Nosferatu the Vampyre (West Germany/France, 1979)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

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. (In fact, a quick perusal of the Internet Movie Database reveals more than 100 movies with the name "Dracula" in the title - far more than either "Hamlet" or "Frankenstein".) 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. However (even though the next statement may sound like heresy), Herzog has not merely remade Nosferatu for a modern audience, but, in some ways, he has improved upon Murnau's feature. Of all the myriad filmed tales of the Dracula legend, 1979's Nosferatu the Vampyre stands out as my favorite. Not only does it feature some of the most striking visual cues of any horror film, but no other screen vampire (including Lugosi) has matched Klaus Kinski for intensity and complexity.

For Herzog, the celebrated German director of such films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (which he made three years later), Nosferatu the Vampyre represented a first venture into the realm of genre filmmaking. His stated intention with this movie was to honor the conventions of the vampire film while crafting a feature of substance and meaning. No one who has seen this motion picture will question his success at either aim. This Dracula is deeper and more thought-provoking than any of its rivals.

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. He had never seen Lugosi's much-imitated interpretation of the character, nor had he viewed any of the Hammer incarnations. For Herzog, the image of Dracula burned into his memory was not that of the suave, courtly Lugosi but of the gaunt, predatory Max Schreck. It's no surprise, therefore, that Schreck's appearance served as a blueprint for Klaus Kinski's count.

Herzog's stormy relationship with the notoriously difficult Kinski is the stuff of modern mythology. It has been recounted, explained, and analyzed by both principals - by the late Kinski (who died in 1991) in his autobiography and by Herzog in his 1999 documentary, My Best Fiend. Kinski, prone to irrational bursts of rage, would frequently throw tantrums on the set, but Herzog was willing to endure these because of the quality of the performance that would come afterward. The two men worked together five times (in addition to Nosferatu the Vampyre, they made Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and Slave Coast), and their collaborations resulted in the best films for both of them. Kinski's portrayal of Count Dracula is arguably the most impressive performance he ever gave.

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.

That woman is the gorgeous Isabelle Adjani, who plays Lucy Harker, the object of the count's obsession. As in the original Nosferatu, Lucy and Dracula share a psychosexual connection, and he is drawn to her like a moth to a flame, with equally traumatic results. Lucy's self-sacrifice in surrendering her purity to the vampire allows her to destroy Dracula (by keeping him at her bedside long enough for him to be stricken by the first rays of the new day's sun), but the act costs her life, as well. On a narrative level, this is reasonably straightforward, but the subtext makes an interesting point by equating the loss of virginity to death. The lover's embrace that Lucy bestows upon Dracula to keep him feeding until the cock's crow seals both of their fates.

Adjani plays a strikingly effective Lucy - her almost ethereal beauty contrasts starkly with Dracula's ugliness. Like Kinski, Adjani has a reputation for being a difficult actor to work with, albeit for different reasons. Herzog recounts how he spent a great deal of time reassuring Adjani about the effectiveness of her performance in order to prop up her fragile ego. None of Dracula's female victims before or after has displayed such a powerful mixture of fiery determination, cool beauty, and blatant sensuality.

The third member of the main acting trio is Bruno Ganz (best-known to date as one of the stars of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire), who plays the unfortunate Jonathan Harker. The film opens with Harker leaving behind his young wife, Lucy, and venturing into the Carpathian Mountains on the way to Castle Dracula, where he is to finalize a real estate deal with the mysterious and elusive Count Dracula. Once there, he becomes the Count's prisoner. Later, after escaping from the castle, he races Dracula back to Wismar, but, by the time he arrives, brain fever has struck and he can no longer remember his friends, his wife, or his ordeal in Transylvania. Nosferatu the Vampyre ends very differently from the original Nosferatu. In the 1922 version, a grief-stricken Jonathan was left alone by the bedside of his dead wife. In this film, he undergoes a frightening transformation.

The most famous vampire hunter in history, Abraham Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), has a more significant role here than in Murnau's movie (where his stand-in, Bulwer, had virtually nothing to do), but he's far from the heroic individual associated with Peter Cushing. Van Helsing is devoted to the principles of science, and, instead of leading the crusade against Dracula, he resists the possibility of vampirism until it's too late. In the end, he takes up his stake and hammer, but, by then, his intervention is almost irrelevant. Lucy has done the job for him.

One plot element explored here but only hinted at in Stoker's novel and Murnau's film casts Dracula in the role of plague-bringer. In Nosferatu the Vampyre, an army of rats (11,000 of them, to be precise - all real) arrives in Wismar with the Count, spreading the Black Death throughout the city. 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. Those who have a fear of rodents may find some of these scenes too disturbing to watch. They make Willard seem tame by comparison.

Unlike most vampire films, Nosferatu the Vampyre rejects the expected frantic tone in favor of a deliberate, relentless pace. Some find that the film moves too slowly, but Herzog's unwillingness to rush things allows the images and music to work their magic, building a powerful and foreboding sense of atmosphere. Jonathan's journey through the Borgo Pass is a perfect example of this. Another director might have edited this ten-minute sequence to a fraction of its running length, but, by keeping it intact, the striking visuals and haunting score heighten suspense and build anticipation.

Visually, this is a film of great moments. Taking his cue from the German expressionist directors of the '20s, Herzog in many cases limits dialogue and allows images to advance the story. There are also times when characters react much in the way their silent film counterparts might, with exaggerated gestures (such as when Lucy awakens from a nightmare). Shadows also play an important part in the film's palette. Dracula is often preceded by a gigantic, distorted version of his shadow, and, in the film's most memorable scene, Lucy only sees Dracula's shadow approaching as she gazes at her reflection in a mirror. Other notable moments include Jonathan's daylight search of Castle Dracula (done in a single, unbroken cut), the arrival of the ship of death at Wismar, Dracula's unloading of the coffins, and the Count's skulking around the outside of his new, decaying property.

Nosferatu the Vampyre exists in two versions: a subtitled German edition and an English-language one. Herzog filmed these back-to-back to preserve continuity. (Only those scenes featuring dialogue were lensed twice.) Although I have a slight preference for the German version (it is, after all, the natural language of Herzog, Kinski, and Ganz), the English release is by no means inferior. For those with the time and the access to both, watching the German and English editions back-to-back can provide an interesting study of how minute changes to a scene can alter its tone.

Nosferatu the Vampyre will not be to everyone's taste. Those in search of a vampire movie that offers copious sex and gore will be sorely disappointed by this film, which has almost no blood and little in the way of overt sex (although Dracula does grope Lucy's breast while feeding from her neck). Instead, Nosferatu the Vampyre, like its silent inspiration, concentrates on tone and atmosphere. The result is a superior horror film that offers a greater sense of disquiet than any other Dracula motion picture. Nosferatu the Vampyre may not be scary in a traditional sense, but it is not easily forgotten.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (West Germany/France, 1979)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1