Saturday, January 19, 2013

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht, dir. Werner Herzog, 1979

The absence of love, you know, is the most abject pain
Inspired by my recent experience of Nosferatu on stage, I passed two of the many hours of the flight to Los Angeles re-watching Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979). Though I remembered how gorgeous it is, I had forgotten too much of the film to have left it so long between viewings. Nosferatu is one of those films that makes me yearn for a time when film was shot the old fashioned way, on light sensitive celluloid. Because the beauty, mystery and eeriness of Herzog’s Nosferatu is bound together with its materiality as light sensitive image.

Even though I used to teach Herzog’s Nosferatu in introductory classes in a week on color and light, the film is, for all intents and purposes, a love story. And the real love story — as opposed to the one the characters think they are in — is that of Lucy Harker and the vampire. Moreover, the love story is envisioned in color and light. While F.W Murnau connects the lovers through what was, in 1922, a groundbreaking cross-cutting sequence, Herzog adds color and frame composition to deepen their communication. Lucy and Count Dracula meet, so to speak, in the chilling blue light of the night. When a bat flies into Lucy’s room in the opening sequence it is bathed in an intense blue light. The love triangle is opened. And it is consolidated when Count Dracula appears in the door frame of Jonathan’s bedroom in the Transylvanian castle. Klaus Kinski as Dracula is shrounded in the same steel blue light, perfectly centered in the gothic arched doorframe. Across an edit, the same chilling tones beckon Lucy out of her bed and into the courtyard of their Wismar house in sleepwalk, just as Ellen did in Murnau’s version of Nosferatu
The landscapes of German Romanticism
It’s not only the mise-en-scène, but the camera work of the film is disturbing. I had forgotten how much of it was shot with a handheld camera, a camera that effuses weirdness and mystery into the air that fills rooms, and the searing landscapes through which Jonathan journeys in order to reach his client, Count Dracula. The shots of nature are extraordinary, as the image marvels at it, from a distance, allowing it to fill the moving frames: it is filmed as though it is a character leading Jonathan through the threatening terrain into the beyond. On his way to the castle, Jonathan stops, or perhaps it is only the camera that stops — the distinction is blurred, and looks down the cliff at the waterfall, falling into the abyss below. The unsteady frame makes us feel unsettled as we sense the impending, but still unknown, doom that will meet Jonathan. And then once inside Count Dracula’s castle, extremely high angles look down at the dinner table, at Jonathan apparently trapped inside the castle, desperately trying to unbolt the doors, the restless and premonitory camera winds its way through the rooms upstairs.  For Herzog, the cinema has developed into something more sophisticated, more expressive than could have been known despite the skilful editing that made Murnau’s film so extraordinary in its time. Camera movement, canted frames, angles now set the tone and meaning of the cinema.

Dinner in Transylvania
What makes Nosferatu Herzog of old, and the cinema of another era is also the multiple levels on which the film communicates. A parallel aesthetic history becomes entwined with a reflection on the question of time as the central struggle of the film. Nosferatu wants finite time, and for the humans, time races by, death surrounds them, like the rivers flow by. The human characters all look death in the face while the vampire wants nothing more than to die. And with their attachment to life, the humans forego their power. Dracula poetically tells Jonathan on his arrival at the castle that his most profound problem is that he has too much time, while Lucy responds on this side of the human world in fear of there never being enough time. Moreover, the obsession with time is repeated at the level of aesthetic representation: the aesthetic entertains a repetition of time. The age of Enlightenment when the film is set is repeated in the 1920s thanks to the inevitable references to and reminders of Murnau’s Nosferatu, again in 1940s thanks to the Holocaust references, and then again, in Germany 1979 when the film is set. This layering of eras and time to iterate and reiterate what is, in effect, the primary concern of film as a medium, makes Nosferatu Herzog at his very best. Not only does the film have all the familiar Herzog themes of the hero who ends up triumphing in his failure, a conquerer who is defeated, but in addition, Nosferatu has a more profound reach because of its laying out of a history of representation in German modernity. 

Parading coffins through the Town Square of Wismar
I feel compelled to mention the film’s engagement with the Holocaust, an engagement that some viewers may want to resist. Like the Holocaust, this film revolves around the town square. The town square of Wismar is the place/space through which death passes, just as it was the location for rounding up of the Jews, documenting them, parading them, humiliating them, violating them. In Nosferatu, Dracula arrives in the square, those still living townspeople parade the coffins through the square, but by this time, it is Dracula who owns that square. When he has wreaked his havoc, the square collects the debris of the plague, fever and death. Rats form a carpet of disease as those still alive celebrate their final hours in a carnivalesque feast. It is not only the asphyxiated, half dressed corpses over which the camera pans in the film’s prologue that connects it to the Holocaust. But all of the rituals as they are played out in the town square mimic the absurd practices of the Nazis.

Nosferatu arrives in the town square at Wismar
Lastly, Klaus Kinski’s extraordinary and extreme performance as Dracula is reason enough to see the film, especially as he slowly takes over as the tragic lover. In his most poetic and profound moment, Dracula confesses to Lucy that “the absence of love, you know, is the most abject pain.” This is the line that makes him the hero, even though he has destroyed the whole town, and Jonathan as well, Lucy will give in to his desires. In one of Herzog’s most radical changes to the original story, Jonathan then becomes the vampire. In 1979, Jonathan represents the would be capitalist: we will remember that he is so determined to sell Dracula the house in Wismar so he can buy Lucy a bigger house that he journeys into the dangerous wild for business. Jonathan is driven by money. And he never recovers from Dracula’s spell— in a twisted and cruel turn to the narrative, Lucy dies for him, so that he can ride off into the sunset, yes, out into the light of day, and continue his work as he puts it. Given the fangs and claws he sprouts by this time, we presume his work to be Dracula’s work. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post! I recently saw the film for the first time, and I'm still digesting it's latent meanings, as if the footage wasn't enough in itself.

One thing that struck my mind was Lucy's "transformation" from being the passive woman in the private sphere (the home), the housewife who represents caring values, reproduction etc., and whose husband represents the public, rational, economic, into an active agent for change. When she discovers what is happening, she is the most driven to change things, she goes out there and acts. Also, her attempt to persuade Van Helsing got me thinking about the relation between the academic world in relation to activists and social change. Lucy knows what has to be done, but Van Helsing says that it is all superstition and faith, and a scientific exaplanation is needed, it's as if he thinkgs it's naive to think we can change status quo.

As I said, I'm still digesting it, and feeling the taste of it :-)