Gilberto Perez

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[In Nosferatu-The Vampyre] Herzog tells the story with a certain irony (most salient in the deliberately archaizing mode of some of the performances) but without any intention of parody: he is asking us to take it in all seriousness. True, his source of inspiration was not Bram Stoker's Dracula but the first film rendering of it, F. W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu, the one occasion in which Stoker's tale yielded a great work of art…. Herzog is paying his respects to an old film he particularly admires, and attempting to reinstate the story to the kind of validity Murnau was able to give it. (p. 14)

Despite the recreation of the vampire's makeup, and the adherence to some significant changes the old film made in the plot of the novel, Herzog's conception of Nosferatu diverges notable from Murnau's. Herzog shows us his Nosferatu very often in close-up, or with the camera close enough to him for his striking face to become the center of attention, in a marked departure from Murnau's technique which reflects a basic difference in theme. For Herzog's closer look serves his endeavor to humanize the vampire, changing him from Murnau's sovereign fiend into a figure of more lifelike dimensions, and inviting our sympathy in his behalf…. Murnau's Nosferatu comes to seem pathetic in the end; but Herzog's Nosferatu seems pathetic from the beginning.

We first encounter the vampire, in Herzog as in Murnau as in Stoker, when Jonathan Harker, on his journey to Transylvania, encounters him in his castle; but Herzog's Count, unlike the others, looks nervous in that first appearance. He breathes heavily as he stares at Harker eating his supper; he makes an embarrassed excuse for sucking the blood in Harker's thumb when Harker accidentally cuts it with a knife, and he awkwardly proceeds to suck that blood anyway after Harker resists the suggestion that this would be therapeutic. Herzog's Count doesn't relish his blood-sucking, but can't help doing it: it's his curse, or his neurosis. In the young wife's bedroom at the end, he lifts up her nightgown, groping for a more conventional sexual interaction, and she has to direct him toward her neck, which is what vampires are supposed to be interested in. Unlike Murnau's, Herzog's Nosferatu doesn't disappear after the plague breaks out in the Nordic town, and well before the end he turns up in the young wife's bedroom and tells her that death isn't the worst thing, that life without love is worse. Herzog even shows us the woman and Harker, the husband she so loves, from the point of view of the vampire spying on their domesticity…. [In] Herzog we are expected to sympathize with the vampire's need for love, and so we are given his perspective from the outside looking in at the couple's home. Instead of personifying the threat of death, this Nosferatu laments the fact that he is unable to die, and must keep on doing the same futile things he has been doing for centuries; he seeks in the woman a redemption from his plight. One result of this changed conception is that, whereas Murnau's Nosferatu is the most frightening of vampires, Herzog's hardly scares us at all—though perhaps he wasn't intended to.

In portraying a more human vampire, it may seem inappropriate to have adopted, and to display in prominent close-up, Nosferatu's macabre makeup, the least naturalistic of any Dracula. Yet Herzog, one gathers, wants us to regard his Count's grotesque appearance not so much as the embodiment of evil but as if it were the manifestation of some kind of disease, like the elephant man's, and hence as another reason we should feel compassion for the vampire. Not only does this Nosferatu need love, he is a monster utterly lacking in the vampiric sex appeal of the standard Dracula. The Dracula story, however, doesn't mix very well with the story of Beauty and the Beast. Dracula is as fundamentally evil as the Beast is fundamentally good, and Herzog's vampire, being responsible, either by himself or with the help of his attendant rats, for the death of innumerable people, is no less evil than any other. It's of course possible to see the evildoer as afflicted by a disease, driven by forces he cannot control, and to that extent to feel sorry for him: that was how Herzog presented the maniacal conquistador in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. His Nosferatu is like another version of Aguirre…. But I think Herzog was misguided to have attempted such a presentation in the realm of the fantastic tale: only if we are made to confront evil as an actual human possibility, unbelievable yet incontrovertible, can we be expected to harbor mixed feelings about it. (pp. 14-15)

If in his other films Herzog has often seemed bent on reconstructing the exaggerations of the old German expressionists with material taken from life, in Nosferatu he has taken material from an old expressionist film and treated it as if it were part of life, as if we could accept vampirism as another human aberration.

And the new film, it must be added, exaggerates much more than the old one, what with the vampire's grotesqueness magnified in the frequent close-ups, the few rats in the original multiplied into the hundreds and dwelt on at length, many more shots of many more coffins in the streets of the pestilential town. Herzog exaggerates much more but to much diminished effect: all those additional coffins, for example, fail to add up to anything like the indelible impact of Murnau's shot from the young wife's window…. Of course Herzog has at his command technical resources undreamed of at the time of the original, but his style is much coarser, his structural sense much weaker than Murnau's. Among the several shots he replicates from Murnau is one of the most impressive in the original …: that showing the arrival in the Nordic town of the ship carrying Nosferatu and the plague. Herzog does a good job of recreating the plastic qualities of the shot: the town in the background, the line of the waterside close to the left edge of the screen and nearly parallel to it, in the middle water and mainly an empty space which is gradually, inexorably, filled by the ship as it makes its slow entrance into frame from the right. In Murnau the shot has a powerful effect in conveying the feeling that the ship, and its lethal cargo, are gaining dominance over the town; but not in Herzog. Why not, since the images are closely similar? Because in Murnau the shot comes as the culmination of a carefully developed rhythm, as a stopping point after a succession of brief, briskly cut shots, whereas in Herzog the shot follows a leisurely helicopter shot circling the ship at sea, a shot which seems complete in itself rather than leading forward to the next one.

Herzog is being modest in so attempting to recreate Murnau—too modest, as some of the reviewers have observed, since he is more successful when creating images of his own. Indeed, the best sequence in his film is one without precedent in Murnau, that in which several people make merry in the town square amid the devastation, celebrating the fact that they are alive for another day, that the plague hasn't claimed them yet. But Herzog is also being immodest in presuming that he can rescue Count Dracula from his debased mythology and match the qualities of the original Nosferatu. Although he has come up with a new rendering of the vampire, and one which accords with his own preoccupations, Dracula as the malformed outcast carries little conviction. The failure of this new film, moreover, points up the questionable nature of Herzog's general pursuit of the grotesque, of a view of life granting such centrality to the outlandish as to include the bloody Count among the odd specimens of our common humanity. (p. 15)

Gilberto Perez, "Herzog's 'Nosferatu'," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1979 by Richard W. Burgin), No. 16, 1979, pp. 14-15.


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