Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. (English title: Nosferatu the Vampyre). 1979. Directed & Written by Werner Herzog.
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor, Walter Ladengast, Dan van Husen, Jan Groth, Carsten Bodinus, & Martje Grohmann.
Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/Gaumont/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen.
Rated PG. 107 minutes.
Today, many people complain about remakes. That’s partly because Hollywood has churned out remake after remake. Some movies need them, and some don’t. In 1979, Werner Herzog decided to do an update on F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu; a film he considers the greatest of German cinema. While the 1922 Murnau picture is a classic, an amazing example of German Expressionism which went on the influence the entire horror genre, a filmmaker such as Herzog taking on this sort of material is intriguing. To say the least.
The pairing of Herzog and mad actor Klaus Kinski produced a ton of excellent cinema over their time together as artists. Their first film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is one of the truly perfect masterpieces. But it’s Nosferatu the Vampyre that’s always captivated me most out of their work.
One of the greatest, if not the single greatest, vampire horrors out there. The cinematography is gorgeous, like a period piece dream. To me, this is the best instance of Kinski’s acting. Because of the role and its requirements he doesn’t let loose like the usual performance we expect from him. Herzog gets the best out of the actor as Count Dracula, as well as makes the typically interesting directorial choices that come to define his best films. More an homage than a remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre keeps the spirit of the original while simultaneously feeling decidedly Herzog-esque in the best kind of way. And it’s horror! Werner and the macabre makes for a great time.
I’m a fan of Terrence Malick, for the most part – one thing I love, as do many, is how he presents the beauty and power of nature. In opposition, I’ve always liked the way Herzog depicts nature in his various films, whether documentary or otherwise. Because what he does is show nature as it is, not as we see it through a romantic lens. There are certain ideas of nature and order versus chaos and disorder at play in this vampire story. Early on, Herzog gives us these incredible wide shots of beaches, the sand stretching on forever past the horizon through a blanket of fog. As Jonathan Harker (Brunzo Ganz) travels on his journey to eventually meet Count Dracula (Kinski), we’re taken through several other majestic natural views, from waterfalls to green pastures, hills. Everything feels in its place, even the dreariness of Wismar and its foggy landscapes. After meeting the Count, particularly being visited in the night in his bedroom by Dracula, nature starts to change along with Harker. Disorder reigns. Once Dracula and his ship come to Wismar, the chaos of nature unleashes: rats swarm from the ship into the city, around people eating a fancy meal at a luxurious dining table out in the street; nearby in a square where people have been going crazy, pigs run free shitting in the street everywhere. So for all the beauty in nature, Herzog has a way of showing nature in all its glory, as well as its nastiness. Plus, it plays well into the theme of Dracula’s unnatural presence.
Popol Vuh does the score for Herzog here, aside from the inclusion of Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold. Their sound is hypnotic, foreign, magical at times. They’ve got a dreamy quality to their music. The score is, at times, akin to unsettling chamber music. Druidic sounding chants behind the instrumentation on Dracula’s sea voyage becomes perfectly ominous, swelling then getting quiet again, as the ship’s arrival feels more like a funeral procession. Popol Vuh gives the film a drastically different feel than any other Dracula flick out there.
Part of why the cinematography’s noteworthy is due to the colour palette. Herzog has a lot of wonderful colour going on, keeping the costumes bright and colourful on most everyone in order to contrast well with Dracula’s black clothing, his pale face and hollow-looking eyes. Many of the interior scenes are caught in a blue-ish tinted lens, and we’re often led to believe we’re walking in a dream. As Harker travels towards Transylvania, the exteriors are bright and rich, vivid like one of Herzog’s documentaries. These scenes with Harker are breathtaking – the waterfall sequence leading to Harker sitting atop the rocks on the peak of a mountain, accompanied by Wagner, becomes something truly transcendent. Colour and lighting is one thing. The locations are a whole other piece of the atmosphere. Filming took place in the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and the famous, morbid opening was filmed by Herzog himself in Guanajuato, Mexico at the Mummies of Guanajuato museum (the director actually had to manipulate the mummified corpses to have them where he wanted them).
Kinski gives a career best performance as the infamous Count. He is subdued, emotive. His eyes alone convey the suffering of the ancient vampire, lost in the eternity of his affliction. The loneliness sears in the way he looks at everything, everyone around him, unsure of how to exist amongst the modern people of Wismar. Not to mention the way Herzog captures Kinski in all the gloriously hideous makeup. For instance, the initial scene with Harker at dinner is a perfect example, where shots of Dracula cloak him entirely in darkness except for his face, so that there’s a ghostly appearance of him solely as a disembodied head. In every way, Kinski’s Dracula is the most definitive to me. He gets the eeriness of the vampire, and totally nails the lonely heart of the undead Count. At once a true ghoul and a fading lover, to the level of Greek tragedy-like awe.
If this isn’t a 5-star vampire flick, I don’t know what is, and I’m at a loss as to why anybody wouldn’t love this one. Herzog isn’t for everybody. His style absolutely comes across, tenfold, but all the same this is one of his films that doesn’t go too deep into that arena. Herzog opts to use his talents to make a wonderful homage to Murnau, using less of a German Expressionist style, and focusing more on a straight forward look at horror, infused with a better view into Count Dracula’s sadness.
Technically a remake, Herzog pays respect to Murnau and also treads new ground of his own to make his Nosferatu the Vampyre interesting. Most of all, he allows his style to create the deep atmosphere and mood of the film so that the story and characters feel fresh in their own right. Kinski is the star, as is Herzog in his director’s seat. But you cannot forget Ganz, who does fine work and only gets finer as the film progresses, and certainly not the talented Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker – they’re both knockout additions to the cast.
In a day and age when vampires haven’t been treated with the proper respect they deserve, on film and in literature, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a welcomed horror for any October-Halloween season. Don’t go for all the typical ones. Check out Herzog’s masterpiece of horror. And for those who don’t dig subtitles, this movie was simultaneously recorded in German and English, so you’re not missing too much nuance by watching it in English. Although I always recommend any film in its original language. One thing you’ll never forget about the English language version? Renfield’s horrendous laugh. Try sleeping after you watch this and not hear it. I dare you.