Film Review: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Steeped in atmospheric dread, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is easily one of the most distinctive vampire movies ever made. With its mystical imagery and foreboding score, the film gradually takes on the appearance of a bad dream, a waking nightmare from which none of the characters can escape.

That being said, it is not the most exciting film ever made. The film can occasionally feel slow, despite its relatively brief running time. Its titular bloodsucker is also a tad on the static side. However, Herzog’s retelling of F.W. Murnau’s classic is still often extraordinarily compelling, mainly for its expressionistic performances and lyrical depiction of a world gone mad.

Following Murnau and old man Stoker, Herzog’s Nosferatu charts an entirely expected narrative course. We are introduced to the feckless Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a boorish solicitor who is dispersed to the spooky Carpathian Mountains to act as an estate agent for Count Dracula. Once there, he comes to realize that Dracula is far from a reclusive eccentric. The Count is actually a vampire, who agrees to buy a piece of property in Harker’s hometown of Wismar upon seeing a picture of the man’s beautiful wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani).

For the role of the freakish Count, Herzog again chose to cast Klaus Kinski, the infamous firebrand (and probable psychotic) who he had worked with seven years earlier on the equally hypnotic Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In keeping with the appearance of the original film’s Count Orlok, Kinski’s vampire is a dreadful creature. With a bone-white complexion, blazing eyes, and disturbing, vermin-like features, this demon is far from the debonair lady killer seen in the 1931 Browning version or the 1992 Coppola extravaganza.

The salient feature of the character, though, is not his physical similarities to Orlock. Herzog and Kinski’s take is one defined by pathos, where the character doesn’t just come off as lonely but agonized regarding his wretched fate of eternal life. Evoking a mournful and burdened cadence, Kinski gives his character a pitiful albeit unforgettable air. He is far from the rigid, silent embodiment of death that Max Schreck was. You actually feel for this pasty monster.

That being said, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the vampire for what he is. An early scene at Dracula’s crumbling castle, which revolves around the typical narrative moment of Jonathan nicking his thumb with a knife, encapsulates this. The way that Kinski plays this scene is a reflection of his extraordinary physical gifts. The Count doesn’t just go after Harker in this moment, he seems to have a complete shift in consciousness, smashing over a chair and stalking after the poor bastard in some sort of terrifying trance.

This moment outlines the film’s distinctive eeriness, which amazingly feels unique, despite the fact that it’s following in the traditions of the book and countless adaptations. The aesthetics play a large part in capturing this otherworldly mood, presenting viewers with images that are undeniably beautiful but also ominous. One powerful example is Harker’s final ascent to the Count’s castle, where he traverses through a gloomy gorge before climbing up what appears to be a wall of water.

No less potent are the scenes back in Wismar, which is where the Count travels after locking Ganz’s stupefied Jonathan in his castle. Now, often times the Dracula myth seems to lose a step or two once the action transitions back to more domesticated locales of Western Europe; not so here. Herzog and his team turn Wismar into a vision of the apocalypse once Dracula arrives in town. The city soon becomes overrun with his fiendish power, with countless rats streaming over the cobblestone streets and scores of townsfolk croaking due to his virulent evil.

Amazingly, in the Wismar sequences it is Adjani’s Lucy that rises to the forefront of the action, while Kinski’s Dracula moves to the periphery. Adjani turns her character into a quiet but formidable figure of strength in the film’s final scenes, especially as it dawns on her that she may be the only person cognizant of what is transpiring in the town and thus the only person to end the madness. Herzog’s preternatural ability for depicting cinematic insanity feels especially useful here. For as visceral as the town’s physical degradation feels, it is arguably the degradation of its inhabitants’ psyches that is more compelling. Herzog stages sprawling scenes within the town’s central square, which perfectly illustrate how a moral panic can turn into a collective delusion.

These scenes are what give the film its nightmarish feel, especially when the townsfolk embrace their own annihilation and seem to give in (and even delight) in the shitshow their lives have become. These moments give Herzog’s Nosferatu an inimitable flavor. And, when taken together with the work of Kinski, Ganz and Adjani, they produce the rarest of cinematic feats: a remake that equals and almost improves upon the original.

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