By Giovanna Vicini
Gasps, yells, and laughter rocked the auditorium as Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre screened at the Pollock Theater last week. The legendary German-born director was there to watch the film alongside nearly 250 enthusiastic UCSB students and community members.
Their spirited reaction was a fitting welcome to a director who is known for his originality and feistiness. But Herzog also displayed the humility of an artist who puts his work above all else. “I am just a quiet soldier of cinema,” Herzog told the crowd at one point, prompting applause.
The screening and a discussion between Herzog and the Carsey-Wolf Center’s director Patrice Petro kicked off the “Hollywood Berlin” event series, which highlights German directors whose careers led them into American cinema.
Some of Herzog’s filmmaking exploits are renowned, including dangerous feuds with actor Klaus Kinski, who appeared in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of Godand Fitzcarraldo as well as Nosferatu the Vampyre.
At UCSB, Herzog described the epic tribulations he went through to get what he needed for his homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 original Nosferatu. In the end, he admitted, “the only thing that counts is what you see on the screen.”
Petro questioned Herzog about the relationship between his film, the 1922 original, and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Herzog told the audience that at one point he was threatened with a lawsuit for creating his film without the rights to Murnau’s work. He joked about being a “thief without loot,” noting that the 1922 film was made without the rights to Stoker’s Dracula novel to begin with. “I cannot be intimidated easily,” he assured the audience.
Legal difficulties that Herzog faced while filming Nosferatu the Vampyre was a theme the director returned to throughout the night. He recalled having to forge permits to film in the city of Delft. “If you’re an artist, the natural enemy…is always bureaucracy,” he said.
The irreverence on view in Herzog’s film shone through in his live storytelling as well. He shared hilarious stories of how his crew evaded police scrutiny during filming by rolling their cars into ditches and spraying pungent butyric acid “like a skunk” around buildings on the set.
While Herzog’s stories painted a picture of a carefree and rebellious filmmaker, other memories of working on set conveyed the professionalism and expertise that allowed this acclaimed film to succeed.
Herzog said he employed patience, understanding, and reassurance while directing his lead actress. He would clap the slate himself — a task not usually performed by a director — to help calm her down and aid her performance. Directing Nosferatu the Vampyre, he recalled, took “a lot of attention and knowing the heart of men…or in this case, the heart of a woman.”
Herzog was also reassuring to aspiring filmmakers in the crowd.
“You have a natural right to do a film,” Herzog said, when a student asked his advice. “This natural right is often obstructed”, he said. Then he challenged young filmmakers to “find imaginative solutions” to problems they may encounter, solutions “that will be even better than what is scripted.” Herzog ended the night by nonetheless cautioning young directors to create films within “a framework of ethical behavior.”
Giovanna Vicini is a third-year UCSB student doing a double major in Film and Media Studies, and Communication.