The Horror Honeys: OUT OF THE SHADOWS: MURNAU AND HERZOG’S NOSFERATU

OUT OF THE SHADOWS: MURNAU AND HERZOG’S NOSFERATU

A Sci-Fi Honey Vampire Month Review by Katie

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

The name alone can chill the blood.”

So reads the opening title card in the original prologue of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent symphony of horror, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. It may seem presumptuous to open a film with such a bold declaration, but Nosferatu followed through on its promise to elicit sheer terror – and it is no less true today than it was for theatergoers in the early days of motion pictures. A semi-adaptation of Bram Stoker’s legendary turn-of-the-century novel regarding a certain bloodsucking Count, Nosferatu has been remade many times over –from Universal to Hammer and beyond – in films that either directly reference Dracula or expound on the vampire lore lifted from his titular tale. Eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog, however, took it one step further by reconstructing Murnau’s singular vision with frequent collaborator and muse Klaus Kinski in the 1970s, resulting in Nosferatu the Vampyre: a mesmerizing homage to the granddaddy of vampire horror.

Murnau’s original film didn’t play in the United States until seven years after its European debut, but it nonetheless had garnered a reputation by the time it arrived to North America. Adapted from Stoker’s novel without approval from his estate, the original film changed the names of main characters to avoid a lawsuit. Thus Nosferatu’s Count Dracula became Count Orlok: a reclusive figure ensconced inside a menacing castle in the desolate Carpathian Mountains, who preys on villagers at a time in history when plague-ridden rodents were deemed responsible for his vampiric reign of bloodshed. The film follows Orlok as he stalks estate broker Thomas Hutter and his self-sacrificing wife, Ellen; though his lust for the latter ultimately results in his ill-fated downfall. Despite a court order that all existing reels of Murnau’s Nosferatu be incinerated, a single print received worldwide distribution and duplication – ensuring survival of the completed project and the continued nightmares of a legion of horror fans nearly one hundred years after its hair-raising debut. 

You can't kill this with fire. 
Heavily influenced by the German expressionist movement and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in particular, Murnau’s majestic use of high-contrast light and shadow results in Nosferatu containing some of the most iconic imagery in the history of horror cinema. Orlok’s spectral profile cast onto the wall as he ascends the stairs, the enormity of his clawlike hands reaching forth, and the symbolic clutching of Ellen’s heart within her chest are canonical moments forever ingrained in the memories of fans of horror and classical silent cinema alike. The enduring legacy of these scenes – as well as those echoed in numerous Dracula film adaptations to follow, such as Orlok’s eerie rise from his casket – ensure that Murnau’s Nosferatu is the reigning king of all vampire movies.

All other vampire movies can suck it. 
Needless to say, Wener Herzog had some pretty big and spooky shoes to fill when he took on a straightforward remake of Murnau’s film fifty years later. Since Dracula the novel had become public domain in the early 1960s, Herzog was allowed to use the names and likenesses of Stoker’s characters in his 1979 adaptation. Apart from that, Herzog’s film is remarkably similar to the distinct style and atmosphere of its predecessor, even utilizing the same bat-like makeup design from the original film’s Count Orlok to characterize Kinski’s portrayal of Count Dracula. Though some of this might sound like duplication as opposed to homage, Herzog is such a skilled filmmaker that his Nosferatu feels like a masterwork all on its own, not just an achievement in recreating a beloved (and too often imitated) work of art. By recapturing the look and feel of Murnau’s film and then augmenting it with his own distinctive vision, Herzog’s film expounds on the inherent tragedy of Stoker’s book while still placing a great deal of emphasis on visual storytelling rather than relying on narration or dialogue. A dizzyingly hypnotic and lyrical pace adds to the film’s melancholic mood, making Herzog’s Nosferatu a perfect rainy-day viewing choice for any discerning vampire enthusiast.

... especially if you're warm and cozy in your bed. 
There’s a delicate balance between paying tribute to something and ripping it off outright; Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre manages to respectfully reinterpret Murnau’s work while also fitting it nicely into his own body of work as an auteur of unconventional cinema. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name a filmmaker and lead actor other than Herzog/Kinski who could produce such an exquisite and reverential adaptation of Murnau’s silent classic. While another remake is reportedly in the works, Murnau and Herzog’s films already work brilliantly as a pair – spine-chilling shadow plays of one another, harnessing both the darkness and the light to speak volumes without words.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: It’s negligible, but Herzog’s film has a slight edge over Murnau’s – sending his Nosferatu back to the grave with five fangs out of five.

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is available via YouTube, so you can watch and enjoy for free!

Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre is available via iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Google Play, & blu-ray

Which is YOUR favorite Nosferatu?
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