I know yesterday I was saying things like, “Italian horror is the BEST!” And I meant it. But, you guys –
There is no horror like German horror.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: The Vampyre
There are things more horrible than death.
Clearly I have more than one (or ten) favorites. But when it comes to dark, brooding, contemplative film, German cinema has been doing it since the beginning. And by “the beginning,” I do mean, THE beginning of film.
The original Nosferatu was filmed in 1922, under the direction of F.W. Murnau. It is a classic (and probably the most famous) silent film, made in the tradition of German Expressionism – heavy on shadows, gestural movement, and a nightmarish tone. Unlike some of the other famous Expressionist films, though (see the charming Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it is not filmed on a theatrical, abstract set, but instead in a strict realism – the sets are castles and the German countryside. The Expressionism is alive in the Nosferatu, himself – or as you and I know him, Count Dracula.
If you study German Film (you should), you will immediately be struck by its rich history and the commitment of its industry to confronting pertinent social themes through art. Yes, WWII brought some despicable additions. Hitler’s regime made a dangerous propaganda machine out of an artistic tradition that was setting the bar in worldwide filmmaking. Nosferatu (and many other silents after it), is rife in anti-semitic symbolism. As a Jew myself, it can be difficult, and painful, to confront those characterizations, and move past them. But as I’ve been doing since I found myself in my first German film class eight years ago, I urge you to observe, understand, and watch how this incredible film culture has developed.
The post-war generation of German filmmakers turned much of this around by doing what German art does best – confronting all of it head on. Werner Herzog (along with Rainer Werner Fassbender, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotte, and many others) began making films in the 1960s that forced every audience, and I’m sure every cast and crew member, to deal with the aftermath of Germany’s troubled past choices; a history that the new generation now found inescapable and unavoidable.
When Herzog chose to remake Nosferatu in 1979, with his “reluctant” artistic partner Klaus Kinski (I say reluctant in air quotes because, well, just watch this doc), he was not only updating a classic, but marching into dangerous social territory (don’t worry, he does this all the time). Remaking a German Expressionist staple would be celebrating a time when Germany was at the top of its game culturally, and economically. It would also be reintroducing a character that was originally designed as a walking Jewish stereotype: a monster that frightened not just because it sucked blood, but because of its “ethnic” qualities.
But it seems to me that this is precisely why Herzog, in his only real “remake” to date, chose to do it. What better story is there, with its themes of horror, death, and endless life, to use as a platform to confront the Holocaust and Germany’s part in it? Of a generation’s incredible inability to shake the mistakes of the one before it.
Bet you didn’t think #HorrorThon would get this heavy, did you? Horror can take you places, man. This is one of those places. Stay with me, okay?
Kinski as Count Dracula is, as ever, a sublime force.
He acts with every molecule in his body. His performance evokes the original character, and takes it ever so much further. Part of this is the addition of sound – dialogue obviously adds to a story that was originally told only in picture and title cards. But a lot of it is Kinski, himself. His eyes alone tell an incredibly complex story of the monster deigned to live infinite lifetimes. He is very often frightening, but somehow, not sinister. What is most horrifying about Kinski’s Count is not how threatening he is, but how sickeningly, insufferably human. He longs for love. He longs for what Jonathan Harker has in Lucy. He wants very much to die.
What Herzog achieves here is pretty clear from that last paragraph. What in Murnau’s silent film is a devilish monster without feeling, is in his version, a relatable being. He is cursed, made ugly, forced to live on endlessly, and entirely alone. And what was once a hideous stereotype of a people, is now a symbol two-fold. One, of the feeling the Jews must have had, living through the horror of what Germany, for many their homeland, had put them through. A horror that never seemed to end, and would live on in their memories forever, without hope of receding. And two, of the weight that Germany and its people would now be forced to live with for as long as anyone could remember. And as a legend as strong as the vampire’s goes, that will no doubt be forever, too.
Yes, this is a horror movie. It is also a piece of art. Most importantly, it is a means of bringing a culture and a country together again. Why am I featuring it here? Because it’s a bad-ass, bitchin’, creepy-as-hell horror film. But mostly because it shows you what I’ve believed for a long, long time: Horror and genre film have the unique ability to subvert what we think we know, and turn it into something new.
Yep. Horror movies change lives. Deal with it.
Great Shots: I decided there are too many to pick just one. So, here’s a list:
- The Count carrying his own coffin to the house.
- The shadow of the vampire when he enters Lucy’s room, her frozen expression in the vanity mirror.
- Lucy’s back to the camera as she sits in the cemetery, praying for Jonathan.
- Lucy walking the foggy beach, in the most sublime, painterly landscape since Caspar David Friedrich.
- When Dracula and Jonathan eat together. And by that, I mean, when Jonathan eats and Dracula watches.
- The SUPER GROSS decaying, shrunken bodies all over the walls in the opening sequence.
You’ll notice a lot more. This is a beautiful, beautiful movie.
From a cinematographic standpoint (ooo, fancy!), the addition of color here is superb. It’s a muted palette, which makes the change from black and white much less forced than it could be. It also allows for certain colors, like the pinkish-red of the Count’s lips, to pop.
Herzog is infamous for using non-actors in his work (obviously taken to an extreme with his recent surge of documentaries), and there is one here that really stands out to me: the only other human presence at the Count’s castle in Transylvania is a little boy playing a violin. He seems to come out of nowhere, appearing when Harker is in distress, and has no clear connection to the Count. However, there he is, playing on, as though a part of landscape, himself.
And, you know I can’t help but bring the ladies into it: at its heart, this story is not so much about Jonathan, but about Lucy. And Herzog allows her to take over much of the film. Good riddance, because she is a striking presence, and a compellingly strong heroine.
If You Like It, Watch:
Aguirre, The Wrath of God: If you’d like to continue down a Herzog path, and also keep the horror train rolling, hit up Aguirre next. Kinski’s back at his lunatic best, and this is some crazy, crazy storytelling. You can be scared just thinking about how they literally shot this on rafts over raging rapids in South America. And also, because it is INSANE.
Vampyr: The brilliant work of Carl Theodor Dreyer of Denmark is a masterpiece of horror and German-language filmmaking. It is all about creeping, deeply unsettling imagery and atmosphere. It is beautiful and will haunt you all night long.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: This is a classic, and also a delight to watch. If you can’t find a copy with a good soundtrack, just mute it and play the dramatic score of your choice. *Yes, there’s that Portlandia sketch where you’re cursed to deliver the mail forever until you can get someone to watch their Netflix copy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and then it passes on to them. Don’t be scared, I’m totally not trying to do that. I would NEVER. *Streaming on Netflix
And hold up, I’ve even got ONE MORE!
Funny Games: If you’re still curious about German horror and all it’s capable of, turn your attentions to Michael Haneke (of the Oscar-winning Amour). You’ll find two versions of this torturous home-invasion film – one in German, one in English. He wrote and directed both. They are brutal, cruel, and incredibly violent. They are also both very good. *Streaming on Netflix
*click for the trailer*
(WATCH IT AHEAD OF TIME! It’s streaming on Netflix!)