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Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
Director: Werner Herzog

review by Tony Lee

There is no doubt that F.W. Murnau's unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, the ill-fated Nosferatu - A Symphony Of Horror (1921), is one of the greatest genre films of the silent era, as prominent in its way as The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1919).

The fact that this film (also made, like Murnau's, in Germany), although ostensibly a proper remake, so closely mimics the original at times that to the casual observer there appears almost no difference, stands as a testament to the power and influence that Murnau's classic still wields over later generations of filmmakers. It's almost as if the renowned Werner Herzog (writer, producer and director of this version), and maker of such epic ventures as Aguirre: Wrath Of God (1974) and the later Fitzcarraldo, set aside his usual iconoclastic tendencies, and simply thought 'if it's not broken, why fix it?'

Nearly all remakes of acknowledged classic films suffer in direct comparison to their originals, and Herzog's Nosferatu The Vampyre (aka: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) is no exception. Several critics have noted that Herzog didn't bother to go back to the source novel and offer us a fresh interpretation of the material and, instead, he seems content with a measured, occasionally striking homage to the early 1920s' masterpiece. Now that the notorious litigation by the Stoker estate against the original Nosferatu is all but forgotten, Herzog was able to correct one fault: the vampire Count in this version is named Dracula, whereas Murnau's version cast Max Schreck as Orlok. Another advantage Herzog has over Murnau, of course, is that his remake has the benefits of sound and colour - though the opportunities afforded to make vivid use of the latter are here all but completely wasted. Yet, Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein's heavily subdued, and virtually monochrome cinematography on the updated Nosferatu (with no lurid Roger Corman or Hammer style colour schemes in sight) is starkly effective. Indeed, the low-key colouring enhances the simple authenticity of period details, while the eerie and suitably atmospheric choral score, at times strident and yet rarely intrusive, haunts most every scene - even though it is not particularly memorable.

As with Murnau's visionary piece, the brooding imagery of this picture inspires dread. Gunmetal storm clouds come shouldering over the horizon, bringing premature night to the scene where Jonathan Harker warily approaches the bleak hilltop half-ruin of Castle Dracula; an ebony schooner with ruddy sails drifts into the port of Wismar spewing death into the harbour from its rat-infested hold. And in one of the very few diversions from this well-known classic saga of the undead, the revived Harker rides off across a vast, dusty plain in a surprise denouement, to spread the festering plague. And so, as Peter Nicholls observes in his book, Fantastic Cinema, "vampire film becomes political apocalypse."

Visual aesthetics aside (for a moment at least) this film's impact cannot hope to rival that of Murnau's original, seeing as it follows after decades of widely differing versions of the Dracula story produced for stage and screen, all lending their own idiosyncratic twists to the often told tale; such that although Herzog's Nosferatu is not a humorous film by any means - certain sequences that are now familiar to all as genre conventions, indelibly stamped on the lore of the vampire movie, might seem faintly and unintentionally amusing when replayed here. The marginally self-mocking comical tone synonymous with Dracula since the successful spoof Love At First Bite (unfortunately released the same year as this), may only be an illusion, however, not present in this stagey drama, and apparent only in retrospect.

Despite some critical jibes to the contrary, I don't consider Herzog's version a parody - even in the contentious later scenes when the narrative dissolves into surrealism, as plague decimates the populace and the survivors partake of a 'last supper', in the town square - previously seen during a mass funeral procession, now littered with pine caskets and teeming with white rats, while a macabre dance of death ensues. The performances vary from the unexceptional to the inadequate, and this is very much a director's film with simply ritualised acting. Bruno Ganz is passable as Harker but fluffs the scene wherein he returns home from an arduous journey, is struck down with a sickness on the very doorstep of his house, and fails to even recognise doomed heroine Lucy, portrayed in stylised fashion (as the waif-like flipside of Barbara Steele?) by Isabelle Adjani - later offering herself as sacrifice to the evil one, played by none other than the late Klaus Kinski (a Polish actor of eccentrics in other Herzog movies, and villainous types in numerous spaghetti westerns), made up to closely resemble Schreck's Orlok from Murnau's original, and so looking more like a demented zombie with Alzheimer's disease than a suave seducer - as the Count was presented in John Badham's appealingly romanticised Dracula (1979).

Kinski's appearance - gaunt, hairless features, bat-like pointed ears, rodent fangs that contort his mouth into a fixed sneer beneath dark sunken eyes - is rather more fearsome than his characterisation. Unlike various Universal and Hammer interpretations, here Dracula is a desperate, leprous creature with the rasping voice of an embittered demon, much given to dreary moaning about the futility of existence and his accursed immortality with every ragged breath. His demeanour invites pity rather than inducing terror. Gone is the maniacal feeding frenzy of vampirism popularised by Hammer's Christopher Lee. The ashen-faced bloodsucker of Nosferatu stalks his prey like an arthritic cat, feebly pounces in an almost pantomime fashion, then settles down tiredly for some melancholic necking. Incidentally, the Schreck style makeup - balding and cadaverous with viciously clawed hands - was copied for the TV adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, also made the same year as this. Was 1979 an unofficial 'year of the vampire', or what?

Though noteworthy compared to many of his other roles, Kinski's performance here is not his best (he's known for saying that acting, as a profession, is merely better than cleaning toilets!). But whatever your opinion of the various facets of this production, you can't ignore the stylish qualities of such a skilled pastiche of Murnau's virtuoso treatise on corruption - itself a remarkable model of fantastic cinema for decades. Nosferatu was unfairly dubbed "wrong-headed and rather pretentious" by David Skal in his otherwise valuable survey of the vampire myth, Hollywood Gothic, but elsewhere is described as "the most obsession-saturated of Dracula films" (Scheuer's Movies On TV), and "a salutary shock to bourgeois complacency" (Hardy's Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror), and is rarely less than genuinely mesmerising.

From the nightmarish inserts of bats in close-up, slow-motion flight, and the quaintly absurd shot of a raft load of black coffins going down river to embark on a sea voyage, to the cloaked vampire stalking the ship's deck against a pitch darkness with only his spectral head and hands visible amidst the rigging, and Herzog's bravura use of handheld cameras to master key dialogue scenes with a single take, Nosferatu boasts superb visuals, and is one of the great overlooked classics of modern horror.
previously published in VideoVista #33
Related item:
tZ  Foreign Undead: a Top 10 Vampire films - by Michael McCarty
Nosferatu The Vampyre
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