Sunday, September 6, 2009

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

To be candid, I have never really given much thought to Count Dracula's famous words "Children of the Night...what music they make." It didn't matter if I read those words in Bram Stoker's novel, in an illustrated paperback of Stoker's novel, or in a comic book or listened to the words come from an audiobook of Stoker's novel or from the filmic lips of Bela Lugosi to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman or whoever. If I were to die tomorrow, then not knowing its meaning would fail to place high on my regrets list. I have always thought that it was just some cool, Gothic shit to say that kind of got you into the mood: mysterious Count Dracula lives in an old castle all by himself and listens to wolves howling: it's freaky and creepy. Perhaps, there's an associational link that the reader or viewer makes: "children of the night" is Dracula, since he cannot go out in the sunlight; or the ferocious image of a wolf that would undoubtedly tear an unsuspecting victim apart (foreshadowing). The line is also very poetic and quite a beautiful use of language. As George Carlin would say: "You'd remember people who talked like that." Dracula is speaking and communicating and Jonathan Harker is within earshot of his words, quite possibly the actual and intended recipient of the lines. Is Harker supposed to have a reaction and respond? Nod and agree with the Count? Disagree with him and piss the nobleman off? Or just tell him that he's tired and hungry and here at his castle to conduct a real estate transaction only? Most interesting, at least to me, is why the hell am I thinking about these lines now? Well, "children of night" is now coming from the lips of Klaus Kinski's Dracula in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979); and if my mind is disoriented or questioning what I'm viewing, then the previous independent clause hides all of the answers.
Juxtaposition audio and video: opening: mummified and decrepid corpses in catacombs, accompanied by a haunting chanting, slo-mo sequence of a bat flying against the background of a bluish night sky whilst Mina (Isabelle Adjani) wakes from a nightmare and Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) comforts her, and a lulling tune, accompanied by images of kittens, sunlight, and domestic complacency. Juxtaposition manipulation and expectation: Harker's journey: welcoming (?) arms of local Gypsies, superstitious innkeepers and logical impracticability of traveling to Castle Dracula during the evening: Gypsies' stories of literal impossibility of traveling to Castle Dracula; and coachman's denial during confrontation: there is no road, there is no coach, and there are no horses. On foot, Harker walks dangerous and fearsome path protected by a guardrail, which must have been erected by a crew for some purpose (and not hidden from the camera), since the road is either well-traveled or construction crew was risky or needed a project; as he crosses over the mountains, the Gypsies' chasm is a beautiful camera capturing of cloud-covering in a natural sequence; and as night falls, a coach appears to comfort tired Harker and deliver him comfortably to Castle Dracula.
Juxtaposition thematically on stereotypes and viewer expectations: the "weak heart of a woman" within Mina pines for Jonathan while he's away. In a powerful sequence, the Count visits Mina in her bedroom, only to be told that not even God receives her love for Jonathan. Whatever the Count has come looking for within Mina's bedroom, love or blood, he is not going to find it. Immortals and the like are not welcome.

Herzog and his Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht have put me in an inquisitive and playful mood. A fine documentarian Herzog has an amazing eye for compositions, both as an artist and as capturer of images. Regardless of what was occurring within the frame in Nosferatu, whether it be rats roving over the tops of coffins or Mina walking along the shore of the beach alone, Herzog creates such an organic feel with his work. Of all the cinema I have seen from Herzog, I sense that he strictly adheres to no particular philosophy, science, religion, or the like: he likes to create stories and investigate instances where he can question philosophies, science, logic, and the like. Nosferatu is based upon Bram Stoker's Dracula, and what Herzog recreates from the novel is a faithful rendition. When Herzog makes changes to the story, those changes are uniquely from Werner Herzog. The story of the plague becomes an extremely beautiful, haunting, and effective background for the remainder of the film (after Dracula has arrived to seek out Mina at the Harker home). Ganz, Kinski, and Adjani are perfect in their roles. A hypnotizing and haunting piece of work, beyond horror, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is an excellent film. And by the way, while tired Jonathan has a mouthful of food, the Count, after making his "children of the night" remark says to Jonathan: "Young man, you're like the villagers who cannot place themselves in the soul of the hunter."

5 comments:

T.L Bugg said...

I absolutely love this film second only to Aguirre for my favorite Herzog film. I really liked some fo the points you brought up and I'm sure they will stick in my mind the next time I watch the film.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review. I originally had some cool gothic shit to say, but I forgot it. I am still large and in charge though.

Neil Fulwood said...

Great post, Hans. Werner Herzog is one of my all-time favourite directors. 'Nosferatu' is beautiful, poetic, haunting, utterly fucked-up in places (the catacombs and the mummies at the start - JEEEEESUS!) and always creepy.

Kinski was born to play this role. You never for a minute think about Max Schrek in the original. The similarities are obvious, but Kinski fucking OWNS the role.

Isabelle Adjani is gorgeous, willowy and unforgettable as Mina. The look of the film is amazing; the use of colours is the work of a master film-maker; and kudos for structuring your review around Herzog's juxtapositions. I think you've got right to the heart of what makes this film so memorable.

Hans A. said...

Thnx Bugg for reading and commenting! I really appreciate it! Herzog's work gets deeper and richer everytime I watch his films. Amazing stuff.

Mr. LP, when you remember, holla back.

Neil, thnx so much and for your postscript at your blog. Your Herzog criticism is excellent, so such a compliment from you means a lot more.

Thnx again all!

Aaron said...

Great review, Hans. I've been wanting to see this one for the longest but can't find it anywhere that has it to rent (I'm trying to cut down on buying movies at the moment). Herzog plus Kinski plus Gothic Horror plus the gorgeous Isabelle Adjani has always sounded too good to be true to me, so I think I might have to go ahead and order it on Amazon thanks to your review.