“I should caution you, it’s not a remake.”
When Werner Herzog gives a warning, it is advisable to heed it. So do not call his 1979 film “Nosferatu The Vampyre” a remake of the 1922 film "Nosferatu” by F.W. Murnau. Rather consider it an interpretation or tribute. In his review of the initial release of the film, Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas called it “a film of astonishing beauty and daring… not a horror picture but one of eerie wonderment and bizarre spectacle.”
On Friday night Herzog’s “Nosferatu” begins a weeklong run at L.A.’s Cinefamily with a special event with the filmmaker in attendance. The film is screening in a new 35mm-print of the German-language version – also known as “Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht” – that has been little seen theatrically in America up to now. (Herzog shot the film in both English and German versions at the same time with the same actors.)
The story of the film is familiar as a man named Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is called on a long journey to the remote castle of Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). The count later appears in the city with seeming designs on Harker’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani).
But Herzog made the saga all his own with a stirring, spaced-out soundtrack by the band Popol Vuh, stunning shots of mountain landscapes and deserted beaches, slow-motion footage of a bat in flight cribbed from a nature documentary, some 11,000 live rats and a predictably unpredictable performance by his frequent collaborator Kinski.
Though Herzog isn’t one for looking back, he appreciates knowing that films such as his “Nosferatu” have an ongoing life. He is finishing work on “Queen of the Desert,” which has been shooting in Morocco, Jordan, and England and stars Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson and James Franco while also prepping two more feature films, acting, publishing a book and preparing for another edition of his Rogue Film School. He’s startlingly busy, but when recently reached by phone in Los Angeles, the 71-year-old Herzog cautioned, “I’m not hectic at all.”
Calling the German-language version “the more authentic” of the two, the Munich, Germany-born Herzog noted that it also for him “has a very specific position because it has to do with me finding solid ground within the history of German cinema. Connecting with the generation of the grandfathers, in this case with Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. So for me it was like bridging a void, a big gap in reconnecting to the great cinema of the 1920s.
“And that was very important for me,” he added. “I felt safer after that, I felt connected, as if I had crossed a river and on the other side with my feet I felt solid ground. Since then I’ve been very stable in my vision, very stable in my work, very clear in what I’ve done since then.”
Brian Block, founder and creative director of distributor Bleeding Light Film Group, also involved in the recent re-issues of Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” and Alain Resnais’ “Je t’aime, je t’aime,” paid for the new print of the film. His remarks on striking the new print mirrored Herzog’s comments on making “Nosferatu” in the first place.
“It feels as close to the past, the way it was meant to be seen, as possible,” Block said. “In 35 mm, the format it was shot on, the way it originally was presented, it feels like a more direct connection to the moment the film was originally released.”
Both versions of “Nosferatu” will also be included on the blu-ray released by the Scream Factory imprint on May 20. Many of Herzog’s films, including “Nosferatu” and Herzog’s 1999 documentary on Kinski, “My Best Fiend,” are also available on the streaming service Fandor.
“Let me say one thing about Kinski,” Herzog added, “no matter what we have seen about vampires so far, no matter what’s going to come at us in the next half-century, there won’t be another vampire of the caliber of Kinski again. When you see him you know he’s the best, you’ll never see anyone like him again.”
The same might be said of Werner Herzog, mad adventurer of cinema, forever pushing on to territories unknown.
"Nosferatu The Vampyre" is at Cinefamily through May 22.