Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht Review
Despite protests from his crew about having to work with a madman again and despite his own better judgement after their experience on Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog was intent on revisiting F. W. Murnau’s German Expressionist classic Nosferatu (1922) and couldn’t imagine that anyone else but Klaus Kinski could match Max Schreck’s hideous vampire.
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sent by his employer, Mr Renfield to Transylvania to have some contracts signed by Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) for a house that the company are purchasing on his behalf. When he arrives in Transylvania however and lodges at an inn in a village near Castle Dracula, Harker is warned by the villagers to beware of the place, telling him stories of succubuses, incubuses, vampires and Nosferatu – the living dead. As no-one will take him to there, Harker makes his way through the eerie countryside to Castle Dracula. Contracts are signed, but when Dracula sees the portrait of Harker’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) in a locket, he brings Harker under his power in the traditional vampiric manner and immediately undertakes the journey overseas to his new home, in a coffin filled with earth on a ship full of plague-bearing rats.
Herzog’s tribute to his cinematic forefathers, specifically F. W. Murnau, is an interesting experiment that has its merits, but working effectively as a horror story is not one of them – at least not in the conventional manner. Yes, Kinski does exude his customary brooding menace, but the curious slowed-down, almost somnambulistic pace of the film works against the building of any real tension or horror. For all Kinski’s exaggerated posturing and the deliberate delivery by the actors under Herzog’s direction, the real unease is much more effectively conveyed in the jagged outline of the East Slovakian mountain range, in the menacing darkening clouds, the mist covered forests and the torrential waters running through the caves leading up to Castle Dracula. This is effectively assisted by a haunting score featuring Wagner and Florian (Popol Vuh) Fricke’s droning arrangements, exerting an almost hypnotic force on the viewer.
Even though Phantom der Nacht remains fairly faithful to Stoker’s novel – with the odd curious exception such as the inexplicable switching of Lucy and Mina’s names – and even though, in tribute to Murnau, it uses many scenes lifted almost frame for frame from the director’s 1922 silent classic, Herzog’s version still fails to convince or demonstrate any purpose beyond its stylisations. It does succeed in conveying menace through the setting and the music, but as a horror film, it doesn’t have one tenth of the power of Murnau’s classic version. For the director it was a way of getting in touch with German film’s roots in Expressionism, but it is far too slow, too stylised and too deliberate to be in any way meaningful or terrifying.
The DVD is released on Region 2 in the UK as part of Anchor Bay’s Herzog Kinski Collection. Also included in the boxset are Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Herzog’s documentary film about Kinski, My Best Fiend. Nosferatu has been previously released in the UK as a two disc set, which included the alternative (and even slower) English dialogue version of the film, Nosferatu: The Vampire – an entirely different cut (see Raphael Pour-Hashemi’s DVDTimes review here). As part of the Herzog Kinski Collection however, only the German version of the film is included on a single disc. I don’t think there are too many people who would argue for the merits of the English version. Although it is interesting to compare the two films, its absence is not really a problem here.
The same 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer from the earlier release appears to have been used here and it’s a decent print. Colours and light balance are good – only rarely are there signs of grain or age in the print. There is some minor edge-enhancement that you would barely notice unless you are a DVD reviewer looking for faults. Despite the enhancement, the image is a little soft and hazy in places, but this is an intentional stylisation. Overall, this is a strong transfer, with very little in the way of marks or damage. The screen capture below shows the new Anchor Bay PAL R2 top and the US NTSC non-anamorphic R0 below.
There is little difference between the German Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and the original German Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack – both work equally well, the 5.1 remix neither adding nor detracting in any way from the film. The quality is fine, it remains clear and, as there are many silences throughout the film, there is no distracting background hiss.
Director Werner Herzog provides a full-length feature commentary for the film, in interview with Norman Hill. It’s the same commentary that is on both the UK Region 2 and the earlier (non-anamorphic) US Region 0 Anchor Bay release. It’s good for about 40 minutes, the director explaining his intentions and his methods as well as explaining what is going on both on and off the screen. Later in the commentary though, there are pauses and gaps and Herzog becomes reluctant to be drawn on the interesting questions put to him by Hill regarding the slow pacing and the reasons behind the English dialogue version, reacting more to what he is seeing on-screen and leaving thoughts and answers unfinished. The DVD also includes the valuable Making of Nosferatu: The Vampire (13:02) featurette, filmed in the Dutch town of Delft and narrated by Herzog. Two US Trailers are included, the difference between them seemingly a voice-over, and a Spanish Trailer, which is very different, composed of stills from the film. Extensive and interesting biographical information on both Herzog and Kinski are included in the Talent Bios.
Herzog’s Nosferatu has some merit and value and does have a fascinating hypnotic quality, but mostly it’s a very dull exercise in style. The quality of the DVD is reasonably good and full credit to Anchor Bay for choosing the better German version of the film for the boxset rather than taking the easy option of the English version.