Adorned with dashes of the arabesque and muted, dulcet tones, Werner Herzog’s reinterpretation of the Germanic vampire tradition transmogrified architecture and locale into sentient entities, evoking emotion and eroticism through vast panoramas and gentle shifts in illumination. Employing day and night as an exemplar of the contrast between good and evil, Herzog envisioned the nocturnal Nosferatu as a surrogate for biological necessity, aligning his reign of pestilence with the majesty of verdant landscapes and tranquil canal waters, ultimately representing his triumph as proof of death’s inevitability and impartiality.
The hushed intimacy of the rose-colored prologue functions as the opposite side of the coin, illustrating the tenderness that cocoons protagonists Jonathan and Lucy Harker from the realities that survive beyond their row of idyllic, pastel grachtenpanden. Seeking vigorous adventure and experience, Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) ventures into the Carpathian Mountains at the behest of an affluent count, ignoring local superstition of shape-shifting necromancers in the name of practicality, profit, and philosophical balance.
Herzog capitalizes on these notions of the supernatural throughout Harker’s expedition, transforming the banal into the transcendent by treating atmospheric extremes as practical effects, manifesting both wonder and dread through a rapid procession of clouds and daunting swirl of precipitation. Finding rhythm and harmony within these terrestrial miracles, Herzog draws physical motion into lockstep with non-diegetic sound, utilizing crescendos in Popul Vuh’s multifarious score to extol natural dominion, representing a spiritual alignment between earthly beauty and heavenly deity rivaled only by Fantasia’s stirring “Ave Maria” devotional.
Though Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu is pallid in comparison to the magnitude of creation and Harker’s virility, his wantonness and insatiability cast a long shadow, aided considerably by beams of dusklight that cloak each corridor of his castle in charcoal-stained ambiguity. Enrobed in opaque black, his slender form and darting gestures mimic a vampire bat plummeting towards its prey, further cemented by a recurring reverie of an airborne specimen, inhabiting the midnight blue sky and Lucy’s (Isabelle Adjani) subconscious.
A glimpse of Jonathan’s betrothed in a locket portrait revives the hunter’s humanity, symbolizing the ardor, sanctity, and felicity extinguished by immortality. In the prospect of Lucy’s embrace, Nosferatu finds salvation from the “absence of love,” bonding the pair telepathically through a dichotomic seduction and repulsion beyond Jonathan’s emotional intelligence. The affection trapped in Harker’s diary is articulated in the vampire’s yearning, each expression and notion haunting Lucy’s dreams as the meister’s fangs contaminate her beloved’s circulatory system.
While this “plague” and its legion of rats lay siege to the inland waterway, perverting the serenity of the opening passages, mankind scrambles for preservation and pleasure, the remains of their culminating feast illustrated as a Last Supper for the quietus, each rodent and ripe berry preserving the existential equilibrium. Though the phantom’s tenebrous coffin looms over Wismar, ruination must lead to a rebirth, demonstrated by Lucy’s reconsecration of Nosferatu’s crypt, her white gown and blue mantle evoking Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer and anastasis.
In a final act of sacrifice, both on behalf of mortal and celestial, Lucy grants her body to the solitary ghoul, bestowing her throat and breast as charity and cunning gambit. At dawn, a golden shaft of sunlight withers the jubilant count and windswept petals blanket the departed martyr, emphasizing the grand and eternal pilgrimage from conception to decomposition, painted with profuse beauty and sincerity by an artist keen on understanding life and embracing death.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1979)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by Bram Stoker (based on his book “Dracula”) and Werner Herzog (screenplay)
Photographed by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein
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