by Harlan Kennedy


The picture-pretty Dutch town of Delft eliminated rodents from its  cobbled streets and narrow canals 10 years ago.  So, when German filmmaker Werner Herzog decided to loose 10,000 red-eyed Hungarian  rats in the city for a scene in “THE UNDEAD – NOSFERATU,”  he  should have been prepared for objections from the good burghers.

By the same token, the good burghers should have been prepared for him.  Perhaps the leading director of the new German cinema, Mr. Herzog is well-known for his unconventional methods.  In “HEART OF GLASS,”  he hypnotized his actors; in “THE MYSTERY OF KASPAR HAUSER,”  he cast a former mental patient in the title role; in “AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD,” he hacked through South American jungles to film the story of a monomaniacal conquistador.  And so naturally, since Mr. Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film “NOSFERATU” required rodents, the director wanted real rats – and lots of them.

The story itself dates back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “DRACULA,”  which not only spawned the current Broadway hit but which the German expressionist filmmaker Murnau adapted in 1922, changing the characters’ names to avoid copyright problems and replacing Stoker’s bats and baying wolves with rats that swarm wherever Nosferatu goes.

The rats are especially evident aboard the ghostly ship in which the Count travels from Transylvania to the German port of Lubeck.  Since much of old Lubeck was destroyed during World War 11, Mr. Herzog moved Nosferatu’s destination to Delft – which, with its canals and gabled houses, resembles Murnau’s Lubeck.

But the Burgomeister of Delft, having so recently cleaned up his city, adamantly refused permission to import 10,000 new rats – even though the director guaranteed that they’d been sterilized.  Eventually, Mr. Herzog acquiesced.  His solution?  Truck the rodents to a willing neighboring town and shoot the scenes there.

“The Undead – Nosferatu” is Mr. Herzog’s ninth film, and he envisions it as a link between the new German cinema and the film glories of such pre-Nazi directors as Murnau.

“We are a generation without fathers,” he says, “and we must therefore reach back to the true German cultural heritage.”  It may also be his springboard into the big leagues.  Mr Herzog’s earlier movies have seen only limited distribution in art houses; this one, which he hopes to complete in time for a Christmas release, is a German-French-American co-production.  Shot simultaneously in German and English, it will be distributed by 20th Century Fox.

There are several Dracula films in various stages of production, but “The Undead – Nosferatu” is not likely to be just another Gothic spine-chiller.

The traditional view of the vampire Count was unmistakably Victorian.  When Stoker wrote his novel, the smooth façade of late 19th-century English life was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, and through the cracks came such varied masters of outrage as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Jack the Ripper.  Dracula is not so much a monster as another fallen Victorian aristocrat, one whose story struck a sympathetic chord in generation after post-Victorian generation.

Over the years, though, the blood-sucking Count has also become the archetypal emblem for the evil that lurks below the surface, for the compulsion that eats away at its victim from inside – that eats away at our belief in ourselves as free agents in a moral universe.  Whether it’s bats and baying wolves on the moors or rats in Delft, Dracula/Nosferatu carries a plague; but it is a spiritual one.

Mr. Herzog sees his film as a parable about the fragility of order in a staid, bourgeois town.  Though “The Undead-Nosferatu” is a film full of horrors, “it is more than a horror film,” he says.  Nosferatu is not a monster, but an ambivalent, masterful force of change.  When the plague threatens, people throw their property into the streets, they discard the bourgeois trappings.  A re-evaluation of life and its meaning takes place.”

Klaus Kinski, his gaunt head shaved for the role of the vampire, agrees.  “We both see Dracula a little differently from Murnau’s film.  We see him more sympathetically.  He is a man without free will.  He cannot cease to be.  He is a kind of incarnation of evil, but he is also a man who is suffering, suffering for love.  This makes it so much more dramatic, more double-edged.”

Although Mr. Herzog professes “I feel very close to the spirit of medieval times – I feel I am more a craftsman than an artist,” he is working to evoke a sense of spiritual malaise through sophisticated imagery.  One morning, early risers in Delft watched a vampire with billowing cloak carrying a coffin on his shoulder through the town’s imposing main square.  What they saw, however, was not what the film’s audiences will see, for Mr. Herzog was shooting through a soft violet filter to imbue the scene with an elegiac glow recalling the Gothic- Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.

That evening, strollers saw Isabelle Adjani, the French actress who created Francois Truffaut’s “Adele H.,” sleepwalking along the edge of the old canal toward Nosferatu’s house.  With her china doll complexion and haunted eyes, she seems just right for Lucy, the beautiful innocent heroine of Stoker’s tale.

But the filmmaker is revising Lucy, just as he is revising the Count.  Says Miss Adjani’s co-star, Mr. Kinski, “Lucy is a complete departure from previous heroines in vampire films.  There’s a sexual element.  She is gradually attracted towards Nosferatu.  She feels a fascination – as we all would, I think.  First, she hopes to save the people of the town by sacrificing herself.  But then, there is a moment of transition.  There is a scene when he is sucking her blood – sucking and sucking like an animal – and suddenly her face takes on a new expression, a sexual one, and she will not let him go away any more.  There is a desire that has been born.  A moment like this has never been seen in a vampire picture before.”

The sense of shared enthusiasm evident when Mr. Kinski speaks is one that is carefully nurtured by Mr. Herzog – off the set as well as on.  The trappings of a major international production have done nothing to change his unorthodoxies.

For the stay in Delft, Mr. Herzog rented a huge house on the Oude Delft Canal and divided the rooms – and domestic duties – equally among the crew.  In the “Nosferatu” commune, chores like cooking and washing are as much part of the daily routine as sewing the costumes and making the props.  Indeed, a dozen of these props – coffins – are piled ominously by the front door.

On the set, Mr. Herzog’s share-and-share-alike theories are exemplified by an anecdote related by Lotte Eisner, the distinguished German film critic and historian.  On returning from a day’s shooting on the Dutch coast, buoyant with excitement, she talked about a scene in which the ship bearing Nosferatu and his deadly rats approaches a Delft whose shores Mr. Herzog had covered with an eerie, wintry mantle of white plastic foam.  One key shot required a shivering actor to leap into the sea.  He demurred.  If 10,000 rats couldn’t deter Mr. Herzog, a balky actor wasn’t about to; the director showed the way by jumping into the icy water himself.




This article appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, July 30 1978, Section D, pages l and 13.

©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.