Sunday, October 30, 2011
Blood in Lieu of Life
I alluded yesterday to the sexual subtext of Dracula. Much of it is to do with sexually repressed English Victorian morality and the story plays upon a latent cultural fear of sex. It uses the mysterious and, to the English at the time, less civilised Eastern Europe as a place that, outside the watchful eye of English morality, the inherent darkness of human sexuality and sin may fester and come to full bloom. Next to the carnal power of the vampire, the English woman swoons helplessly and the English man is shown to be impotent when it comes to preventing his women from falling under the charm of Dracula and impotent when, well, when it comes to it, shall we say. A fascinating thing about Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu is how dramatically it changes this subtext.
Herzog's film is a remake of Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, an adaptation of Dracula which, due to copyright issues, had several alterations made to its plot and characters renamed. Herzog reverted to character names from Stoker's novel, but so much of the plot of his film is identical to Murnau's and Herzog even paid homage to individual shots.
It seems to me, in addition to honouring the visual achievement of Murnau's film, Herzog endeavoured to enlarge upon something Murnau might have done on accident in his attempt to make the plot of his film sufficiently different from the novel. This is the matter of Dracula's destruction at the end--instead of the men pursuing Dracula to his home and carving him up, the Count in Nosferatu is defeated by Ellen who sacrifices herself in order to distract the Count until sunrise.
Perhaps this has much to do with 1897 London of Dracula being replaced in Nosferatu with the German city of Wismar in 1838, a time and place less influenced by Victorian morality. Count Orlok's famous look--bald head, bruised, wide eyes, hunched back, overgrown nails and prominent front teeth--is not what most people would call sexually alluring. The focus here is more on vampirism as a disease, and is tied to a plague Orlok brings with him from Transylvania via hundreds of rats, something not featured in the book.
One of the earmarks of a Werner Herzog film is a shot like this;
Few filmmakers would be crazy enough to actually release hundreds of rats into a city, as he clearly actually did. Even fewer would resort to boiling the rats in order to dye them the desired shade of grey, as Herzog did. I doubt this film had PETA approval.
Anyway, sexuality isn't absent from Nosferatu, and Herzog furthers the subtextual implications the end of the Murnau film introduced. Van Helsing, who has a relatively minor presence in Murnau's film but is still more or less the same character as he is in the novel, becomes in Herzog's film a weak and waffling gentleman, dully repeating how everything must be explained scientifically and fails to acknowledge and react to the vampire threat. Jonathan, who returns home a devoted husband in Murnau's film, comes home infected with the vampiric disease in Herzog's film and appears not to recognise his wife. All this leaves Lucy (for some reason the Mina character is named Lucy in Herzog's version) as the bona fide heroine of the story.
And, gods, Isabelle Adjani as Lucy is gorgeous. More than just sacrificing herself out of a simple hearted purity, Lucy's forced to take the assertive role of investigator when the whole rest of the town has given up on trying to fight the plague. Rather than a lamb to a slaughter, one gets the impression of an intellect embarking on a final, fatal mission.
Jonathan, after succumbing to vampirism, doesn't seem exactly impotent. Both he and Dracula seem more like passive aggressive, petulant children ruled by their lusts. While Jonathan claims not to recognise Lucy, there's a strange menace in the way he says, "Who are you, how did we meet?" as though the demon in him knows perfectly well but delights in keeping the emotional barrier between them. Dracula, under the weight of centuries, tiredly begs Lucy for her love, never much seeming to physically threaten. Yet obviously the plague he's brought is a pretty big tool of extortion.
The menace here isn't sexuality but physical intimacy without emotional intimacy. This is neatly represented both by disease and by the men.
Twitter Sonnet #318
Foil candy corn drills splinter on stone.
Secret granite pates pulse the topsoil.
Fingernail two side dice fall on flat bone.
Retained old vomit's begun to spoil.
Tulip stitches sew sallow plates of flesh.
For days meat inside's been sadly humming.
Perhaps purity comes years after fresh.
Bruised lids shade paths of the pupils coming.
Blackened broccoli branches clutch the down moon.
Emerald drops pin feathers to a red throat.
Nothing in particular asks how soon.
Batman's busy pummelling a dust mote.
Rats when boiled behave desperately rash.
Self-conscious parasites whither to ash.
Belated happy birthday to Natalie.