At the Movies
In 1979 the makers of Alien, Stalker and, it might also be said, Apocalypse Now invented worlds we thought we wanted to know about but couldn’t inhabit. Domestic quarrels and the musical had their day too (in Kramer vs. Kramer and All That Jazz), and we may feel that Roman Polanski’s Tess belongs to both old and new worlds, but still: it was a good year for otherness.
This feeling is strongly supported by Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, a careful reworking of and elaborate homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film, and also a good indication that weirdness in the movies arrives and vanishes as it is needed or not, like the attention of the court in Kafka’s The Trial: ‘it receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you leave.’ But why do we come? There is an eerie underlining of the question in the fact that John Badham’s Dracula, with Frank Langella in the titular role, also appeared in 1979. But Langella is all charm, as Bela Lugosi (1931), Christopher Lee (1958 and six other years) and Gary Oldman (1992) also were in their way: hard to imagine them out of evening dress, aristocrats after all. Charm and rank are not where we start with Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu.
The Anglo-Transylvanian film tradition makes Draculas much smoother than Bram Stoker’s, while the German versions go drastically in the opposite direction. The pointy ears and the long fingernails of the text suggest a goblin rather than a human, and we know we are closer to folklore and Romanticism than to late-century neo-Gothic: Grimm’s fairy tales, let’s say, rather than Jekyll and Hyde. Both Murnau’s and Herzog’s heroes are defined by masses of eye make-up and absence of hair, and Herzog’s especially often appears as a floating face, a disembodied head talking in the darkness. The dates of the storyline proclaim these allegiances. In Murnau the year is 1838. In Herzog the year is not given but the costumes and fashions are the same. The place is supposed to be Wismar in Germany, though some prints call it Bremen, and the film was shot mainly in Delft – a poster in Dutch creeps into one frame to give something of the game away.
Herzog follows Murnau’s plot very faithfully, except for its ending, and even imitates particular shots and sequences: a mysterious coach coming down from Castle Dracula in the night, a crewless ship steered into port by a dead helmsman, Nosferatu trotting along the streets with his coffin full of the right kind of corrupted, sustaining earth. The difference is in the colour and the dimensions. We see everything so clearly, and Herzog goes slowly to make sure we see it.
The German plot is simpler than any of the English-language ones, in part because the Stoker estate had refused permission for Murnau’s film and he was trying to stay halfway out of trouble. But also because the subject is different, even if the basic materials are the same. The English films, like the novel, are about sex and death and infection; the German films are about disease and sacrifice. Murnau begins with a title card talking about the plague of 1838, and the idea is reinforced in the story by the arrival of rats with Nosferatu’s ship. The rats are pretty good in Murnau, but in Herzog they are very nearly the stars of the film, like a gang of extras in a Hollywood epic – large, swarming, full of energy. They make Nosferatu’s mournful self-pity – it’s not easy living an eternal life, he says, and seems to regret his addiction to blood almost as much as he enjoys it – look very low-spirited by comparison.
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz in the Herzog movie) is sent to Transylvania to get Nosferatu to sign papers regarding a property in Harker’s town in Germany. His wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), asks him not to go and is fully justified in her premonition a little later when she telepathically connects with Harker’s plight as Nosferatu first sinks his fangs into him. Nosferatu locks Harker in his castle and sails to Germany with a stock of coffins; the ship’s passengers and crew all die. Harker escapes but injures himself in the process and comes home in bad shape, not able to recognise Lucy as anyone he knows. This development is Herzog’s invention, and we’ll see in a moment why he needs it.
The ostensible argument underlying the plot of both German films, as befits the return to a Romantic relic, is that science and common sense are inadequate instruments for understanding the world. The plague is not a plague: it is a monster feeding a habit. Superstition is superior science, and that is what Lucy illustrates when she says she knows why the locals are dying, as she walks among a crowd that ignores her. She knows because she has had a conversation with Nosferatu, who instead of violating her like a regular fellow, humbly pleaded for a sip of her blood and went away quietly when she said no. She’s also been reading a book about vampires.
The effect of giving the argument a visual, enacted form, in both films and almost violently in Herzog, is to make sensible people seem not only stupid but strange. The weirdness migrates to them from the monster. We watch the scenes with Harker and Nosferatu with a kind of shocked disbelief. How can he not see the obvious? Has he never been to the movies? Or, since he could use the date as his excuse, not read any Tieck or E.T.A. Hoffmann?
Herzog’s film is haunting but not eerie. The landscapes he lingers over so lovingly – mountains, beaches, a desert – are vast and unaccommodating, but scary only in what must seem like a drearily ordinary way: you could fall or drown, no need of ogres. And when we get to see the monster in the form of Klaus Kinski, we are fascinated but not surprised: 1979 was not 1922. We had witnessed a lot of strangeness in the meantime, in the movies and elsewhere, and we knew how it was supposed to look. The critical question was how adequately or elaborately the picture met our expectations. The pleasure, we could say, lay in the reward of our imaginations rather than their correction.
Herzog gets the same effect with the sequence he runs behind the opening credits. This is footage he shot in Mexico of a set of mummies, magically (well, naturally) preserved skeletons from a cholera epidemic of 1833. The set is more like a horror movie than a historical collection, and the mummies are more alive than most actors in horror movies. This is what ‘undead’ might mean: not dead enough. And the condition makes a connection to the (disputed) origin of the name Nosferatu in the Greek word nosophorous, ‘plague carrier’. A plague is not just death but death working overtime. Nosferatu is a sad executor of this task, and its monstrosity is confirmed by his looks and his every gesture.
In both Murnau and Herzog, Lucy sacrifices herself for her husband and humankind. As she has learned from her book, all she needs to do is relent and let Nosferatu take blood from her, and to keep him busy till the cock crows. He will die of the daylight. She will die too but she is ready for that. The Herzog film, though, has an epilogue, and I’m not going to begin to try to say what it tells us about 1979. Dr Van Helsing discovers the bodies and realises that Lucy was right about the cause of the deaths. He also realises, really getting into the superstition as science paradigm, that he needs to drive a stake through Nosferatu’s heart to make sure he is dead, and he does. Meanwhile, Harker suddenly perks up. He accuses Van Helsing of murdering the count and has him arrested. We see the neat twin fangs Harker didn’t have before. He rips off the cross Lucy had given him to wear and takes off on horseback, announcing that he has much to do now. This is death’s new regime. As long as Harker keeps his mouth closed he doesn’t look like a monster. Apart from a bit too much eye make-up, he looks as he did at the beginning of the film. Like a stupidly sensible person, like one of us.