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Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on May 3, 2013

This is my third time watching this movie, with five years between each viewing.  Each time I like it a little more than the last.  I suppose that as I get older and more patient, the slow pacing bothers me less and less.  This time around I found myself just easing into the haunting rhythms of it, not having that nagging wish that Herzog would just get on with it already.  The gentle pace allows the eeriness to sink in, with the aid of another fantastic Popol Vuh score (and gorgeous use of Wagner).

I regret that I did not revisit Murnau’s original beforehand to make comparisons easier.  But I would say now that I prefer Klaus Kinski’s rendition of Nosferatu to Max Schreck’s.  Of the five films Kinski did with Herzog, this is his most restrained performance… impressive considering the character is wide open for hammy interpretations.  Kinski plays the vampire with a leaden sorrow.  This isn’t the raving madman of Cobra Verde or the megalomaniacal madman of Aguirre or the pathetic madman of Woyzeck or the ambitious madman of Fitzcarraldo (1, 2, 3, 4… yep, got all the madmen).  This is a character who has a deep sadness within him, a yearning not to conquer his victims but to be free of the need to do so.

And Kinski isn’t the film’s only strong asset.  Isabelle Adjani has not only striking gothic beauty but understands the gothic tones of the story.  It’s a very romantic performance, for lack of being able to think of a better word.  And of course, Herzog has a gift for crafting remarkable images, like the dessicated corpses that open the film, or the creepy detail and geography of the castle, the lines of pallbearers carrying caskets through the town square.  And rats.  So many rats.  Linking Dracula to the plague allows Herzog to flood the locations with vermin.  In one scene, a few remaining survivors are feasting in the square, trying to live their last moments in joy.  In the next shot, the table is free of humans and covered in rats.

Weaknesses?  Not enough Nosferatu.  I respect Herzog’s instincts to hold back and keep him more of a mystery, but it’s such a wonderful turn by Kinski that I can’t help wanting more.  And perhaps as counterpoint to Kinski’s restraint, Roland Topor goes very broad as Renfield.  It’s an irritating performance.  And finally, if you’re the nitpicky type, there are some lapses in logic… but one shouldn’t be worrying about logic when dealing with Herzog.

It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about this film in another five years.  Rating: Very Good (84)


6 Responses to “Nosferatu Phantom der Nacht (rewatch)”

  1. vinnieh said

    Excellent post, I’ll have to check this one out.

  2. nancy said

    OK, just watched this one too, but I disagreed. Isabelle Adjani was the best part of this movie for me. I have not previously loved her, but found her fantastic in this one – totally agree with you about how she understands the gothic tones.

    I did not like the plot changes from the original or the plague scenes of rats and people dining in the square. This added no value to me. More Nosferatu versus Lucy would have been better. Altho at least now I understand the inspiration for Xander’s devotee to Count Dracula character in Buffy. That giggling guy (Jonathan’s boss) could have been cut entirely.

    Will bear in mind that you liked this one more each time you watched it.

    • The plague turns Nosferatu into a more universal threat. He doesn’t need to meet you to do harm to you. His mere presence practically wipes out a village. And in this process, Herzog has an excuse to provide mesmerizing images like the scores of rats pouring off the ship, or a line of pallbearers marching through the village square with coffins.

      More Kinski/Adjani scenes might have been nice, and Topor’s performance gets on my nerves too.

      • nancy said

        It’s interesting that you mention Herzog’s “mesmerizing images”. I understand that is one of his strengths and talents, but I generally find them boring. I watched this movie twice and was more annoyed the second time. While we had all those gorgeous shots of the countryside, we had no shots of the exterior of Dracula’s castle – did we? Just Jonathan walking up the stairs and some courtyard pics. I was pissed! Save the money on the long shots and give me a scare! And Drac’s castle should not be WHITE. And he served watermelon and one point – no way – not in Transylvania! Stop designing the shot and give me more scares – that is what I wanted. I want my flesh to crawl.

        Still haven’t seen Aguirre, but will keep remote in hand to fast-forward over the scenery shots. I also need to get another documentary from Herzog to remember why I like him.

      • Well, at least you gave a second try! Very bold of you since you didn’t like it much the first time. I rarely do that myself. Herzog’s imagery just might be on a different wavelength from you respond to…. nothing wrong with that. I don’t think he’s interested in scares that much (some of it is unsettling, but that’s not the same as scary). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a scary Herzog movie.

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