Werner Herzog is amongst the handful of iconoclastic directors of the 20th century who’s still living and making wonderful films. Herzog has never compromised his vision for anyone, and his vision is very acutely his own. If you see a Herzog film, you know it’s his, whether it’s a narrative fictional film, or a documentary. He always infuses a little bit of both categories in either, seeing as Herzog is both a staunch existential realist and a master of visual phantasmagoria.
This is evident in most of his films, and 1979’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE is no exception. The film is presented as a remake of the 1922 German classic F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. In some ways, it is, but in many ways it definitely is not. First of all, in the original, F.W. Murnau was not allowed to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula as he originally intended, due to much opposition from Stoker’s estate, so the names had to be changed. The overall story is basically the same as the classic novel, with a few minor tweaks.
(Spolier Alert from here on out) NOSFERATU THE VAMPYE uses the character names from the novel, so Nosferatu/Count Orlok, played excellently in the original by Max Schrek, is now Count Dracula, played by one of the craziest actors of all time, Klaus Kinski. Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski had a very intense relationship that spanned over 15 years and 5 films. After threatening to kill Kinski and himself on the set of Aguirre: Wrath of God (which was relayed to those of us in attendance at Alamo who didn’t know already by host John Hogan), Kinski came back to Herzog for his second role seven years later. John Hogan, HyperAllergic’s resident film critic, also told us that during the filming of NOSFERATU, Herzog and Kinski stayed relatively calm and cordial towards each other, and bonded during Kinski 3-hour make up sessions while both staring silently into the mirror.
Kinski looks almost exactly like Max Schreck from the 1922 Nosferatu, but oddly enough, considering Kinski’s actual personality, he comes off as more sensitive and introspective than any other previous interpretation of Dracula. This is no doubt due to Herzog’s direction and script which presents The Count as someone who is very depressed and angry that he does not have the option to die like us humans.
Also, unlike other interpretations of Dracula, Herzog’s Count is the force behind the actual historical phenomenon of The Black Plague. When Dracula is transported from his Transylvanian home to (in this film) Weismar, Germany, the coffins of Earth he brings with them are filled additionally with rats. Every person on the ship either dies as a result of becoming Dracula’s dinner, or as a result of the ever-growing cadre of bubonic rats on board the vessel.
By the time Dracula’s ship reaches Weismar, the captain’s body is tied to the wheel of the ship and the only things that come off the boat (in plain sight anyway) are the rats. Quickly, residents of Weismar begin to pass away from the plague. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, another Herzog film regular) seems to have fallen under the cast of the plague himself after visiting Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, but it’s a different kind of sickness he contracted.
While Harker is on his way to sell the count an estate in Weismar at the behest of his associate, Mr. Renfield, he is warned by a large group of Romani and the Innkeeper to not go to Dracula’s castle. He’s given a book by a woman at the inn, which tells tales of Nosferatu, the vampire. Harker of course doesn’t believe these tales, until he meets The Count himself, and of course we know then it’s too late. Even before his departure to Transylvania, Harker’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani; The Tenant, Possession), is having strange dreams about bats in flight and other horrible things which disturb her sleep. Jonathan and everyone else shrug her off, when of course she ends up being right about everything.
The film is eerily beautiful in typical Herzog fashion. There is a lot of emphasis on scenery and background actors who are “regular people”. I especially love the little boy with the violin, trying very hard to play some song, even right above Harker after he falls out of Dracula’s window that he escapes with tied-together bed sheets.
This interpretation of the Dracula/Nosferatu story is one of my favorites, coming in at a tie with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula that definitely borrows heavily from this film and all the others that precede it. Herzog, however, seems to make the material something completely untouched or “pure of heart” just as the woman who kills Dracula must be. If you’ve never seen NOSFERATU: THE VAMPYRE KILLER, and you’re a vampire freak, please seek out the Shout Factory DVD. It’s definitely worth the watch.