Because the Future is Fun

Remembering … Nosferatu

1978 --- French actress Isabelle Adjani and actor Klaus Kinski on the set of "Nosferatu : Phantom der Nacht". --- Image by © Cat's Collection/Corbis

Does anybody know Count Dracula’s agent? We’d like to ask him to lend us a fiver.

Packshot

We’re pretty sure that the famous fang-bearer’s Mr 10% is earning a tidy sum and can spare it, as his client remains the most oft-adapted literary character of them all aside from Sherlock Holmes. For better or worse the neck-nipping ne’er-do-well is never absent from pop culture consciousness for long, and recent endeavours have included a unique 10-episode TV take on Bram Stoker’s tale that will be much missed by yours truly thanks to it’s riotously entertaining OTT qualities, while Luke Evans will soon be exploring the man behind the myth with Dracula Untold.

As if that wasn’t enough for Drac devotees to be sinking their teeth into, the BFI have recently resurrected one of the most fascinating adaptations of Stoker’s elegy to the undead – visionary director Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, which is now available in a gorgeous steelbook Blu-ray. Herzog’s flick is, of course, a twist on Nosferatu, Ein Symphonie des Grauens (or A Symphony of Horrors, for those of us who do not sprechen sie Deutsch), arguably the most iconic entry into the German expressionist oeuvre of all and considered by many to be cinema’s oldest surviving vampire movie.

Filmed over three months in the autumn of 1921, the original Nosferatu was a comparatively low-key production, the first – and, ultimately, last and only – from fledgling company Prana-Film (named after the Buddhist concept of prana, loosely translated as lifeforce; truly, it seems, the blood is the life). Funds were in such short supply that feted director Friedrich Murnau operated just one camera throughout, and ironically could only afford to shoot during daylight hours to ensure sufficient illumination. Fortunately he was supplied with hugely detailed stage directions by his screenwriter, the highly-regarded Henrik Galeen, a Jewish scribe and sometime director himself who had previously brought The Golem to the screen in 1915. The soundtrack was provided by notable composer Hans Erdmann, though sadly that recording has long since been lost as only one original negative was produced. Modern DVD releases – including the disc currently available from the BFI – include a charming and wholly gripping interpretation from Hammer veteran James Bernard.

It is a fact well known to those who know it well that Ein Symphonie des Grauens was a direct adaptation of Dracula, but unfortunately Prana-Film failed to obtain the copyright to Stoker’s story before tackling the project. Convinced that a handful of changes would thwart any legal liabilities, Galeen amended the monikers of several of the novel’s protagonists; Count Dracula became Count Orlok, Renfield became Knock, Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, and Abraham Van Helsing was reinterpreted as an educator named Bulwer. Several supporting players were omitted entirely, and the film’s setting was relocated from Victorian England to 1838 Germany. Most importantly from a modern pop culture standpoint, Galeen also re-wrote the ending of the novel in an attempt to claim differentiation between the stories, changing the face of genre fiction in the process. Prior to Murnau’s masterpiece, sunlight merely weakened vampires. After inadvertently catching rays turned Orlok to dust, his bloodsucking brethren began to slap on the factor 50 with extreme prejudice.

Count Orlock

All the same, the core concept of Ein Symphonie des Grauens – a carnivorous Count seeking to acquire property and nosh at the neck of a naive conveyancer’s beautiful bride – remained suspiciously familiar. Prana made no secret of their inspiration, describing their film as “freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, but never stopped to consider that such an adaptation wouldn’t actually be … well, free. Despite a modest domestic performance following its opening in 1922, the film amassed enough attention internationally for word to reach Stoker’s widow Florence – holder of the rights to her late husband’s work – and legal action against Prana unsurprisingly followed. The production house declared bankruptcy and folded (an ultimately futile act, as they still found themselves forced to stump up their legal bills), but even more damagingly, all prints of the film were ordered destroyed in 1924. Nosferatu, Ein Symphonie des Grauens was lost to the world.

Or at least it would have been, had copies not made their way to the USA – where due to a quirk in copyright law, Stoker’s sacred text was already in the public domain. Screenings of the film (and increasingly sub-standard bootlegs) began to crop up, building a cult following throughout the late ‘20s. Florence Stoker also passed away in 1938, which led to a lift on the the ban of the film throughout Europe; before long, Ein Symphonie des Grauens had fully assimilated itself into pop culture, acting as a fascinating counterpart to the slick, Hollywood Universal Monster rallies that had enthralled a generation.

Almost a hundred years on, a film that could so easily have been cast aside as a counterfeit curio has not only survived with its reputation intact; indeed, it’s considered to be one of the most important horror films of all time (look no further than Nosferatu the Vampyre for confirmation of this – we can’t quite imagine Twilight capturing the imagination of such an iconic filmmaker as Werner Herzog). But then most genre flicks do not command the attention with such arresting opening dialogue as this:

Nosferatu

Does this word not sound like the midnight call of the Bird of Death? Do not utter it, or the images of life will fade into pale shadows and ghostly dreams will rise from your heart and feed on your blood.

Spine-chilling stuff, and words that set the tone of Ein Symphonie des Grauens flawlessly. The movie is wholly defined by death, from a telling opening exchange in which Mina Harker substitute Ellen decries the gift of a handpicked bouquet from her well-meaning husband (“why have you killed them? The beautiful flowers!”) to the appearance of Orlok himself. Pale, hunched and thin, Max Schreck’s titular terror is a walking pandemic made flesh, and every inch the embodiment of European vampire lore. Even Bulwer gets in on the fact, gently chiding a hurried Huttner with a prophetic “Not so hasty, young friend! No one can escape his destiny”.

Aside from Gustav van Wangenheim as Thomas Huttner, whose gangly and overstated mannerisms feel hamtastic in comparison to his co-stars and belong in a different movie (possibly one that stars Buster Keaton embarking on a hunt for his trousers), Ein Symphonie des Grauens is a masterclass in silent performance. Alexander Granach in particular is creepy as all hell as the maniacal Knock, a hunchbacked horror reminiscent of Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo buried under layers of deeply unflattering make-up. Occasionally accused in contemporary criticism of acting as a vehicle for anti-Semitic sentiment (despite Granach, in addition to Galeen, being Jewish), Knock remains one of the most unsettling characters of the silent era – aided by knowing lines such as “you could earn yourself quite a bit of money … of course it will cost you some effort … a little sweat and … perhaps … a little blood”.

Knock

Greta Schroder is also fantastic; portraying Ellen as hugely vibrant and so filled with life at the beginning of the movie adds huge tragedy, and increased nobility, to her eventual fate. A scene late in the picture, in which an array of coffins are paraded through the town of Wisborg – a direct consequence of Orlok’s arrival, and the plague he brought with him – provides a real showcase for the character, with Schroder portraying convincing heartbreak at the gloomy sight, and the dawning realisation that that only through her making the ultimate sacrifice will the vampire’s reign of terror come to a close.

Realistically though, Max Schreck (or Max Terror, to use his loosely-translated name) is the star of the show. It’s safe fair to say that Orlok is a world away from Bela Lugosi, though lest we forget that Stoker’s novel didn’t portray Dracula as the handsome and suave ladykiller that Tod Browning would introduce us to (unless “thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils”, “lofty domed forehead”, “eyebrows [were] very massive, almost meeting over the nose” and “ears [were] pale, and at the tops extremely pointed” are the kind of characteristics that get you swiping right on Tinder). A veteran of the touring stage but largely unknown to cinema audiences, Schreck’s anonymity enabled him to embody the role of Orlok completely – so much so, in fact, that during filming superstitious crew members began to fear that Murnau had managed to source a real-life bloodsucker to play the role (a legend brought to life in Edmund Merhige’s hugely entertaining Shadow of the Vampire). This theory would be trashed by Schreck’s post-Orlok career out of make-up, which involved several roles as a character actor and comedian, but it’s undeniable which portrayal the actor would forever be associated with.

Viewed in the year 2014, Ein Symphonie des Grauens still has the power to chill, if not outright scare. The shot of Orlok shuffling up a staircase for a deadly date with Ellen is arguably the most iconic in genre history, with the sharp camera angle and elongated shadow cast by the Count demonstrating the essential hallmarks of Expressionist cinema in one fell swoop, but the film has evolved into more than a mere frightfest; rightly considered a textbook masterclass in silent cinema, Ein Symphonie des Grauens  is blessed with an individualistic stamp placed upon it by its visionary director – a helmsman whose open homosexuality, a rarity in 1922, may well have played an important role in the otherwordly experience of the picture, and increased Orlok’s impact as an outsider looking into another world.

It makes for a slightly different viewing experience to Herzog’s cover version, which is far too remarkable to be dubbed a mere remake. If Murnau’s movie was a horror flick that became art, Herzog’s interpretation is an arthouse horror picture. More pertinently, where the stench of death pervaded every frame of Ein Symphonie des Grauens, Nosferatu the Vampyre is instead defined by life. Tiresome, ceaseless, unforgiving, eternal life; an undying existence survived in the absence of sunlight, company or love. In the words of the title character himself, “there are things more horrible than death”.

Herzog’s film – the eighth of his career – should be screened to anybody considering revisiting a classic. It’s apparent from the opening moments, where the camera loving pans and lingers on a tomb packed with mummified corpses, that we are in for something uniquely unsettling. Despite Herzog upping the quota of dread, however, his film never abandons the spirit of Murnau’s, resorting to buckets of blood or cheap jumps and jolts. Instead this is a transfusion of fresh blood into a successful concept, with some scenes almost replayed shot-for-shot while other details are wholly original.

Sub-titled Phantom der Nacht (Phantom of the Night) in its native teutonic tongue, Nosferatu the Vampyre followed the lead of its forerunner by shooting on a low budget with a minimal crew, primarily on location in the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. Performed simultaneously in English and German thanks to a multi-lingual cast, this second of five collaborations between Herzog and gifted but truculent star Klaus Kinski restores the events of Stoker’s tome to their original 19th Century timeframe (albeit still in the German city of Wisborg), and thanks to the expiration of copyright on the novel the original character names were restored. Kinski was allowed the honour of portraying Count Dracula, while the man who go on to spawn a thousand memes as Adolf Hitler in Downfall, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, brought Jonathan Harker to life. The multi-national feel of the cast was increased by adding two two distinguished French thesps to the call sheet – Isabele Adjani as Lucy Harker (a nod to Terence Fisher’s Hammer opus [Horror of] Dracula, which also romantically attached the one-time Miss Westenra to Harker?) and celebrated surrealist Roland Topor as Renfield (owner of the most maniacal cackle in cinema) – and the Austrian actor Walter Ladengast as Van Helsing.

Nosferatu - Phantom der Nacht

Nosferatu the Vampyre works on countless levels, proving itself to be one of the finest vampire flicks of its – and indeed any other – generation. Much like the original it’s Kinski’s performance that really lives long in the memory, reinterpreting Dracula as a pitiful and pathetic wretch almost deserving of sympathy over condemnation, but this take on Nosferatu is a multi-layered journey into the darkness that proves that horror needn’t equal hackneyed. A visual feast that belies its meagre budget (and thankfully now looking better than ever on Blu-ray), Herzog resisted the temptation to transplant the ultimate silent picture into a vocal world with a deafening cacophony of sound and instead allows his camera to do much of the talking; countless soundless external shots find beauty in nature’s brutality, while the ancient, pale interiors of Dracula’s labyrinthine castle are dazzling and disorienting.

Herzog’s core plot retains the heart of Ein Symphonie des Grauen’s twist on Stoker’s source material – Jonathan Harker, a young estate agent, is despatched to Transylvania by his sinister supervisor to close a deal with an eccentric aristocrat, Count Dracula, who seeks to purchase property in Wisborg. Alas our eponymous parasite proves to be as amorous as ever, taking a shine to a photo of Harker’s betrothed, and thus begins a campaign of death and pestilence that ends in tragedy for all concerned.  Despite these similarities – and a number of shots almost identical to those in Ein Symphonie des Grauen, which Herzog considered to be the greatest German film of them all – Nosferatu the Vampyre introduces a number of unique touches to proceedings. There is more humour on offer in this interpretation, most notably at the expense of Van Helsing, while the fate of Harker is also significantly darker than many viewers may expect.

It’s the tragic twist on the character of Dracula that really elevates the film, however. It’s a ballsy move to re-imagine such an iconic figure (or figures if you consider Schreck’s previous performance as Orlok, whose distinctive aesthetics are recreated here), but in the hands of Kinski it proves to be a masterstroke – this is a role he was born to play (so much so that the notoriously vexatious thesp threw none of his fabled temper tantrums during the daily ordeal of four hours in the make-up chair). The actor is allowed fleeting recognisable tropes, most notably lines such as “the children of the night make their music” – a misquote of Stoker’s text that ensures a distinction, no matter how small, remains between Dracula and Nosferatu, but rarely has the concept of eternity been portrayed so convincingly as a curse, and never has this character been so compellingly complex. The Count Dracula of Nosferatu the Vampyre doesn’t drink blood for any kind of pleasure; rather, he does so under a self-enforced duress, a need to stay alive – creating something of a paradox, as the weary bloodsucker clearly harbours something of a death wish, a desire to escape the unending inertia and tedium of his abhorrent and insufferable existence.

Two key exchanges really define the movie, and it’s no coincidence that they both revolve largely around Kinski. An elongated re-creation of the dinner table scene from Ein Symphonie des Grauen is impossibly involving, and leaves the audience wondering if Dracula deserves a supportive hug or a stake through the heart. An icy interaction with the Count’s would-be bride, meanwhile, is simultaneously the scariest and most sensitive scene in the picture – and undoubtedly the most memorable. Appearing behind the beautiful Lucy (another achievement for the film’s make-up department, with Adjani’s panda eyes and pallid skin effortlessly evoking memories of Ellen Hutter) despite casting no reflection in her bedroom mirror, it’s hard not to be chilled by Dracula’s presence – and evident motives. It’s a beautifully performed scene, with Dracula’s desperation for Lucy’s love (“the absence of love is the most abject pain”) matched only by her cold and disinterested repulsion (“I never will. If Jonathan can’t have my love then no one else will”). Even more than in Ein Symphonie des Grauen it’s Lucy’s pure heart that provides both revenge and redemption; whilst her sharp-toothed suitor meets his maker thanks to her sacrifice, avenging the fate of her permanently-defective paramour, her demise also helps the infatuated immortal achieve the release he so desperately seeks.

Such a classic as Nosferatu the Vampyre deserves a definitive home video release, and this new BFI steelbook is undoubtedly the finest yet. Such an aged and low-budget production (the film was produced on a budget of just 2.5m deutschmarks) will never look flawless and there is evident grain throughout the picture, but the movie has never looked better. More importantly, this Blu-ray release includes both the English- and German-language versions of the flick. While only include the dialogue-laden scenes include any differences, these are diverse viewing experiences – especially as it’s impossible to look past the latter as superior.

Herzog’s screenplay, which is gloriously poetic in places, flows much better pre-translation, while the performances of Kinski and Ganz, fine though they are in English, unfold immeasurably more confidently in their mother tongue. This adds new dimensions to their interactions, especially the aforementioned dinner table scene in Dracula’s castle which is altogether more intimidating when unfolded in a teutonic tone, making the German-language version of Nosferatu the Vampyre arguably a more frightening flick – without sacrificing any of the film’s plentiful artistic merit. The German audio is also available in 5.1 surround on this release, while those watching in English will be forced to make do with mono.

Elsewhere the package is rounded out by a commentary track over the German-language version (recorded by Herzog in 1998), an archival 13-minute Making Of featurette (don’t turn up your nose at that description, it’s far from a puff piece and features some wholly forthright talking heads), a stills gallery and theatrical trailer, and of course the standard-issue robust BFI booklet. Always a pleasure, this insert includes new on-set still images, as essay on the film from Herzog historian Laurie Johnson (oh, I wish to have someone who can rewrite my essay like this one!), and a reproduced review from 1979 by revered critic Tom Milne.

You’ll be hard-pushed to find a modern Dracula story – heck, a modern vampire story – which doesn’t owe a heavy debt to Nosferatu in one of its forms. Two very different undisputed virtuosos of German cinema have taken one of literature’s most famous fiends and injected new blood to his legend; if nothing else, without Murnau and Herzog it’s quite possible that vampires would be terrorising beach bums in broad daylight, and the Count’s romantic tendencies would not have been immortalised by Liz Lochhead, Francis Ford Coppola and so many others. You don’t need us to tell you how much that, much like the feeding habits of Counts Orlok and Dracula, would suck.

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