For many reasons, Werner Herzog’s 1979 vampire tale “Nosferatu the Vampyre” is a classic effort in the prolific filmmaker’s body of work, not least of which because it features Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s legendary muse and tempestuous collaborator, at his most tranquil and genuinely creepy. “It was clear there would never be a vampire of his caliber ever again,” Herzog said of Kinski at L.A.’s Cinefamily last night, where the little-seen German language version of the film begins a weeklong 35mm run today. “I do not need to see the vampire films of the future. I still know Kinski will be the best, at least for four or five centuries.”
Co-starring Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Adjani, and Roland Topor, Herzog’s re-interpretation of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic is rife with the director’s trademarks: surreal landscapes and environments scored to Popol Vuh, an uneasy relationship with nature, a deft handle on humor and horror throughout. But it is also a rare, direct tribute to Herzog’s home country, as influences from German Romanticism and the expressionistic 1920s works of Murnau and Fritz Lang shine through.
It’s easy to then see why Herzog considers the German-language version the most “culturally authentic,” as opposed to the English version more widely seen by audiences. Contrary to popular belief, Herzog denies shooting both languages simultaneously; instead, they shot some scenes in English and others in German, and then dubbed the necessary parts.
Herzog claims that cinema has “a very unique way” of dealing with the vampire myth, and while his high esteem for Kinski’s legacy has barred him from considering most future iterations, a surprising exception is the “Twilight” series of films. His reaction? “Not that bad, I was surprised to find.”
“We have to take it seriously that there are films out there that know how to address a 14 or 15-year-old,” he added. “This is a very special sort of approach and I couldn’t do it, yet these films could. I see that much of it is silly but at the same time I respect these films. And I just worked with one of the actors, Robert Pattinson [in Herzog’s upcoming ‘Queen of the Desert’], and he’s a wonderful, fine actor. He’s clearly stepping out of these roles that make the teenies screech.”
The question of making a film for younger audiences led Herzog to acknowledge that he’d love to tackle one. However, he claims that only an idea for a children’s book, “Sweeney Among The Nightingales,” has materialized, about the story of “King Sweeney The Mad” (and seemingly no relation to T.S. Eliot’s poem).
“He and his army goes into battle,” Herzog described, “And when the battle rages at its most furious he loses his mind, and he flies away into a tree and sings songs like a nightingale. For years they try to lure him out of the tree but he keeps singing songs and – it’s just a very beautiful story. I’ve carried it so long in me I should just do it.” Anyone who’s heard his rendition of the children’s book parody “Go The F*ck To Sleep” would be eager to agree. Until that point, the only other book Herzog is currently preparing is “Guidance For The Perplexed” (out in August), a new set of interviews similar to “Herzog on Herzog” covering the director’s life and career.
Certain to be in there, or in one of Herzog’s other career retrospectives, are the increasingly crafty and volatile circumstances that befell “Nosferatu.” Filmed in Czechoslovakia and the city of Delft in the Netherlands, Herzog not only was tasked with keeping Kinski under control for “Nosferatu,” but also “Woyzeck,” which he wanted to shoot back-to-back with five days in between both productions. But instead of applying for new permits with the country’s governments, he pretended both were one long project.
“I just tricked them — they are natural enemies, bureaucracy and art. You have to out-trick them, outsmart them. I would engage authorities with what they love most: paper. I would fill out pages with random figures, and they couldn’t make sense of it but they were engaged. Sometimes some of the things I did with the necessary natural amount of criminal energy.”
That criminal energy also carried over slightly into one of the most iconic and discussed elements of Herzog’s “Nosferatu”: the plague-ridden rats, over 10,000 in all.
After haggling with the city of Delft for a permit after sealing “every single gully, side alley, and house entrance” for filming purposes, Herzog and his team had to dye each individual lab rat a dark shade of grey from their original white color. And then there was the matter of storing the rodents.
“We had them stored in a nearby farmhouse outside of Delft,” Herzog said, “And somehow the people who got the money for feeding them ran away with the money. There was trouble with the farmers, and when we were about to pick up the rats they were so enraged they pulled up with a Caterpillar and drove into the truck that we brought. They broke through the windshield, but there were people sitting on the other side of it.”
He continued, “There was some violence, actual violence that I instigated. Police finally arrived and I tricked them into going into the wrong barn. They had parked their two police cars in some sort of a causeway so we couldn’t push one car to the side. But the other was sitting there, and so we toppled it over and rolled it into a ditch. Got out with the rats.” Herzog paused a moment, and then said with a faint smile, “I just say this as encouragement for the young filmmakers.”
“Nosferatu The Vampyre” is screening through May 22nd at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily and out on Blu-Ray next week. You can also catch it and many more on the streaming service Fandor, who are hosting six of Herzog’s films over on their site, or on Shout Factory’s 16-film box set, out July 29th.