Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

As opening shots go, footage of dead, decomposed babies and children, their faces contorted into richtuses of terror and howls of pain is probably one of the clearest projections for the tone of the ensuing film that I’ve ever come across. Couple this with slow motion shots of bats flying in the dark (used repeatedly throughout the entire film whenever director Werner Herzog takes his fancy, regardless of it’s relevance to the plot) and a woman (Isabelle Adjani) waking up screaming to said bat flying around her window and you’re left with no uncertainty that this isn’t quite your average vampire film.

And that’s OK, because as I’ve discussed before, the tale of Dracula is fairly well known, even if you’ve never seen any of the many, many adaptations. This is my fourth Herzog film. I liked but was relatively underwhelmed by Rescue Dawn, couldn’t get my head around Aguirre and thought Bad Lieutenant was a good fit for Nicolas Cage’s own brand of insanity, but I understand that he has a reputation for being, well, a nutbag. That’s exactly the kind of approach you need to take with such a well versed story, and I approved of the inclusion of some new material. 

The story, in case you’ve been living in a soil-filled coffin for several centuries, concerns Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who is sent to Transylvania to organise a land deal with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), a mysterious recluse who terrifies the locals and has an obsession with the neck of Jonathan’s fiance, Lucy (Adjani). Kinski’s Dracula is a wonderful creation, far more haunted than haunting. He is a very pitiable creature, paper-white with deformed ears, needle-sharp teeth, a bulbous bald head and rat-like claws, as much tormented by his curse as he is a danger to others. His face is often all that can be seen, with his body and black silk robe shrouded in complete darkness. During dinner, when Jonathan cuts his thumb, Dracula is unable to stop himself from stalking over and sucking upon it. The scene is rivetting and unbelievably tense, with utter terror in the eyes of Jonathan. Similarly, Jonathan waking to Dracula in his doorway, slowly advancing upon him, is downright horrifying. Kinski may not be as effective a Dracula as Max Schreck, but he’s still bloody good.

I especially appreciated the switch in focus upon Dracula’s inevitable arrival at Jonathan’s hometown of Wismar. Instead of centring merely on the havoc caused by the presence of a vampire in their society, the attention is paid more to the rats he brought with him aboard his boat, and the plague that lays the town low. I think this is new to the story, and was a nice addition in my opinion, although the group of people enjoying a meal in the village square, over-run by rats to which they are oblivious because they’ve caught the plague but are planning to enjoy themselves regardless was perhaps a bit much.

The role of Van Helsing (Walter Landengast) has been severely reduced from what I expected, but his final moments are genius, plot-wise. The best shot, however, has to be the creative use of a vampire’s innability to appear in mirrors, as Lucy sits brushing her hair, gazing at her reflection. We see in the mirror a door behind her open and close – with the obligatory ominous creak – and a bald, taloned shadow creeping up on her, until claws appear beside her face. It’s brilliant. Roland Topor is also good as Harker’s boss Renfield, doing an impression of both Peter Lorre and Pee-Wee Herman simultaneously.

Something did feel a little off with the setting though, as if the people were walking around the modern day (or the 1970s, at least) and just happened to be wearing period garb. It was a while before I could shake this feeling, and I still can’t put my finger on where it came from. Maybe the locations, especially of Wismar, felt a bit too modern in comparison to the costumes and dialects. My favourite thing about the film? The assistant director is called Remmelt Remmelts.

Choose film 7/10

Doctor Zhivago

One of those Sunday afternoon sweeping epics that never seems to be off the TV schedule but before the List I’d never seen before (see also The Sound of Music, Gone With the Wind, The Ten Commandments), Doctor Zhivago was a bit of a disappointment.
For starters, it’s well over 3 hours long, but very little of that mammoth runtime left any kind of impression. Other than some striking imagery – a splash of blood in freshly fallen snow, a burst of yellow sunflowers against a dull, beige hallway – and a few admittedly impressive set pieces, there’s very little from this film that’s been committed to my memory banks.

Given there’s so much time to handle, the characters don’t receive much characterisation. This is a real shame, particularly for Omar Sharif as the titular medical man, who gives an engaging a bright-eyes performance, but of a character I still know very little about. His Sharif is born into a wealthy family in Russia, a little before the Bolshevik Revolution, and the film tells of his many and varied troubles throughout his, and Russia’s, history. On many occasions the history overshadows his life, as well it should, but the focus of the film is instead on him and his loves, for his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), whom he marries, is forcibly separated from Zhivago, forming a love triangle when he works closely with Julie Christie’s Lara.
At times the film reminded me of – whisper it – Pearl Harbour, particularly when I was asked to try and forget about the major historical event taking place in the background of a scene, and instead focus on the trivialities of the relationships of the leads, but just like Michael Bay’s explosion-fest, the grand scale of the set pieces was very impressive. Be it the hundreds of singing extras at a rally that becomes a battleground against an army of sword-wielding Cossacks, or the miles-long trudge Zhivago sets out on to return home through the snow, there is little shortage of spectacle.
Look out for Klaus Kinski on a train, and listen as your cries for more Alec Guinness – as Zhivago’s brother Yevgraf – go unheard. Whilst the film is certainly at times impressive, especially for its time, today it doesn’t really hold up, though it is certainly better than Pearl Harbour.
Choose life 6/10

Aguirre: Wrath of God

In 16th century South America, a large group of conquistadors are exploring the jungles, searching for El Dorado, the city of gold. Among this group are knights in full armour, maidens riding in slave-carried sedan chairs, monks, llamas, pigs and men dragging cannons, desperately trying to traverse knee deep mud and extremely dense rainforest. It was these images that first made me think this was a comedy, as the shots of these 100s of people blindly heading deeper and deeper into the lush undergrowth without even contemplating what could possibly be ahead is frankly hilarious, but when a smaller (but still fairly sizable, and weighed down with unnecessary items and people) is sent forward as a scouting party, they are rapidly picked off one by one by natives, illness and each other. Eventually leading this group is Klaus Kinski’s wild-eyes Aguirre, desperate to divert to mission to his own gain via any means necessary, even shooting the man currently in charge. After the initial hilarity the movie takes a dive towards bleaker, more surreal pastures, and although some shots, the final one for instance, of Aguirre finally controlling his raft, apart from the hoards of monkeys, are memorable, this film really isn’t worth the time.

Choose life 5/10