Godzilla may be the biggest monster on movie screens this weekend, both in terms of its title creature’s size and box office projections, but he won’t be alone among resurrected classics in Los Angeles. An even older movie monster is making a special appearance May 16th -22nd at LA’s Cinefamily, namely Nosferatu, aka Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s well-regarded 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent horror film.
1979 marked a cinematic resurgence of vampire stories. In addition to Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (“Phantom of the Night”), that summer saw the release of John Badham’s sexed-up version of Dracula starring Frank Langella, the George Hamilton spoof Love at First Bite and, to a lesser extent, the bat-attack horror movie Nightwing. The Herzog production was easily the best received critically and, 35 years later, remains the best remembered.
Its limited run at the Cinefamily will spotlight a new 35 mm print of the German-language version of Nosferatu. Herzog shot two different films simultaneously, one in English and the other in his native German. Only the English-language cut was exhibited in the United States, so this weekend in LA presents a rare opportunity to see the version most personal to Herzog and many of the cast members on the big screen. Herzog will also be in attendance at Friday’s opening night screening.
Heading the cast is the great (if by most accounts eccentric and unpredictable) Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula. Despite a love-hate relationship between the two men, Kinski and Herzog made several films together including Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and my personal favorite of all Herzog’s films, Fitzcarraldo (1982). Nosferatu marked their third collaboration. Kinski endured four hours of makeup application each day in order to resemble Murnau’s original, rat-like vision of the character, who was famously portrayed in the 1922 version by Max Schreck. While remaining strong and seductive (to both women and men), Kinski makes the king of vampires both more comical and more genuinely pathetic than in any other Dracula movie to date. Kinski’s world-weary take may evoke tears from viewers, especially when he says things like “Cruel is when you can’t die even when you want to.”
Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani, who both went on to become big names, play hero Jonathan Harker and his beloved wife, Lucy. The lovely Adjani possesses a beauty that proves ultimately necessary to transfix and destroy the vampire. Other standouts in Herzog’s cast include Roland Topor as Dracula’s insane manservant, Renfield, and Walter Ladengast as Dr. Van Helsing, who is much more devoted to science here than in other film versions of the Bram Stoker’s story.
Herzog, cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein and production designer Henning von Gierke conjure a near-endless stream of arresting images: bats flying in slo-mo and scaling draperies; Dracula’s rat-infested ship arriving in the city of Wismar (actually Delft and Schiedam, Netherlands); the amazing Czech mountains that fill in for Transylvania; processions of coffins through the city square; not to mention a fabulous wine glass and skeleton-laden cuckoo clock during Harker’s dinner at Castle Dracula.
The film’s ending will likely prove unexpected to viewers more accustomed to the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula or Francis Ford Coppola’s florid 1992 version. I also had difficulty with the at times confusing time frame or continuity in Herzog’s Nosferatu, possibly the result of his fairly limited budget. Given the option though of Nosferatu’s brief LA re-release or the new, sure to be around awhile Godzilla, I’d go with the first monster.
Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.