Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) - A beautifully expressive meditation on humanity and its illusions of 'enlightenment'

What happened:
A town based real estate agent goes out into the wilderness to flog Count Dracula a house. In so doing, he allows this mythical figure of the pre-enlightened age into civilisation; plague and pestilence follows.

What I liked:
Animals: Animals are not only a fascinating Herzog signature, but they act as the most poignant symbols of nature, of the uncontrollable and of the real. Their presence - as comparison or as companion - seems to heighten Herzog’s emphasis on humanity. From the kittens in the beginning symbolising the innocence of their little quaint town life, to th sense of pestilence and corruption vividly invoked by the hordes of rats.
Locations: The location shooting adds weight to the film; that believability in these characters and in the gravitas of the plague’s devastation. These real locations (and characters, in the seeming use of real Gypsies) has a similar effect as the rats. Not much else could have convincingly portrayed the severity of the situation. As with Aguirre, the combination of surreal and realist techniques, rather than cancel or balance each other out, manage to amplify each other, taking all emotion from the surrealist aesthetic, but grounding it in the real. If Herzog wasn’t a genius, this would surely fail.
Lighting: The lighting when Dracula is on screen is emphatically low key and expressive. His shadow is often much more intimidating than his own figure; possibly saying that the fear and reputation of such a character can cause just as much harm - if not more - as he could himself. The scenes featuring only Jonathan, in comparison, have much higher key, natural lighting and is filmed with a realist aesthetic. Hardly expressive, though ironically in its own way expressing this character’s simplicity.
Dracula: When Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is onscreen is when the film is at its most compelling. He is a sad character, in many ways with much more humanity than the human protagonist, longing to just be dead, or to be loved. Every scene is set up beautifully; the pacing of the film dropped right down to heighten the suspense and to savour the beauty. The way the film’s aesthetic becomes so poetic and expressive when he is onscreen emphasises the mythic allure of this beast. Compare this to Jonathan, who should have been the protagonist, yet is difficult to spark any interest or latch onto. This is one of those things that Herzog likes to do to the viewer; to play games with them and play with their predetermined notions of character. If it hadn’t been for Lucy really growing into her own as the film went, then Dracula would have been the only engrossing character in the film.

Not so much:
Jonathan: I know that I just said above that it was one of Herzog’s ways of playing with the viewer; making the alleged antagonist so much more interesting. I don't mind disliking characters; I'm not someone who thinks I have to like a character in order for the narrative to work, but the problem here is that it was hard to get behind Lucy’s motivations. I could not buy into the fact that she loved him.

Allegedly all knowing scientific man: It seemed to be saying that in order to deal with catastrophes as grand as the plague, mankind needs to create some kind of spiritual allegory in order to blame it on. Yet at the same time, and the overriding thing I came away with as it finished is quite that opposite; that the so called enlightened mankind of science is incessantly trying to push his explanations onto things. This reading seemed most clear, as the film made a concerted effort to have me feel for Lucy, the one who was most into this spiritual explanation. Further, the film really did take a mocking tone on the term ‘enlightened’, displaying the arrogance of mankind, thinking that it can label and categorise everything. The spiritual explanation can be read as parallel with art, and thus empathising with the spiritual over the scientific is similar to the way the expressive aesthetic drew me closer to Dracula than the realist aesthetic did to Jonathan.
Civilisation / wilderness: Expanding upon this, there was a real divide between the two, and the merging of them as the narrative progressed. Beginning with Jonathan’s journey to Transylvania, leaving civilisation, with its organised structures and concepts of commerce. When he reached the inn and spent the evening with the gypsies, he was between the two, but by the time he reached Dracula’s castle it truly was the wilderness; symbolic of the pre-enlightened phase possibly, as opposed to the current ‘enlightened century’ as professed by Van Helsing. Just as Jonathan passed into the wilderness, when he had Dracula sign the property deeds, thus indoctrinating him into society, it allowed him to wreak havoc upon civilisation. It was only after the transaction, this ‘contract’ - a staple of modernity and civilisation - that he set forth to unleash his pestilence. Almost as if making a deal with the past or with the wilderness is what allowed the downfall of civilisation.

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