Monday, July 9, 2018

Herzog/Kinski #2 - "Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht"

*As always, I wrote this article with SPOILERS throughout. But who doesn’t know all the spoilers for a Dracula movie at this point?

This is a unique entry for me because I’ve owned this movie for years, but I have never watched it. You would think a site called “Why Do I Own This?” would be about movies I have already seen, but that’s not the case. I have rarely purchased a movie without watching it first (I did buy Alien: Covenant without watching it because I’m a huge fan of the franchise and knew I’d at least slightly like it [I did]). But when I buy sets of movies, sometimes a movie or two is included that I haven’t seen. For instance, I haven’t seen a few movies in the Mel Brooks collection I bought a while back (which probably means I’ll be writing about that collection soon). With the Herzog/Kinski set, there were four (of six!) that I had not seen, and two I did not watch until I decided to write these articles. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is the first of these films (Woyzeck is next).

So why would I buy a set of films that I had not watched entirely? First off, this was bought at a time when I felt required to buy a movie a week (I started this site to make myself watch some of my too large collection to justify its existence). Second, and more importantly, I loved Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo so much that I knew I would like everything Herzog and Kinski produced. So far, I am correct. We’ll find out for sure next week. For now, here’s Herzog and Kinski’s version of Nosferatu.

I’ve seen this before...but not done by Werner Herzog.

I don’t have a good excuse for why I skipped this one for so long. I like vampire movies, especially adaptations of Dracula (even if this one is unofficial just like the original Nosferatu). But perhaps that’s also why I skipped it. It’s a story I’ve seen many times, and I can’t imagine liking a version more than Coppola’s. (I am a huge fan of that version and watch it at least once a year; I don’t even consider Keanu Reeves’s casting distracting.) That’s still the case, but I should have known Herzog would do something unique with the story.

The most surprising element is the lack of blood. For a film about a vampire, there is almost no blood (compared to Coppola’s fountains of blood). It’s odd, but I honestly didn’t think about it until near the end of the film. It’s as if Herzog gave himself a challenge, but looking through his career, he is not a gory filmmaker. His films contain violence, but they never revel it it. His focus here was to create a mood, and he certainly did that.

The use of music and some great exterior shots set the otherworldly tone for this film. But what elevated it for me the most was Herzog’s focus on death. Nosferatu brings the plague with him, and the second half of the film becomes a straight up plague movie culminating in a great sequence of hysteria that comes with mass death. The character of Lucy stumbles through a chaotic scene of caskets, bodies, and insanity. It’s much more interesting than watching a vampire sneak into a bedroom over and over again. Herzog is more interested in what the vampire represents, and what that would do to an entire town.

Herzog is also one of the first directors (as far as I know; I’m no Dracula film scholar) to humanize Dracula by making him unhappy with his immortality (an idea that Coppola ran with). Kinski makes for one of the most disturbing versions of the villain, yet you still sense a scrap of humanity left within him.

I’m a bit embarrassed that I’m just now seeing this film. I think if I had seen this before Coppola’s version, then it might be my favorite. But Coppola’s version is burnt in my memory as the version of Dracula. But Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is a close second because it is so different while also staying the same.

Kinski, the animal.

Even though Herzog humanizes Nosferatu a bit (and even claims Kinski made the character more human-like in the commentary), it’s hard to watch Kinski and think of a creature in human form. His physical performance is very unsettling, and when you finally see him feed, it’s sickening in it animality. (By the way, I just realized “animality” is a real word; I hope it means what I think it does.) And even though Herzog claims this version is more human, he later states that he asked Kinski to move like a crab, just as he did with Aguirre. Perhaps the key to their creative relationship was that one direction: “Move like a crab!”

Kinski is already a strange looking man, but add the makeup and prosthetics and he truly becomes a monster. But it’s the way he skulks around, the way he stares, and the way he makes use of his claw-like hands that make the performance. He is worthy successor to Max Schreck, and is arguably more frightening.

As for the typical Kinski shenanigans, there really aren’t any. Apparently, Herzog used the Aguirre technique, in which he let Kinski play it big for many scenes and argued with him between and before scenes to tire Kinski out to get the subdued performance Herzog wanted. And subdued it is. There is a lack of energy to Kinski’s Nosferatu, but it somehow makes him more frightening.

As for Kinski’s offscreen issues, I couldn’t find any aside from comments about him being difficult in general. There is no gun story with this film. Funnily enough, my first thought when I saw Kinski was, “What did that poor makeup artist have to endure each day?” Apparently, I’m not the only person to think this as IMDb’s trivia section’s first entry states that Kinski was surprisingly well-behaved for the make-up sessions and became friends with the artist. But don’t forget, Klaus Kinski is (probably) a piece of shit.

Would I buy this if it wasn’t part of the collection?

No, but my criteria for purchasing has gone up just a bit. Years ago, during my must-buy-at-least-one-movie-each-week-no-matter-what phase, I would have bought this. I used to rewatch movies a lot more back then, though. These days, I had to make a website to make myself watch movies from my collection. So something has to really speak to me for me to buy it. (That written, I still add at least twenty movies to my collection each year.)

I did really enjoy Nosferatu, though. But Coppola’s Dracula will always be my favorite vampire movie, and it will likely be the only one I rewatch with any regularity. Although I do find myself watching Dracula 2000 (I don’t know why, but that movie really worked for me) Dracula: Dead and Loving It (the enema jokes and fountains of blood crack me up), and Interview with the Vampire (I’ve read all the Anne Rice novels and thought the movie was a faithful and entertaining adaptation). So there’s just no room for Nosferatu, but I’ll always have it just in case.

Random Thoughts

Renfield gets on my fucking nerves, which might be the point, but still.

The music, thought repetitive, is very effective.

Okay, maybe Malick did rip Herzog off. Nature shots as a character witnesses a new place set to Wagner’s “Rheingold"? That's pretty much every other scene of The New World.

Kinski’s disembodied head in one of his first scenes is unsettling.

Lines of coffins like slithering snakes. Herzog is still in the jungle.

An apocalyptic Dracula film.

Bruno Ganz is pretty great in this. It’s a shame this is the only film he made with Herzog.

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