Nosferatu (1979) – Herzog’s classic take on a classic

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of those stories that is re-made on a fairly consistent basis. If you don’t like the latest incarnation of the count, wait a few years and there will be another. 1979 was a particularly good vintage for the vampire from Transylvania. Three major interpretations of his tale reached American movie theaters during that year: Dracula, starring the charismatic Frank Langella in the title part; Love at First Bite, a less-than-biting satire featuring George Hamilton; and Nosferatu the Vampyre, director Werner Herzog’s homage to F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 silent film, Nosferatu.

There are those, Herzog included, who will argue that the original Nosferatu is the definitive screen adaptation of Dracula. And, while other versions, such as the 1931 Bela Lugosi interpretation or the 1958 Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Horror of Dracula, have their adherents, none can match the Murnau edition for atmosphere and eerieness.  I’m no expert in horror.  My dad was though.  When we were kids dad would often get us out of bed to join him in watching very old black and white scaries.  At the time I assumed my Dad didn’t want us to miss a wonderful moment.  In retrospect, he was probably scared silly and needed the company.  I got to watch classics like Pit and the Pendulum and, of course, the 1922 version of Nosferatu.

Herzog approached Nosferatu the Vampyre with fewer preconceptions than many directors who tackle the tale of Count Dracula. His only previous exposure to the world’s most famous vampire had been through reading Stoker’s novel and seeing the silent Nosferatu.

Dracula in this film is played by Klaus Kinsky and Kinski’s Dracula is unlike any other interpretation of the character. Visually, he resembles Schreck, with a bald pate, pointed ears, rat-like fangs, clawed hands, and a stiff gait – but that’s where the similarity ends. This version of the count is neither a cultured nobleman, a sadistic monster, nor a romantic lead. Instead, he is a twisted wretch – a creature who longs for the simple pleasures of life and humanity denied to him by the curse that has transformed his existence into a bloody, monotonous litany of late-night feedings. He craves affection almost as much as he desires death, and the simple pathos we feel for this tortured soul makes him a surprisingly sympathetic figure. Herzog and Kinski give us an incarnation of Dracula who is monstrous yet sad; indomitable yet tragic. He is undone not by hubris or carelessness, but by the yearning to steal a few moments extra pleasure in the arms of a woman. I enjoyed this interpretation – one brief moment I conjured up Edward (!) but once I banished that horrible thought it was gone forever.

Despite the fact that this film is a take on a classic, Herzog does a wonderful job with the additions of colour and sound.  Where the eerie was the focus with other Dracula films, Herzog openly exploits the tragically beautiful. Teh rats (oh my goodness the rats – 11,000 apparently) are all white and the filming has a water-flow beauty to it. Isabelle Adjani who plays Lucy is made up to look almost like death in many of the scenes.  Her beauty is used in an ethereal way, posited nicely against Dracula’s ugliness. Right from the start she looks more like the woman for Dracula than for  Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz).  I must say, of all the eroticism portrayed in vampire films, the scene when Kinsky finally takes a bite out of Adjani is one of the most erotic things I have ever seen on the screen. Both of them move with a fluid intense slowness that pulsates with sexual fervor and longing. And of course death.

Herzog is the only director that I know of to openly embellish the only alluded to themes of vermin and plague from the Stoker novel. Dracula brings with him the rats (!) and with them comes the black plague. This leads to eerie scenes of coffin parades through the nearly deserted streets and of a last supper where plague-stricken revelers partake in an outdoor feast while rats swarm around their feet under the table. These really are incredible scenes.

There are some interesting observational differences that come up when comparing the two Nosferatu’s.  Herzog has brought for us colour and sound, but the effect this has on the narrative makes for some interesting observations. In the black and white film there is a lot of emphasis on lighting as certain essential points (such as the Vampire not being able to go out during the day) get lost because a black and white film has to be lit in such a way that makes it possible to be seen when filming at night. Those very famous shadow images in the 1922 film are all but missing from the Herzog classic.  He trades the red of blood and the blue of Lucy’s eyes for those haunting approaching shadows. The side lighting and the overhead lighting in the 1922 version add to the sinister look of Dracula, especially when Jonathan meets him for the first time and we are not sure yet if he is a vampire of not.  Herzog brings lush colors to Dracula’s introductory scene with Jonathan, juxtaposing Dracula’s black and white appearance that is filled with longing against the beauty and colour of the food he can’t eat. ts almost as if Herzog wants us to see a very different Dracula now that we can add colour – as if the lighting hid him from us, and the colour reveals him to us.

Color is also a medium that can convey time. Not just time of day but the aging of objects, creatures and things. Herzog’s Dracula looks more like he has been around for centuries. The lack of colour gives him a longing to be like the things around him. When a human dies in the Herzog film, they are drained of colour. When Jonathan is turning into a vampire himself, we can tell because he is losing his colour and he is losing his freshness. he looks old, and he looks grey. Interesting, colour is used against Van Hesling in this version.  he is a pasty dull aging man who looks exhausted and bewildered every time we see him, until finally he wields the stake reddened by the blood of the vampire he has killed. It is holding this stake that he occurs as a man standing up for himself and for the preservation of others even though he is a doctor and supposedly all about saving lives.

The Original

Of course, Herzog also gives us beautiful Europe in this film, the camera sweeps majestically over mountains and valleys to show us some of the most beautiful countryside and architecture in the world.

This is a beautiful film that gives us a new take on an old classic that has become a classic of its own.

I had a great time.