Monday, 8 November 2021

Herzog: In the Shadow of the Vampire

Nosferatu (Directed by Werner Herzog)
Based on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) was a dual-language production shot simultaneously in English and German starring the volatile Klaus Kinski as the vampire Count Dracula and Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker.

A homage to the 1922 Murnau classic and a tribute to German silent cinema, Herzog’s film is an evocative and visually striking lament on the loss of innocence as articulated by Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, Dracula

Herzog’s film is not a direct copy of its cinematic source, although it does offer an occasional shot-for-shot reflection. Unable to shoot in Bremen, as Murnau had in 1922, Herzog began filming instead in the Dutch town of Delft. Memories of the German occupation of the area resulted in a degree of tension between the local townspeople and the German production crew which was exacerbated by Herzog’s decision to release thousands of rats during the film’s plague sequence.

Further complicating matters, Klaus Kinski was having to undergo hours of daily make-up to capture his part as Count Dracula, while the notoriously temperamental actor was also having to cope with the personal storm surrounding the impending break up of his marriage. Despite Kinski’s personal problems and manic tendencies, Herzog recalls that Kinski was calm and contented during the production – a tribute perhaps to Herzog’s ability to channel his star’s demons into a vulnerability crucial to the part.

Avoiding traditional horror film tropes the film had a mixed reception on release. The critic David Denby, however, perceptively noted at the time that ‘the young German director has made not a conventional horror film (there are no shocks) but an anguished poem of death’. Herzog’s undead creature is a forbidding force of Nature, even as he is a manifestly destructive killer. But he is also an intensely sympathetic demon spurred on by a terrifying blood lust and the need to die even as he lacks the means to realise that end.

For Jack Kroll, ‘when the Dracula figure lurches ashore in F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 Nosferatu, carrying his coffin filled with native earth, it was a chilling premonition of Hitler’s imperialism of death, the desire to necropolize the world. Following Murnau, Herzog’s Nosferatu mixes such resonances with a surprisingly successful attempt to humanize Dracula.’

Herzog’s spare, precise screenplay gives precedence to the film’s visuals over a more literary approach. Drawing on Stoker’s familiar narrative, the plot is revealed through action, movement and the changing lighting and emotional canvas of Herzog’s impressive cinematic design.

In an interview published in Herzog on Herzog, the director discusses the filming of Nosferatu, his working relationship with Klaus Kinski at the time, as well as the making of Woyzeck which was shot immediately afterwards:

For ‘Nosferatu’ did you go back to the original Stoker novel or did you base your own script directly on Murnau’s film?

I could probably have made a vampire film without the existence of Murnau’s film, but there is a certain reverence I tried to pay to his Nosferatu and on one or two occasions I even tried to quote him literally by matching the same shots he used in his version. I went to Lübeck where he filmed the vampire’s lair and found among the few houses there not destroyed during the war those Murnau had used. They were being used as salt warehouses, but where in 1922 there had been small bushes, I found tall trees.

The reason Murnau’s film is not called Dracula is because Bram Stoker’s estate wanted so much money for the rights, so Murnau made a few unsubtle changes to his story and retitled it. My own film was solely based on the original Nosferatu, though I knew I wanted to inject a different spirit into my film. In Murnau’s film the creature is frightening because he is without a soul and looks like an insect. But from Kinski’s vampire you get real existential anguish. I tried to ‘humanize’ him. I wanted to endow him with human suffering and solitude, with a true longing for love and, importantly, the one essential capacity of human beings: mortality. Kinski plays against his appendages, the long fingernails and the pointed ears. I feel that his vampire is actually a very erotic figure. Moreover, in the film evil does not have only negative aspects; for example, the plague scene where there is real joy.

Stoker’s novel is a kind of compilation of all the vampire stories floating around from romantic times. What is interesting is that it focuses so much on new technology; for example, the use of telegrams and early recording machines, the Edison cylinders. Like the changes society was undergoing in the nineteenth century, there may well be something similar taking place today, as for some time we have been living in the digital age. In both cases there is something of an uneasiness in society, and vampire stories always seem to accumulate in times of restlessness. The novel is strangely obsessed with these kinds of things, and in this way Stoker was quite far-sighted by somehow anticipating our era of mass communication. At its heart, the vampire story is about solitude and now, more than a century later, as we witness this explosive evolution of means of communication, Stoker’s work has a real and powerful actuality to it. His story is structured in an interesting way, using all these forms of communication to carry the story along, something which does not emerge in film versions.

While we are talking about communication, allow me to add something. It is my firm belief, and I say this as a dictum, that all these tools now at our disposal, these things part of this explosive evolution of means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal – be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever – human solitude will increase in direct proportion. It might sound paradoxical, but it is not. It might appear that these things remove us from our isolation, but isolation is very different from solitude. When you are caught in a snowdrift in South Dakota, fifty miles from the next town, your isolation can be overcome with a mere cellular phone. But solitude is something more existential.

There was a great deal of press at the time about the fact that you let thousands of rats loose in the town square in Delft, the town in Holland which substituted for Wismar in the film.

I was looking for a northern German or Baltic town with boats and canals and a Dutch friend of mine suggested Delft. As soon as I saw the town I was fascinated by it. Delft is so tranquil, so bourgeois, so self-assured and solid and has remained unchanged for centuries. Because of this I felt it would be the perfect place to shoot this story. The horror and destruction would show up very effectively in such a clean and uncontaminated town. I have always felt that rats possess a kind of fantasy element in that they are the only mammals whose numbers surpass those of man. The figure is something like three to one, and our fear of the creatures stem in part from this fact. Before we started shooting I explained to the city council in Delft exactly what I had in mind, and got an OK on everything. I had presented to them in great detail the technical plans we had to prevent a single rat from escaping. But many people in Delft were nervous because the town is full of canals and for decades there was a very serious rat problem which had only recently been overcome. So there was a developing feeling of unease.

Where did you get the rats from?

They were from a laboratory in Hungary and it was very difficult to transport them across Europe. At every border customs checked the medical certificates, and one time an official opened one of the boxes to check the contents and fainted. When we bought the rats they were snow white and had to be dyed grey. There was a huge factory in Germany that produced shampoo and hair dye that would test their products on rats because the texture of rat hair is very similar to that of human hair. I went to this factory along with Henning von Grierke, a painter who did the set design of the film, and Cornelius Siegel, the special-effects expert who taught at the University of Bremen. Cornelius was the guy who set the glass factory on fire in Heart of Glass and single-handedly built the clock that you see at the start of Nosferatu. We asked at the factory how we should go about dyeing 10,000 rats and they gave us the idea of dipping the wire cages for a second into the dye. Cornelius designed this massive conveyor belt for dipping, washing and drying. We had to wash them off with lukewarm water immediately and blow-dry them with a huge system of hair-dryers otherwise they would have caught pneumonia.

What we did before we released the rats in the town was to seal off every single gully, every single side street and doorway. Along the canal we fixed nets to prevent any single animal from getting into the water and even had people in boats down in the canal to collect any creatures that might have escaped. When filming in the town square we had a movable wooden wall just behind the camera, and another in an alley at the end of the street. When the signal was given, both walls moved out of their hiding places and would noisily move towards each other, trapping the rats in an increasingly narrower space so they could then be caged. Fact is, we never lost a single rat.

This was your second outing with Kinski. What was he like to work with this time?

Kinski loved the work and for pretty much the whole time on set he was happy, even though he would throw a tantrum maybe every other day. He was at ease with himself and the world at the time and loved to sit with his Japanese make-up artist Reiko Kruk for hours and hours. He would listen to Japanese music as she sculpted him every morning, putting his ears and fingernails on. We had to do the teeth and ears and shave his head every morning and just seeing him with this enormous patience was a fine sight. I would walk in and sit with him for fifteen minutes. We did not talk, we just looked at each other in the mirror and nodded at each other. He was good with the project, and he was good with himself. Though the film is close to two hours and Klaus is on screen for maybe seventeen minutes, his vampire dominates absolutely every single scene. That is the finest compliment I can give him for his performance. Everything in the film works towards these seventeen minutes. His character is constantly present because of the story and the images which intensify this sense of doom and terror and anxiety. It took fifty years to find a vampire to rival the one Murnau created, and I say that no one in the next fifty years will be able to play Nosferatu like Kinski has done. This is not a prophecy, rather an absolute certitude. I could give you fifty years and a million dollars to find someone better than Kinski and you would fail. And I think Isabelle Adjani is also quite remarkable in the film, the perfect counterpart to Kinski’s monster. Her role was an extremely difficult one: she had to be frightened of the vampire and at the same time be attracted to him, something she really managed to communicate to the audience.

Like some of your other features, there was more than one language version of ‘Nosferatu’. What language did you shoot the film in originally?

As with Aguirre, where we had people from sixteen countries on the set, English was the common language. This included Kinski and Adjani. As a filmmaker you have to make a choice, not just to make communication on set easier, but also for the sake of the international distributors, and for them English is always the preferred language. But even though the film was shot in English, we did dub a German version of the film which I have always considered the more convincing version. I do not dare to speak of the ‘better’ version. I speak of the more ‘culturally authentic’ version.

Where did you film the scene at Dracula’s castle?

Whatever you see of Transylvania was shot in former Czechoslovakia, much of it actually in Moravia at the castle of Pernstein, and in the High Tatra mountains. Originally, I had wanted to shoot in Transylvania proper, in Romania, but was not allowed to because of problems with the Ceausescu regime. I actually never received a direct refusal from the government, but got word from some friendly Romanian filmmakers who were very supportive of my wishes to shoot in the Carpathians. They advised me to leave the country immediately and not wait for permission, as it would never come as long as Ceausescu was around. Parliament had bestowed upon him the title of the new Vlad Dracul, the historical defender of Romania. The title had a contemporary meaning: Ceausescu defending the country against the Soviet Empire. It turned out these local filmmakers were right, though I had a wonderful time in Romania searching for locations, methodically travelling every path of the Carpathian mountains.

Five days after you finished shooting ‘Nosferatu’, you continued with the same crew and, of course, lead actor, and shot ‘Woyzeck’. Why did you make these films back to back?

Today Woyzeck seems like a little hiccup after Nosferatu. It took seventeen days to shoot and only five days to edit, and I would have started shooting the day after we finished Nosferatu but we had to let Kinski’s hair grow for the role. It was mainly for technical and bureaucratic reasons that we continued with the same crew on a new film. At that time in Czechoslovakia it was an endless saga to obtain shooting permits. We had ended up shooting the second half of Nosferatu in Moravia and other places in the eastern part of Slovakia, and I thought it was a good idea to just continue shooting Woyzeck but tell the authorities it was still Nosferatu we were working on. Actually we did start shooting pretty much the day after Nosferatu was completed, and I just shot around Kinski’s part.

Woyzeck (Directed by Werner Herzog)
I don’t think that Kinski has ever been better. It is a truly stunning performance.

Kinski was never an actor who would merely play a part. He would exhaust himself completely and after Nosferatu he remained deeply in the world that we had created together, something that was glaringly apparent from the first day he walked on to the set of Woyzeck. This really gave his performance a different quality and from the opening scenes of the film he seems to be so fragile and vulnerable. Look at the shot of him just after the title sequence where he is just staring into the camera. There is something not quite right with his face. It was actually swollen on one side. What happened was that when he was doing his push-ups during the title sequence the drill major kicks him to the ground. Klaus said to me, ‘He’s not doing it right, he has to really kick me. He can’t just pretend to kick me.’ The man who does the kicking is actually Walter Saxer, the man who is being screamed at by Kinski in Burden of Dreams a couple of years later. Kinski was kicked so hard into the cobblestones on the ground that his face started to swell up. I saw this and said to him, ‘Klaus, stop: do not move. Just look at me.’ He was still exhausted from doing his push-ups, but he looks with such power into the camera that it really sets up the feel of the rest of the film.

At the same time he loved playing the part so much and in many ways was very much in balance with himself during the shoot. If something would not go as I had hoped, he would say to me things like, ‘Werner, what we are doing here is important, and just striving for it will give it its appropriate size. Don’t worry, it will fall in place.’ He worked very hard on the text and, unlike so many other times, he generally knew his lines. It was truly a joy to work with him for those days, and I think back on that time with genuine fondness. And yes, he is so good in the role. He truly captured the spirit of the part; there is such a smouldering intensity to him.

This was clearly a project that had been on your mind for a while.

My film of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck is probably my simplest connection to what is the best of my own culture, more so than Nosferatu, which was more an explicit connection to a world of cinema. Though I have always worked within German culture, making a film of Woyzeck meant to reach out to Germany’s most significant cultural history, and for this reason there is something in the film that is beyond me. It touches the very golden heights of German culture, and because of this the film sparkles. Yet all I did was reach up and touch these heights.

I had wanted to make a film of Woyzeck for some time. For me there is no greater drama in the German language. It is of such stunning actuality. There is no really good English translation of Woyzeck, nothing really completely satisfying. The drama is a fragment, and there has been a very high-calibre debate within academic circles as to which order the loose, unpaginated sheets should go in. I used an arrangement of scenes that made the most sense as a continuous story and I think most theatrical productions use this same shape.

‘Woyzeck’ is probably my favourite of your features. It is such a tremendously inventive piece of cinema, the way you filmed it in a series of long takes.

We used a series of four-minute-long shots, and so the film is essentially made up of about twenty-five cuts, plus a couple of smaller takes. It was very difficult to maintain this: no one was allowed a mistake. It is a film of such economy that I will probably never achieve again. What made the whole approach exciting is that the film space is created not by cuts and the camera’s movement but wholly by the actors, by the force of their performances and their use of the space around them. Look at the scene where Woyzeck tries to flee from the drum major: he heads directly into the lens of the camera and at the last moment is pulled back. In a shot like that Kinski creates a space far beyond that of the camera; he is showing that there is a whole world behind, around and in front of the camera. You feel he is crawling desperately towards you, even into you. So the creation of space – and how as a director I used it – became even more important than normal in Woyzeck.

I truly like filmmakers who are daring enough to show a whole sequence in one single shot. You really have to let your pants down if you are trying that. What you show on screen has to be very strong in order to hold the audience for three or four minutes. Poor filmmakers will often move the camera about unnecessarily and use flashy tricks and an excess of cuts because they know the material is not strong enough to sustain a passive camera. This kind of film-making – full of unnecessary jump cuts and things like this – gives you a phony impression that something interesting might be going on. But for me it is a clear sign that I am watching an empty film.

–  Extract from Herzog on Herzog. By Werner Herzog. Ed. Paul Cronin. (Faber, 2002).


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