Remakes, nine times out of ten, they’re a complete failure. With so many coming out these days, I think there’s one that manages to hold up, even today. I’m speaking, of Werner Herzog’s 1979 adaptation of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror. Which is simply titled, Nosferatu The Vampyre. I sat down with this one over the weekend, and thought it might be interesting to compare the two. You have one of the godfathers of the German expressionist movement, and the undisputed leader of the new German cinema movement. Let’s not waste anymore time, and compare these two.
F.W. Murnau is, without a doubt, one of the most influential filmmakers who ever lived. A filmmaker who integrated light, shadow, and philosophy to celluloid. His contributions to the expressionist movement would go on to influence Sergei Eisenstein, Charles Laughton, and even Frank Borzage. Nosferatu is undoubtedly his most well-known work, and the most recognizable. It also was one of the first silent films to have its own musical score.
Truth be told, Werner Herzog has never made a bad film. He’s a filmmaker with a drive unmatched by any before, or since. He’s traveled to the ends of the earth, just for the sake of his art. Attempting to remake such an influential classic such as Nosferatu was a bold move, one that might not have paid off in the end. Luckily however, it did. Herzog insisted that Murnau’s classic was the most important film in German History. Herzog wasn’t attempting to out do Murnau, but link their film movements together.
In 1922, there were a large amount of restraints in cinematic technology. Murnau had to resort to other means, to give his film the dark atmosphere it possesses. Without any dialogue, he had to resort to his actors’ body language and facial expressions, to convey feeling. His use of light and shadow have almost never been equaled. Filmed in black and white, Murnau dyed the frames in blue and yellow. This helps to simulate night and day for the audience. One technique, that I feel is overlooked, is his genius for pinpoint editing. A good example of this, is the stagecoach ride to Count Orlok’s castle. Next time you sit down with this one, pay very close attention to coach’s movements.
By 1979, advances in cinematic evolution were in Herzog’s favor. By then, cameras could pick up sound, and dubbing a soundtrack had gotten much easier. Many of the film’s scenes are taken right from the 1922 version. Herzog expands on these sequences, with the use of an impressive score, and low key lighting. Unlike the expressionist light and shadow, he utilizes his camera to give his film a more realistic feel. Using a crew of less than 20 people, the film feels more personal and brooding than Murnau’s original work.
Max Shreck’s Count Orlok has become synonymous with the vampire. There is only other actor from the time, that I could compare this performance to, Lon Cheney Sr. Without saying a single word, Shreck’s face of death carries this film. In an age where a lot of silent era performances had a comical look to them, Shreck’s is one for the ages. Although Willem Dafoe attempted to recapture them in Shadow Of The Vampire, Shreck’s work remains one of a kind.
Werner Herzog has never made a bad film, and Klaus Kinski never gave a bad performance. His work with Herzog, is the finest of his career. If the vampire had a voice in the 1922 version, I’m positive he would sound like Kinski. His raspy vocal tone brings the vampire to life. Aside from that, his frail frame pays homage to Shreck’s original performance. Herzog always brought out the best in Kinski, and this film is no exception.
So what’s the end result? It’s honestly hard for me to say, which one is the superior work. I feel they’re both great works of art, from two great filmmakers. I think Murnau’s work is a true classic, in every sense of the word. I also feel however, that this is one of Werner Herzog’s greatest works. Sit sown with both, and come to your own conclusion.