Thursday, October 7, 2010

More Top Films: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

Werner Herzog broke with his usual innovative habit and remade Nosferatu in 1979 because he considered it the most important German movie ever made and wanted to take his own stab at it. He accomplished what he set out to do. The new movie is a faithful tribute to the original but carries it forward and adds new perspective to the story.

(Interestingly, Herzog made the movie twice over—filming all the scenes with dialogue in both German and English. The German takes are better, and the German version is best appreciated in the German itself as the subtitles are less than helpful. Thus my personal appreciation for this film has increased as with subsequent viewings I have been able to ignore the English version and even the subtitles.)

Herzog stayed true to all the themes of the original, sometimes making them more powerful. (The whole plague plot is very impressive, especially the scenes with the crowds who have accepted their fate.) Yet he has also added some elements of his own. The vampire here is a tragic figure, lonely and longing for humanity. The husband of this film has multiple layers not present in the original, and gives us further perspective on the vampire itself. Through these characters we see that evil is not just a force that affects humanity, but that it is also a product of human nature.

The wife has a stronger representation here as well. We get to see her actually think through the problem of the evil invading her home and city, and see that it is her faith that leads her to do what is necessary to save the day. The problem here is that her faith is rather naïve and more of a product of her modernism more than the primitive faith in the original. One gets the feeling that the critique of Modernism in this film is couched in Modernism itself, and hopeless in its outlook.

“Salvation comes only from ourselves,” says the wife to the vampire. Even though she then shows the vampire the cross to repel him, she has betrayed the flaw in her thinking. She is resting her faith on something no more powerful than the humanity that has produced the evil to begin with. Later on, she elaborates her understanding of faith: “Faith is the faculty of man that allows him to believe things which he knows to be untrue.” What?

With this fatalistic, modern outlook, it is no wonder that the side of good in this movie fails. The wife’s sacrifice does indeed destroy the vampire, but the evil escapes to begin its cycle of persecution and destruction anew.

Here is a clip referred to above. Aside from being a pivotal scene, it may be one of the best technically constructed scenes in any vampire film ever:

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