Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979.
Directed by Werner Herzog.
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor and Walter Ladengast.
Count Dracula moves from Transylvania to Wismar, spreading the Black Plague across the land. Only a woman pure of heart can bring an end to his reign of horror.
Last week, we kicked off this year’s October Horrors with a look at F.W. Murnau’s iconic silent horror Nosferatu. In the 100 years since its release, Murnau’s film has inspired many filmmakers, with one noted fan being acclaimed German auteur Werner Herzog, who rated it as among the most important German films ever made. Over 50 years after Nosferatu’s release, Herzog would release his own affectionate tribute to Murnau in the form of the hypnotic and surreal remake Nosferatu the Vampyre.
The original Nosferatu acted as a loose, unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Murnau changing the names of characters to make them sound more German and as an (ultimately failed) means to avoid copyright infringement. Thus, Count Dracula became the rat-faced Count Orlok. By the time Herzog came to make his own adaptation, Stoker’s novel had entered the public domain, and thus Herzog was able to use the original character names and more faithfully adapt the story without fear of a lawsuit from an angry Stoker relative. However, that’s not quite what he did.
While The Vampyre (as I’ll call it to avoid confusion with the original) does follow the familiar Dracula story, it does so in a less horrific fashion than one might expect. Instead of focusing on horror, Herzog opts for a much more contemplative philosophical adaptation of Dracula that examines facets of the story that other adaptations rarely tackle. This is best exemplified in the film’s depiction of Dracula himself. In stark contrast to the cloaked, suave, handsome and evil monster that we’ve come to know and fear, Herzog’s Dracula is a pitiful lonely creature forced to endure an eternity of isolation and bloodlust, speaking of his longing to find someone to love or, at the very least, of being able to simply die.
Bringing this depiction of the Count to life is Herzog’s regular leading man/screaming partner Klaus Kinski. Clad in the same dark clothing and white bald-faced make-up as his predecessor Max Schreck, the notoriously volcanic (and, it should be noted, genuinely monstrous) Kinski gives a surprisingly restrained and, dare I say it, sympathetic performance as this more tragic Dracula.
Kinski’s portrayal of Dracula perfectly encapsulates the Count’s loneliness, portraying him with an almost permanent expression of sadness, seemingly constantly on the verge of tears. This sad exterior is complimented by his softly spoken voice and low-key physical manner, with his pained heavy breathing making him come across as almost sickly. Kinski’s Dracula is an undead creature of the night who wishes he was anything but. It’s an understated portrayal that is, in my view, one of the best Dracula performances and a refreshing change from the usual caped, handsome and explicitly villainous incarnations of the character we’ve seen in most film versions. Although, again, it should be remembered that Klaus Kinski was an awful excuse for a human being.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is a visually striking work, filled with sequences that pay homage to the original 1922 film while still providing its own hypnotic imagery to emphasise the grim themes of its story. The atmosphere takes on an almost dream-like quality as Herzog shows extended sequences, often devoid of dialogue, of characters travelling under waterfalls, moving through an eerie funeral procession or through a town square descending into quiet madness. The dark lighting in some of the more horrific scenes is effectively used to make Dracula’s ghoulish appearance stand out, with his entire body often shrouded in darkness save for his pale, ghostly, white face.
The acting only adds to the surreal tone. Due to international demands, some scenes were shot in English and others in German, with dubbing used when needed. Although most of the multilingual actors (such as Kinski) dubbed themselves into both languages, this unusual approach gives their performances a weirdly surreal vibe, particularly when the voices and mouths don’t always sync up. However, regardless of language, Kinski still emerges as the strongest performer, although his German version of the Count comes across as much more pitiful.
How much one might enjoy The Vampyre depends on the audience’s tastes. The pace is slow and deliberate, allowing the viewer to absorb its themes and atmosphere, with its story focusing less on horror and much more on philosophical discussions about life and death. While some might appreciate this more art-house-heavy approach to the material, others might find things too slow and pretentious. I admit that I did struggle at times with the slowness, but I was nonetheless entranced by the film’s dream-like ambience, stunning visuals and haunting portrait of its lead character. I especially appreciated the ending that, without spoiling too much, offers a wonderfully dark twist on the end of the original 1922 film.
While it might be a tad slow and artsy for more causal viewers, the hypnotic, visually stunning direction and surprisingly moving performance from Klaus Kinski as a more tragic Dracula mark Nosferatu the Vampyre as a worthy re-telling that honours the original silent classic, while still standing as its own distinct entity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★