history of vampire movies to follow. The scenes at the inn are filmed almost identically in Browning's Dracula. 'Hutter' tiptoeing around the deserted castle is repeated in composition (and costume) in Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers. Christopher Lee's handsome Count is in pointed contrast to Murnau's bloat-headed ghoul. And Coppola's gimmick-laden version pales next to the simple, if dated, special effects used here. The plain, stark image of Max Schreck's shadowy claw oozing across a wall induces a basic, real shudder in this 'Symphony of Horror.'
Werner Herzog's remake, Nosferatu, The Vampyre, has been available on DVD for some time. It does a remarkably good job of reproducing Murnau's movie without excessive updating or cinematic fireworks. His slow pace and matter-of-fact period detail, along with his usual naturalistic ease with movie stars and non-actors, lulls one into an acceptance of the 'uncanny' content without it seeming ludicrous. As Lucy, Isabelle Adjani is the acting standout, spending at least half of her screen time in wide-eyed horror at sights seen and unseen. Klaus Kinski, cocooned in an elaborate makeup job, compsensates for his well-fed looks by appearing even more spidery - his bald head looks as though his scalp is a bulging bag containing a brain but no skull. Together the two give this remake its best new dimension, an enlarging of the original's psychic bond between the vampire and the housewife. Kinski's pathetic pleas for 'some of the love you give your husband' make the monster more than a bloodsucker, and Adjani's fatal embrace reminds us of the alternate, 'female predator' connotation given the word Vampire.
Popol Vuh's excellent music for Herzog imbues the film with a tonal feel that ominously unites quaint interiors with the natural beauty of the outdoors. Seeing the two versions side by side places their similarities in strong relief, but Herzog's reuse of Murnau's famous setups is undiminished in effect, like the grim entrance of the ghost ship into the unsuspecting town. There were rats in the 1922 original, but Herzog has thousands of the animals, in the ship, on the dock, in the town square, that become disturbing if only because you wonder how his rodent-wranglers could possibly control them! The only scene Savant felt perhaps fell short was the 'dance of death' party of the soon-to-be plague victims. It came off as too remote, almost as if it were meant to be an illusive vision experienced by the wandering Lucy. Perhaps it was!
At our screening, everyone commented on the actual vampiric attack scene, which was devoid of Hammer blood or Rollin nudity. Yet Kinski's feeding was obscenely creepy, tender, as if he were breast-feeding. Very quiet, very unsettling. Horror films able to create that kind of crawly-skin feel, are rare indeed.
Anchor Bay's disc is unusual in that it carries two complete versions of the movie, as the differences between the German and English cuts are more than a simple language dub. (Savant watched the German version and didn't want the job of cataloging the differences...) This is the perfect solution to the version problem and is the kind of virtuosity that shows just how committed to these films the folks at Anchor Bay must be. The audio commentary track shows Herzog again a fine raconteur, making the problems behind his very spiritually-oriented show seem very physically real. Those crumbling mummies that open the movie are indeed from Guanajuato, Mexico, and, yes, Herzog is careful to make sure we know how manic and tantrum-prone Kinsi was during filming. Besides a trio of trailers there is a featurette sporting a lot of footage of Herzog directing the town square scene, and several where he works with Kinski. In contrast to his madman reputation, Kinski looks enraptured by his character and the task of exploring hand gestures, etc., to make his monster seem more threatening. Or maybe he was relatively restrained, because he knew if he made a fuss, his horrid ears would fall off! In his commentary, Herzog states that the original monster was an unfeeling insect-ghost. Kinski's version is still loathesome, but more human in conception, and it works just as well.
When does a dusty silent 'classic' come back to life? When a DVD as good as Image's new Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror rejuvenates it with an improved picture and a choice of musical scores. And while you're out sampling Shadow of the Vampire, don't forget Werner Herzog's accomplished art-house remake.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Director audio commentary, 3 trailers, Featurette
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 3, 2001