We live in the age of remakes and prequels. Every month Hollywood rolls out an easily recognizable title that’s been repackaged and recast with a plot that’s all too familiar. The horror and science fiction genre has been hit the hardest by these reimagined movies that all too often fall extremely short of the original film they’re trying to ape. But that’s not always the case. Once in a very rare while a talented director such as John Carpenter (THE THING; 1982), Philip Kaufman (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS; 1978) or David Cronenberg (THE FLY; 1986) comes along and remakes a classic that’s as compelling as the original. Notice I didn’t say “better” than the original because I don’t think that’s always the case but a good remake can bring something unique to the work that allows us to see the original film with new eyes. A good remake should also be distinct enough to stand on its own as a gripping piece of filmmaking. Today too many directors rely on nostalgia and familiarity to bring in audiences. Their work seems to suffer from a lack of purpose and has no distinct vision.
One of my favorite remakes is Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE aka NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT (1979) based on F.W. Murnau’s original film. The innovative filmmaking and unique look of Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922) earned it an important place in the horror film pantheon but in 1979 Herzog decided that he wanted to introduce NOSFERATU to modern audiences. WWII had left Germany in tatters and young directors like Herzog were part of the New German Cinema movement that was eager to reinstate Germany’s importance as a vital filmmaking country. As he explained in the book Herzog on Herzog, the director believed that there had been no legitimate German cinema since Hitler came to power in 1933. Herzog also thought that NOSFERATU was the greatest of all German films and hoped that by reinterpreting Murnau’s work he could reconnect with what he called “legitimate German culture” while exploring his filmmaking roots. The director stressed that an update of NOSFERATU was necessary because Germany was now “a fatherless generation” that needed “some sort of continuity in film history.”
At a time when so many classic films are easy to access with just a simple click of our computer mouse, it is difficult to imagine how inaccessible a film like Murnau’s NOSFERATU was to a new generation of German filmgoers in 1979. Along with its association with a complicated past that the German people were eager to forget, Murnau’s film lacked modern appeal for many viewers simply because it was a silent film. German youth were eager to remake their country in the aftermath of WWII and in the process, some overlooked or rejected the artistic accomplishments of their ancestors. Herzog hoped his film would showcase his sincere reverence for Murnau’s original which he conceived as a tribute instead of a remake. And although he would go on to mimic many of Murnau’s directing choices, Herzog also made noticeable changes to the script that allowed him to address his own artistic concerns.
Herzog’s film uses Murnau’s work as a springboard for his own ideas and in some ways I find it more interesting than Murnau’s original but in other ways it falls short. For example; I prefer the way that Murnau handled the character of Renfield and many of the director’s framing shots and close-ups are so perfectly executed that they can’t be copied. On the other hand, I prefer how Herzog handled the overall story arc. His decision to make the townspeople more complacent with a monster in their midst, as well as the way he ended his film by stressing the idea that evil doesn’t just disappear but merely finds a new guise, is particularly poignant. This is especially true when you consider Germany’s own experience with very real historic monsters. Herzog’s film is also brimming with beautifully staged scenes that are equal to anything found in Murnau’s film but reflect Herzog’s unique directing style and distinct vision. The way that Herzog incorporates the natural landscape into his films is almost unparalleled. Few directors can make rats look so ornamental. Herzog’s film is exceptional for the way it manages to modernize a genre-defining silent film without losing any of the original’s power or mystique. But it never overshadows Murnau’s work, which is equally mesmerizing.
One of Herzog’s smartest directing choices was casting Klaus Kinski in the role of Dracula, which was a part previously played by Max Schreck. Kinski makes a formidable vampire and his dynamic working relationship with the director undoubtedly impacted his performance. Strangely enough, the role of Dracula in NOSFERATU also provided Kinski with one of his most sympathetic and humane roles. Although Kinski is playing a grotesque undead monster who drinks human blood, he managed to infuse his Dracula with inherent grace and pathos. As a result, it’s one of the actor’s most fascinating and oddly touching performances. Instead of simply mimicking Schreck, Kinski seems to have been inspired by the tragic monsters found in classic Universal horror films such as FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE WOLF MAN (1941). In the actor’s audacious autobiography, Kinski articulated how the physical aspect of playing a vampire had transformed him personally.
“In Holland and Czechoslovakia and all the way to the Tatra Mountains on the Czech-Polish border. The departure point is Munich. Four weeks before shooting starts, I have to fly there for costuming. And this is where I shave my skull for the first time. I feel exposed, vulnerable, defenseless. Not just physically (my bare head becomes as hypersensitive as an open wound) but chiefly in my emotions and my nerves. I feel as if I have no scalp, as if my protective envelope has been removed and my soul can’t live without it. As if my soul has been flayed. . .At first I go outdoors only when it’s dark. Besides, I wear a wool cap all the time even though it’s spring. You may think ‘So What? Some guys are bald.’ But the two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. What I mean is the simultaneous metamorphosis into a vampire. The nonhuman, nonanimal being. That undead thing. That unspeakable creature, which suffers in full awareness of its existence.” – Klaus Kinski from Kinski Uncut
Kinski’s performance is matched by his co-star Isabelle Adjani’s haunting portrayal of the ethereal Lucy Harker. Like the silent actress Greta Schröder, Adjani’s otherworldly beauty and expressive eyes tell the audience all they need to know about her tragic and conflicted character. And Bruno Ganz is also noteworthy as the doomed Jonathan Harker. His sad transformation from a loving husband into a bloodthirsty creature of the night is deeply nuanced.
Herzog’s film tends to divide critics and audiences. Some find it a better and more fully realized film than the original while others, such as author David J. Skal who wrote Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula (often referred to as the ‘definitive’ history of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) called Herzog’s film, “A wrong-headed and rather pretentious remake.” Whatever you may think of the film, I can’t imagine being indifferent to the images that Herzog conjured up from the depths of his own imagination in homage to Murnau. There’s a brilliance as well as a majestic quality to his reimagining of NOSFERATU that I find undeniable and I hope it’s somewhat apparent in the comparative screen captures I’ve shared here.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for the Turner Classic Movies Movie Morlocks blog and published Oct 20, 2011.