Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Anti-artifice (Nosferatu the Vampyre)

As SPOOKTOBERFEST draws to its inevitable close, and 1001 Movies Blog Club day rolls around yet again, I invite you to consider with me Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre. I must warn you, the way may be treacherous.

No, seriously, I find this to be one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write for the Club so far, and a lot of that has to do with the yawning chasm between what I expected to get out of the experience of the film and where I ended up. On many levels, Nosferatu the Vampyre should be the kind of movie I gobble up with a spoon and then lick the bowl and ask for more. A gothic horror movie (which is one of my favorite genres), directed by Herzog (whose genius I fervently admire), and starring Klaus Kinski (generally a safe bet to deliver an insanely committed performance) as the titular lord of the undead. What’s not to love? Furthermore, it’s technically a remake, updating F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu fifty-some years later, which is the kind of artistic endeavor that fascinates me, like a good rock and roll cover song. It was a labor of love for Herzog, who thought Murnau’s silent film was a masterpiece and wanted nothing more than to reverently homage the predecessor film.

However, Nosferatu the Vampyre did absolutely nothing for me. I was waiting for the movie to dig its claws into me, but that never happened, and I gradually realized that I was getting really bored with it. And then it ended, and I tried looking back on it as a whole and figuring out what had just happened and where it had all gone wrong.

I don’t even know where to start. Perhaps with the performances, which I may be judging unfairly right from the get-go. I watched the English version of the film, which may have been my mistake. Herzog made two versions of the film simultaneously, re-running each take in both German and English, for distribution in separate international markets without the need for subtitles. English was not the native language of his actors, however, and it shows as their line readings come across as incredibly stilted. It’s difficult to describe, a bizarre, disorienting combination of melodramatic intonation and phonetic pronunciation devoid of meaningful intent. I should note here that I’m talking mainly about Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker and Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker here as the most grievous offenders. Maybe in the German-language version they give much more nuanced, naturalistic performances. Kinski, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have as much trouble staying in character while delivering dialogue in English. And Roland Topor takes the crazy up to 11 as Renfield, which I appreciated, and any struggles he had in translation actually serve his character well.

Apparently Nosferatu the Vampyre had an extremely limited budget and a rather small crew (which in itself is apparently something very typical of German movies produced in the 70’s) and it shows in the finished product. It is transparently clear that no sets were constructed for the film, and every scene, interior and exterior, was shot in a pre-existing location, mainly in the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. You would think this would give the film a greater sense of verisimilitude, but in fact I experienced the exact opposite phenomenon. Everything looked fake and staged. Actors dressed in period costume reciting dialogue inside structures which happen not to have been updated much in hundreds of years reminded me mostly of historical reenactments at tourist attractions (though the fact that I went to college in Williamsburg, VA means I make that leap on a pretty regular basis, honestly). One example stood out to me: in the scene in which Dracula spends the night feasting on Lucy’s blood in her bedroom, the shot is composed so that a nightstand is foregrounded. And the nightstand looks like it was probably made in the 1960’s or 70’s, with perfect factory-built right angles and glossy finish. The bedroom could pass for a 19th century domestic setting, and surely they had brown wooden nightstands in the 19th century, but it’s also obviously a late 20th century piece of furniture that sticks out like a sore thumb. There were probably numerous other examples of this which I didn’t register consciously but which contributed to the overall feeling of shoddy (or non-existent) production design. I’m so accustomed to Hollywood trickery and attention to detail that I tend to perceive a movie shot on a backlot recreation of Victorian Europe as more real-looking or right-looking than actual Europe.

Another side-effect is that the camerawork overall is fairly dull. In part this is because Herzog is recreating shots from Murnau’s work, and thus despite advances in technology he is limiting himself to what was possible in 1922. And also this is because there are only so many workable angles within an existing, functional row house in Delft as opposed to a studio soundstage. Again, the final effect is imposing a kind of distance between the audience and the movie, denying them the ability to be swept up into the story.

So, real-world location shooting which ends up looking counterintuitively phony, and German-speaking actors doing dialogue in English which sounds overly forced. And that’s not even getting into other questionable decisions, like Herzog restoring the characters’ original names (Nosferatu was a copyright-violating adaptation of Dracula, which had passed into the public domain by the time Nosferatu the Vampyre came about) but somehow assigning the names to the wrong roles? Or the scene where Jonathan is walking through the night to reach the castle and a carriage stops to pick him up, and the lighting effects are created by putting the camera on one side of a large rocky mass and a huge electric klieg setup on the far side of the rocks, which is so jarring it shatters any and all suspension of disbelief?

Which is not to say that the movie has no beauty to it. The most iconic element of Murnau’s Nosferatu is, of course, the look of Count Orlok himself, and Nosferatu the Vampyre manages to both copy and update that vision of the cursed creature (aided, of course, by Kinski bringing it to life). The make-up effects are fantastic. And some of the shots are gorgeous; I wish I could have found a screencap image online, but there is a moment after Dracula arrives in Wismar when he roams the streets late at night and peers through the window of the Harker house. The symbolism, with the camera on the outside looking in over Dracula’s shoulder, is entirely on-the-nose, and Herzog emphasizes it by using natural lighting tones for the interior, and contrasting those with a wash of blue light over Dracula’s features.

Kinski’s performance makes Dracula an otherworldly creature, which I’d argue is the correct approach for the character. (I don’t hate on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula film, I think it’s fun in an over-the-top way, and Gary Oldman’s cool, sexy Vlad Dracul is dynamite for what it is, but you have to pretty much chuck all sense of what Dracula should be out the window to get into it.) I think the ideal embodiment of Dracula would make him mostly terrifying and slightly sympathetic, a tricky off-balance combination of unrelatable and relatable. Unfortunately I don’t think Kinski, or the script he’s working with, come anywhere close to that. In Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dracula is neither scary nor sympathetic, he’s just pathetic. Freakish and doomed, first condemned to parasitic loneliness and ultimately consigned to an ignoble, almost unrecognized death. And that death is further complicated by yet another Herzog addition which deviates from both Stoker’s novel and Murnau’s dramatization: in Nosferatu the Vampyre, the death of Dracula is followed immediately by the rise of Jonathan Harker, who assumes the mantle of vampire and sets out with “much to do.” The implication is that curses never end and evil can never be destroyed, cycles never broken.

All right, seriously, at this point Herzog is just screwing with us, right? I cannot quite bring myself to believe that an auteur like Herzog makes mistakes. Most of what his movie ends up saying has to be something Herzog was deliberately trying to say. But I have no idea what that could be. I can’t really get much traction with a theory that he’s not saying anything personal, and is only riffing on his respect for Murnau’s original. Because if that were the case, why make such significant changes, especially to the ending? Or for that matter, the beginning? The film opens with a shots of actual, mummified corpses set to atmospheric music, and it’s interesting and evocative but almost completely disconnected from the rest of the film. I want to believe that by showing real death (technically cholera victims in a museum) Herzog is making a statement about reckoning with mortality, and how superstitious folk tales about monsters that blur the lines between life and death are really insignificant compared to the actual, inevitable death awaiting us all. But then the rest of the movie just does nothing with that idea. Kinski’s Dracula may be pathetic but he’s still the most fully realized and most real element in the entire film, and everything around him seems insubstantial by comparison. Is death the real monster, or is a fictitious vampire somehow a higher truth?

I don’t know, I can’t parse it out. My personal theory about cover tunes is that they should all abide by three rules: the original recording should have some merit, the artist recording the cover should have some appeal, and the cover should bring something new to the table to improve upon the original. Murnau’s Nosferatu clearly has great merit, and Herzog is an appealing artist. But I remain unconvinced that anything Herzog brings to his updating in Nosferatu the Vampyre qualifies as an improvement. He certainly brings new elements into it, but rather than clarifying or elevating, they never fully cohere and ultimately drag the project down. It’s disappointing to find that what had so much promise on paper is only an interesting failure at best.

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