For the 35th anniversary of Werner Herzog’s hauntingly visual classic vampire tale, “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” The Cinefamily Theater on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles is throwing a celebration. Tonight, Friday, May 16 is the opening night party, presented by Fandor, with acclaimed German director Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Grizzly Man”) in person to present the restored 35mm German language print (with English subtitles), which has been rarely seen in the U.S. Starring his one time muse, Klaus Kinski as the sunken-eyed, rat-like vampire, Count Dracula, the film also stars a luminous Isabelle Adjani as Lucy, and Bruno Ganz as her husband Jonathan.
Herzog long considered F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic “Nosferatu” to be one of the greatest films coming out of Germany. Herzog’s 1979 version is an homage Murnau’s historical masterpiece. Moody, expressionistic shots that sway between beautiful and nightmarish set the backdrop for Kinksi’s vampire, who is frightening with his bald head, rat-like teeth, and long talons. This is not a sexy vampire of today’s fare – i.e., Edward Cullen or the fabulously cool vamps of “Only Lovers Left Alive.” But Kinski’s Count Dracula is one who will haunt your dreams and leave a far-longer imprint.
What’s stunning about Herzog’s “Nosferatu” is the lack of reliance on visual effects. Herzog used 11,000 live rats as they overtake Lucy and Jonathan’s town to announce the arrival of Dracula, while spreading the plague. For the opening of the film, Herzog himself went to Guanajuato, Mexico to film the Mummies of Guanajuato Museum, comprised of victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic that the museum displayed.
With a crew of only 16 people, this low budget movie was partially financed by 20th Century Fox. With Fox’s approval, Herzog shot two versions simultaneously – one in English (for U.S. distribution) and one in German. All dialog scenes were shot twice, first in German then in English. The International cast seems more at ease with the dialog in the German version, which has rarely been seen in the U.S.
Adding another layer to the grim world that Nosferatu inhabits is the trance-like score by the German group Popol Vuh, as well as classical works by Richard Wagner and Charles Gounod. Kinski’s make-up, another homage to Murnau, was done by Japanese artist Reiko Kruk, and production designer Henning von Gierke won the Silver Bear at Cannes in 1979 for his incredible set designs.
In the film’s production notes, Werner Herzog noted, “For me, Murnau’s film “Nosferatu” is the best German film ever, and I somehow needed to connect. I had the feeling I had to go back [to] my own roots as a filmmaker. As an homage to [Murnau] I chose to make this film.”
For fans of horror, expressionist works, film history or just fantastic filmmaking, Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre” (German version) is a film to make time for. Catch it this week, May 16 – 22 at The Cinefamily.