The relationship between director Warner Herzog, Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh is one that would span decades and multiple films. The trust and dueling natures of the two artists created a unit that few have, or can ever hope to match. While Herzog tended to linger in the darkness of human nature, Fricke took strides to focus on the inspired, more enlightened side of humanity. When these two powerhouses combined, the result was pure magic, and Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979) is the perfect encapsulation of that magic.
Fricke and Herzog met in Germany back in 1967 while Fricke was working as a film critic for a German newspaper. Fricke, a classically trained musician with a passion for film, instantly clicked with the filmmaker. They both were fascinated by religions, traditions and beliefs from far off lands as well as the experimental music and film being created in Germany. Their work together started simple enough with Fricke being cast in small roles in Herzog’s 1968 film Signs of Life and 1974’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. They entered each other’s lives at pivotal times for both. Herzog was truly coming into his own as a filmmaker and was beginning to garner worldwide recognition for his unique style and vision. Fricke was also taking his passions to the next level. In 1970, Fricke was introduced to the Moog III and decided he had to have one for himself. The seemingly endless possibilities for this new and groundbreaking synthesizer demanded collaborators. Fricke reached out to Frank Fiedler (technical assistant), Holger Trulzsch (percussion) and Bettina Fricke (production and tablas), and with this group of skilled individuals on board, Popol Vuh was born.
These visions of darkness, death and things that haunt us coupled with sounds that draw references from religion […]will come to embody the relationship between Herzog, Fricke and Popol Vuh.
Knowing Fricke’s aptitude for music, experimentation and film, it’s no surprise that Herzog called upon Fricke and Popol Vuh when it came to scoring some of his films. In 1972, Popol Vuh scored Aguirre, The Wrath of God and earned their first Oscar nomination. In 1976, they scored Heart of Glass. And in 1979, they created the score to the masterpiece that is Nosferatu the Vampyre.
When Herzog approached Fricke about the project, he delivered Herzog Popol Vuh’s tenth album ‘Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts.‘ Needing more music to fill out the film, Herzog countered and asked for more ‘obscure and scary’ material. By scouring the plentiful Popol Vuh archives, Fricke managed to compile the score as it is known now. There’s no question that the score to Nosferatu is an iconic, beautiful piece of work. In fact, Popol Vuh received their second Oscar nomination for the score because of those facts. However, it is the way in which the film and the score work together, the way in which Fricke and Herzog worked together, that truly puts this score on a level that few can match. Let’s dig into it a bit, shall we?
Visually, the film opens with shots from the Mummies of Guanajuato Museum in Mexico. Faces, mummified and frozen in time, provide a haunting glimpse at death while setting the stage for what is to come. Countering the graphic and morbid imagery, male voices chanting in a Gothic-like style one can’t help but associate with religion. Slowly, layers are added to the voices; oboes, cymbals, flutes, guitar. Chords slowly shifting, lingering on dissonant tones, taking their time before resolving to a comforting home. The creeping way in which the layers are added build a suspenseful atmosphere that leaves the viewer waiting…anticipating…for what they’re not quite sure. These visions of darkness, death and things that haunt us coupled with sounds that draw references from religion, ascension and a higher state of mental being will come to embody the relationship between Herzog, Fricke and Popol Vuh.
One of the other key things regarding the score to this film is the way in which it is used…or not used. As horror fans, we are used to horror scores playing key roles in the execution and development of scares. Whether it be those trademark ‘stings,’ driving electronic synths, or low foreboding hums, these are familiar tropes that we as fans expect and understand. Herzog did not play by such rules. For example, as the unlucky Jonathan Harker reaches the castle, the doors begin to open and a shadow emerges. Slowly, the incredible Klaus Kinski is revealed as Count Dracula for the first time. His long fingers and nails, the shocking white tint of his skin and overall creepiness is simply left to exist on the screen, no accompanying music necessary. The silence continues for nearly 13 minutes, the tension building as Dracula and Jonathan experience one of the most uncomfortable dinners in history.
Much like the way Herzog emphasizes light and dark, evil and purity, Popol Vuh mirrors this duality in their music also. Their song ‘Morning Sun‘ hass a sense of lightness, peace and optimism. The flowing melody and plodding rhythm create a hypnotic backdrop that accentuates the mindset and innocence of Lucy and Jonathan in various scenes. In counterpoint to this track, we have the song ‘Mantra 2‘- A slow, droning piece set in a minor key that mesmerizes and haunts as it progresses. Voices sing along with the sitar and guitar melody, quietly mirroring the tune while not overpowering it. While simple and repetitive on the surface, the melody deviates slightly from it’s path just often enough to never quite let the listener settle.
While both the film and the score stand on their own, the true beauty lies in how they compliment each other. Take the song ‘Der Ruf der Rohrflöte‘ for example. It’s a slow, swirling, atmosphere building enigma of synthesized sounds. The ebb and flow, the crescendos that turn into diminuendos; these convey a slow, pulsating breath-like rhythm. On the screen we see Dracula, entering the town of Wismar for the first time. As he’s leaving the church, his makeshift home, he stops. What we get next is one of the most powerful scenes in the whole film. Centered in the middle of the screen it’s simply Dracula‘s face, turning, slowly looking around at his new surroundings. As the light and dark plays off his face and features, the music building and fading with subtlety, the loneliness and sadness present within Dracula is not just seen, but felt. As his shadow falls across Lucy‘s home, it becomes clear that Dracula is not just driven by blood, evil and death. It is the desire for love, for a life that has truly brought him here. This is conveyed not by words, for in this scene not a single bit of dialogue is spoken. Instead, Herzog relies on music to convey these emotions, and it does. You take one away from the other and neither is as compelling as when the two are combined.
Dracula is not just driven by blood, evil and death. It is the desire for love […] Herzog relies on music to convey these emotions, and it does.
For any fan of the genre, the film, and the music of, Nosferatu The Vampyre is a must own piece. Now, I might sound a bit like a snob here, but there is something about this score that sounds truly amazing on vinyl. The droning synthesized sounds, the resonance of the chants; there’s a depth of sound that can be felt in such a unique way when played on a turntable. Luckily, in the last few years there have been not one but two killer releases. In 2015, Wah Wah Records released a 2LP set that includes not only the original Popol Vuh album ‘Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts,’ but the original release of the soundtrack as well. Also in 2015, Waxwork Records released their version of the score. A 2LP set including 4 tracks that were used in the film, but not included on the original release. Both are easily find-able out there in the internet realm, and the price tags aren’t too crazy. I highly recommend them, and honestly, if you love it, buy them both! They both offer unique and different listens and together create a perfect and well-rounded Nosferatu experience.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite Herzog/Popol Vuh collaborations? Got a suggestion, idea, or thought about what soundtrack we should cover next? Let us know over on our Facebook Group, Reddit, or Twitter!