Werner Herzog’s 1979 film, released in English-speaking territories as “Nosferatu the Vampyre” and in Germany as “Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht”, was directed, written and produced by this most fiercely maverick of all postwar European directors as an act of homage to the native filmmaker he admired more than any other, and intended as a variation on one of that artist’s greatest works – a film that Herzog also considered the most significant ever produced in Germany: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1921 silent era masterpiece “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens”. This was the unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” made by Murnau and his screenwriter Henrik Galeen in collaboration with Albin Grau, the film’s independent producer and set designer (as well as dedicated occultist), and the great Max Reinhardt-schooled German actor of the period Max Shreck. It was a product of the creative excellence that attended the German film industry’s inexorable rise during the interwar period, soon after the country’s defeat in the First World War. But it was also a film demonstrably made in anticipation of the long, dark Expressionist shadow that was about to be cast across the Weimar Republic as economic ruin beckoned and social chaos errupted.
Nearly sixty odd years later, and this apparently reckless attempt to re-create a piece of film history, by a child of the Federal Republic and of the New German Cinema of the late-seventies, was to prove to be far more than just a crass remake and was formulated entirely without the commercial mentality of Hollywood (although 20th Century Fox were involved in its distribution it was a German/French co-production, split between Herzog’s production company and a French TV station). Instead, it was a deeply personal odyssey for Herzog: his attempt to assimilate a uniquely German filmmaking tradition that he felt had been broken off after 1933 with the rise of the Nazis, when the filmmakers of his grandfather’s generation, such as Murnau and Fritz Lang, had been forced out of the industry at home, while those of Herzog’s father’s generation who took their places became hopelessly embroiled in and forever tainted by their collusion in the promotion of the horrific ideology of Hitler’s regime.
“Nosferatu the Vampyre” is an existential work of reconnection and reclamation, then, as well as an expression of alienation and a mid- to late 20th century anxiety that laments Germany’s barbaric wrong turn in history but sees its source still rooted internally in the psyche of Europe: it was a reconnection with the lost interwar glories of Germany’s prestigious silent film industry, before it was curtailed and corrupted through association with the murderous Nazi movement; and it is a reclamation of certain historical traditions in the arts and in German culture in general which had been discredited in the aftermath of the Second World War by the Third Reich’s hijacking of them. It’s a dreamlike film exercise, both familiar and strange, that sees Herzog excavating many of the influences and artistic forebears which were integral to the original picture’s status as part of the country’s collective imagination (Murnau had once been a student of German art history while Grau’s designs and makeup for Shreck’s vampire harked back to the 18th Century Gothic traditions of Henry Fuseli), while also showing how the original’s roots connect up with Herzog's own approach to cinema -- primarily through their shared interest in the notion of the natural landscape as a projected outer signifier for undefinable inner states of being; something for which Herzog’s cinema was well known by this point, and which had been an important element in Murnau’s expressionist film grammar that had in fact been highly influenced by the Romantic traditions embodied in the landscape painting of Casper David Friedrich, which itself becomes even more prominently referenced in the mise-en-scene of Herzog’s version of “Nosferatu the Vampyre” -- where ecstatic, semi-mystical depictions of the natural landscape in transition, so indicative of Friedrich’s eerie imagery, become central to the director’s modernist, existentialist re-interpretation of Murnau’s original apocalyptic vision.
There are certain images and compositions in “Nosferatu the Vampire” that Herzog takes directly from the Murnau original and reproduces almost exactly. But Henrik Galeen’s screenplay had sought unsuccessfully in 1921 to skirt the production’s unofficial status by changing the names of all the main characters and pairing away or altering a great deal of Bram Stoker’s plot. In 1979, with the novel by this point no longer under copyright, Herzog was under no obligation to follow suit. Thus, Count Orlok is once again Count Dracula in his version, and Hutter is once more Harker; Bulwer becomes Van Helsing, and Knock, the insane estate agent servant of the Count who sends Harker on his fateful mission to Transylvania, is given the name of the character he most resembles from Stoker’s novel, the cackling, fly-eating asylum inmate Renfield, played here by Roland Topor – an eccentric French avant-garde artist and associate of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose performance in the film is equally as deranged as his counterpart’s in Murnau’s picture. However, Herzog pointedly does not change a single note of Galeen’s revision of Stoker’s narrative until quite late into the film, when he transforms a story about corruption arriving in a small innocent port town because of an outside invasion by an evil from a foreign land, into one that suggests that the seeds of that ruin were already contained within the society that is being invaded, and therefore might rise up again more strongly even if the threat is apparently destroyed -- an obvious concession pertaining to the change of perspective which is the result of Herzog’s historical vantage point contrasting with that of Murnau’s.
Herzog does, though, re-introduce some of the vampire vulnerabilities written of in the Stoker novel which were absent from Murnau -- making the Count vulnerable to the holy cross and to the consecrated host once again, whilst retaining, in a slightly altered form, the Murnau film’s most enduring addition to vampire lore – Count Dracula’s aversion to sunlight, or at least to the first rays of dawn … which here are given the power to blind him and cause him to expire painfully as though of old age, rather than simply fade into nothingness as he does in the Murnau version. This time the vampire body remains corporeal after its death, waiting to be staked through the heart in the style of one of the undead from a Universal or a Hammer Horror film in order to ensure its true demise. Herzog also retains Murnau’s changed setting and period, which swapped the novel’s late-nineteenth century Whitby and Metropolitan settings for the German port town of Wismar during the pre-industrial period of German history known to art historians as the Biedermeier epoch -- a time often portrayed as idyllic but also one associated with inward-looking provincialism and artistic conservatism. Perhaps the most notable and significant change, though, hardly visible at first since Herzog’s screenplay follows Galeen’s narrative structure so exactingly, with only minor variations for the first two thirds of the film, is the exchange of Harker’s wife’s name (which was Ellen in the 1921 film) for, not Mina as in Stoker’s novel, but Lucy who, in the book, was Dracula’s first victim in England, made vulnerable to corruption from a foreign influence because of her obvious girlish interest in the opposite sex.
Through the here rehabilitated, reborn character of Lucy, who in this version becomes the only person capable of recognising the true nature of the evil that confronts the plague stricken town of Wismar, Herzog transfigures Stoker’s dark Victorian world of unspoken repressions with a subtle repurposing of the Murnau film’s depiction of Ellen as an image of virginal purity who eventually defeats moral corruption through loving self-sacrifice; the strange circular psychic link Murnau and Galeen’s fairy-tale-like reconfiguration of Stoker’s narrative established between the triumvirate of Hutter, Ellen and Orlok is given an evocative twist as a result, which leads to Herzog’s adaptation varying radically from Murnau’s film later in its narrative. In Murnau’s “Noseferatu”, Hutter and Orlok are like dark twins: opposite sides of the same being locked in a terrible struggle that often, to modern eyes at least, takes the guise of overt homoeroticism; meanwhile Ellen’s feelings of romantic love for Hutter translate into her developing a strange somnambulistic psychic awareness of Orlok’s existence at the moment he preys on her husband in Transylvania, he in turn becoming aware of her and consequently, after glimpsing her image in Hutter’s locket, imprinted on her and being drawn across the ocean to meet his eventual doom at her bedside, which is where she sacrifices herself in order to save the town.
Essentially the same thing happens here, but Herzog layers his take on the tale with a gloomy, inimitably German sense of existential angst and alienation, and an almost overwhelming sense of sepulchral dread … You can just imagine Klaus Kinski’s morose take on the ferret-like predatory Count Orlok, originally portrayed by Max Shreck as an utterly repellent, skulking stick-like creature of shadows that seemed more rat than human form, ensconced in his cold dungeon-like castle of seclusion and decay, wearing black and listening to his collection of Joy Division records in a nobody-likes-me sulk!
Murnau, of course, was working within the strictures necessarily imposed by silent cinema; and even then he rejected interruptions from inter-titles as much as he possibly could, choosing instead to take a leaf from the epistolary format utilised by Stoker in the novel by having information carried by documents, letters or books rather than by reams of dialogue titles. But with the extra dimension sound is able to bring to the material through the addition of music and the spoken word, even the portions of the narrative that have hardly been altered inevitably acquire new resonances under Herzog’s revision. This can be seen to have its greatest impact on the three main characters themselves, most notably the central figure of the Count. Kinski’s makeup is clearly modelled on Shreck’s -- with bald head, bat-like ears, a skull’s sunken eyes, lethal knife-long fingernails and two central sharpened viper’s teeth – but the temperamental actor was persuaded, wisely, to abandon any attempt to play the role as though he were in competition with Shreck’s peerless characterisation of corrupting evil, and instead dials back his Dracula, who becomes a morbidly tortured soul here -- remote and introverted; one minute he’s claiming he prefers to be alone in the shadows with his thoughts, the next he’s ruing a life of endless centuries made up of trivial occupations, where ‘time is an abyss as deep as a thousand nights’. In fact, Herzog claims to have deliberately provoked some of Kinski’s infamous on-set outbursts before shooting his scenes for the film, in order to wear the actor out and encourage more of a sense of resigned weariness from his performance!
Dracula’s interest in Lucy after he notices Jonathan Harker’s locket with her photograph still inside it (‘what a lovely throat!’ is one of the vampire’s archest inter-titles from the original film that Herzog’s screenplay preserves as spoken dialogue here) becomes a torturous abject emotional pain, that leads him into the absurdity of longing to partake in the love that can only exist between two humans, becoming acutely aware as a result of its absence from his own experience. The image of Kinski’s forlorn Count, left out in the cold of the night, alone, with his pale face pressed up against the window of the Harkers’ rosily lit household after the estate agent is returned home from his imprisonment in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, emphasises the Count’s inability to connect with the world of the living. For human love is inextricably bound up in mortality and he cannot, by his very nature, ever experience it except in the form of its feeble undead imitation.
The porcelain delicate-looking French actress Isabelle Adjani, meanwhile, plays a Lucy Harker who is somehow preternaturally in tune with and aware of the ever present spectre of death -- a fragile pre-Raphaelite poster girl who experiences the fleeting meniscus on eternity on which human life and love must rest, without hope of rescue from some remote God (‘the Lord is far away from us in our hour of distress,’ she assures a pious Mina when Mina tries to reassure her that God will see Harker safely back home); she is shown at the very start of the film waking, in the Harkers’ sterile, white-draperied bedroom (in which the couple sleep in single beds -- more like brother and sister than husband and wife) from awful dreams in which the contorted features of a horrific parade of mummified corpses, ranging from new-borns to the crippled elderly (all real exhumed cholera victims, shot by Herzog in the town of Guanajunto in Mexico, and the most nightmarish imagery the director ever filmed), echo the existential despair and terror captured by the artist Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’, from 1893. This foreboding sense of doom and the notion that salvation comes from within and is only ever fleetingly glimpsed, is what also brings her close enough into the phantasmagorical orbit of the undead to make her of interest to this especially melancholy Count Dracula, residing in a faraway land in his ‘ghost castle’; it’s a connection which later allows her to piece together the true cause of the outbreak of plague decimating Wismar after Dracula arrives to take up residency in the dilapidated old ruin found for him by Harker’s company.
At that point in the film, death enters Lucy’s room in the form of Dracula’s shadow, glimpsed, through an ingenious in-camera effect created by Cornelius Siegel, in her bedroom mirror as he comes to beckon her to join him but finds instead that Lucy’s ability to love is built on a vision of Being which stands in opposition to the eternal nature of his twilight existence -- one in which she is intimately aware of how life is ‘like a river that must continue to flow without us’ (a phrase that also evokes one of the most powerful images from Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), and where only death is ever cruelly certain. Lucy’s peculiar relationship with Dracula is encapsulated in an image that occurred near the beginning of Murnau’s film, in which Ellen was seen toying with a predatory kitten at a windowsill. Images of nature red in tooth and claw, juxtaposed with the idea of innocence as a tempting lure -- just as much of a trap for this stalking external evil in its own way as a Venus Fly Trap is for an unsuspecting insect -- dominate that film, and are directly quoted by Herzog’s version in the form of a tableau in which two kittens are depicted on a book-lined sideboard, playing with Harker’s cameo broach containing Lucy’s miniature image. Later, Lucy’s nightmare intimations of Jonathan’s imprisonment in the Carpathians is signalled by her being woken to the sound of a bat that has become entangled in her bedroom curtains – an image that pre-echoes her entrapment of Dracula himself at the end of the film when Herzog’s re-staging of the Count’s death, caused by his staying too long at Lucy’s bedside only to be destroyed as the cock crows with the rising sun, specifically makes a point of re-instating an erotic element that Murnau explicitly made an equal point of excising from Galeen’s original script. In doing so, Herzog abolishes the notion that a woman ‘pure of heart’ cannot also be a sexual being; indeed Lucy’s sexuality is emphasised more in the bedside scene with Kinski’s Dracula than is the vampire’s … It is specifically she who is seducing him, rather than the other way round, for once.
Lucy starts the film as a joint representative, along with Jonathan Harker, of what Herzog scholar Brad Prager calls ‘a narrow domestic world’, which Herzog depicts by recreating images that are highly redolent of the ‘chocolate box’ Biedermeier style of art that was being produced during the period in which the film is set. Wismar is a quaint, quiet port town whose inward-looking nature seems to be summed up by the picturesque canals, still waterways, bridges and windmills of the town of Delft in Holland which was used as its stand-in; and the Harkers’ live a life of tastefully decored and highly stylised respectability within it, characterised by production design from Henning von Gierke that specialises in pale off-white colours and artificially posed compositions blocked out by Herzog to look like they’ve been copied from 19th century works of art. The music score by Popol Vuh composer and long-time Herzog collaborator Florian Fricke is, apart from that which one hears in the opening montage of death, a laidback form of dreamy prog acoustic folk, and the general air of the setting as portrayed here is indeed one of dull complacency, only off-set slightly by Lucy’s real sense of unease.
Harker, as played here by Swiss born actor Bruno Ganz, a mainstay of the work of director Wim Wenders who only ever worked with Herzog this one time, is a lot more nuanced than his two-dimensional counterpart in Murnau’s film: on the surface a paragon of Wismar’s petit bourgeois lifestyle, whose main ambition is merely to provide ‘a bigger house for Lucy’, he also displays a curious eagerness to accept his clearly mad employer Renfield’s request to leave immediately for Transylvania -- and escape ‘these canals which go nowhere apart from back on themselves.’ And indeed, his cross-country journey across airy meadowlands and into a forested heart of darkness becomes an exploration of inner-being that strongly suggests the figure of Dracula is but the angst-ridden underside to his own character.
Shooting these scenes near Bavaria, where Herzog grew up, and among the foothills of the High Tatras Mountain range on the border of Poland and Slovakia, the director often makes use of non-actors from among the local Roma population to bring a palpable sense of reality and place to this folkloric material. This is where the film really comes into its own, with Herzog’s co-ordination of image and sound producing a feeling of the sublime that feels rooted in the boundless, ungraspable terror that is evoked by such sights as mist slowly rising amid vast forested mountain landscapes, turbulent steams crashing noisily and relentlessly amongst gigantic boulders, and vast cavernous ravines over which heaving waterfalls thunder. Jonathan’s journey to castle Dracula is here pictured as an odyssey taken on foot through a haunted phantom landscape, and acquires a character not seen in any other version of Dracula, including Murnau’s (where the phantom coach is the usual device for conveying Harker to his destination), rendered here in tribute to another cornerstone of German culture – the tradition of the Fussreise. Evoking the awe-inspiring imagery of Casper David Friedrich’s painted works, Herzog caps the eerie synthesised vocal choir instrumentation of Popol Vuh with Wagner’s ‘Rheingold’ prelude, which fades in over an astonishing image of a craggy mountain summit, lingered on for more than a minute by Herzog’s regular cameraman Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, while dark thunder clouds incrementally gather around it and the gloom of dusk approaches as Jonathan waits at a flagged staging post. A darkening natural landscape signifies Dracula’s domain here; only in the final stages does a phantasy glass coach-hearse arrive to carry Harker on the final leg of his journey, travelling through a rock tunnel skirted by a raging river torrent.
Curiously, after being handed a book of vampire lore by the innkeeper’s wife, Harker is later told by the gnarly native gypsies, before he even sets out on the trip across the Carpathians to castle Dracula, that ‘no such castle exists, except perhaps in the minds of men’. Again, this strongly suggests the idea that Dracula and his strange world of medieval ruin are meant to be symbolic of a strain of destructive ennui that runs beneath the surface of Harker’s otherwise apparently benign world of provincial capitalist entrepreneurship; certainly Harker himself speculates later when writing home to Lucy after his awkward first encounter with his furtive host -- a host who only springs to life (violently so) at the first glimpse of blood from a cut on Harker’s finger -- about whether or not he may have dreamt the whole journey, so odd does it feel to be in the midst of this deserted keep of cobwebbed rooms and obsolete furnishings; and when Dracula at last brings his army of plague-ridden rats to Wismar, Lucy also comes to question whether or not she and the rest of the townsfolk may have simply gone mad: ‘and [we] will one day wake to find ourselves in straight-jackets!’
One thing the gypsies tell Harker before he leaves on his journey by foot, and which appears at first to be contradicted by later events in the film, is that whoever enters this land of phantoms is lost and can never return. After being bitten by the Count and locked in a tower in the castle while the vampire sets out in his driverless coach full of black coffins filled with Transylvanian soil and plague-harbouring rats (typically, Herzog had his thousands of imported plain white Hungarian rats dyed grey especially for the film!), later transporting them downriver by raft and then across the sea, bound for Wismar via the port of Varna in a ship whose crew soon succumb to predation and plague (with the reoccurrence of Wagner’s Rhiengold motif on the soundtrack denoting Dracula’s curse spreading abroad), Harker does manage to escape his confinement and make his way home, just as he does in Murnau’s film … The difference is that this time, Harker has himself become infected with the curse of vampirism, and by the time he gets home he can no longer even remember the face of the woman he loves. In a very real sense, the gypsies were foretelling the truth when they claimed that no man ever returns from an encounter with such mysterious forces. What comes back in Harker’s stead is all the more deadly for being accepted without question by those who the estate agent has previously lived among -- and even Lucy, who shows steadfast perceptiveness and bravery in seeking out the Count’s purchased property in Wismar and setting in motion her plan to destroy him, with no help from the ineffectual rationalist that is this adaptation’s Dr Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), is still unable to face dealing with her husband’s curse in the same manner -- leaving him to become progressively paler as he acquires more and more of the Count’s vampiric characteristics.
such fundamental changes to the very nature of the roles played by the central characters in the plot lends the material a new resonance informed by the social circumstance under which the movie was made and released back in 1979, and allowing Harker, Lucy, Van Helsing and Dracula himself to function differently to how we expect them to, based on our knowledge of Murnau’s original film -- especially when they appear again in circumstances that are familiar from that film. Even so, not all Herzog’s attempts to replicate sequences from the Murnau picture work out so well. Although the director returned to Murnau’s original shooting location of Lübeck in Germany to use the same distinctive building (originally a warehouse for storing salt supplies) to act as Dracula’s Wismar residence, his restaging of Orlok’s menacing appearance at the window does not carry the same charge with Kinski in the role, perhaps because Max Shreck’s vampire was a much more unambiguously repellent vision of evil while Kinski’s Dracula appears to become more tragic as the film progresses, and his evil seems to migrate to the transformed Jonathan instead -- resulting in the film’s pessimistic vision of a Nietzschean vampire Übermensch, galloping into the apocalypse under inverted thunder clouds that spread out across featureless drifting sands.
Similarly, perhaps Murnau’s most celebrated imagery – that of the ‘death ship’ bringing Dracula’s plague to Wismar and silently gliding into port like a huge black iceberg that gradually blots out the town church on the horizon is, as S.S. Prawer notes in his BFI Classics booklet on the film, slightly bungled during Herzog’s restaging, since the sails of the ship only fleetingly obscure the church tower and the same powerful effect is therefore not quite achieved. Yet, as we have seen, there is plenty of moving and original imagery brought to the story as a result of Herzog’s own imaginings: possibly the most hauntingly memorable sequence in the entire film comes after Dracula has established himself in Wismar and the thousands of rats that came with him have almost succeeded in wiping out the entire population of the town, its empty main square now lined with converging funerary processions of sombre pall-bearers. Lucy makes her way through the surreal Danse Macabre revelry of those scattered few remaining plague carriers in the town who seek to enjoy their final days on earth while engaged in wild and madcap cavorting, some stoic diners even savouring a last supper, as writhing rats swarm and multiply at their feet. The sounds of their partying are not heard on the soundtrack during this sequence, but are instead replaced by a beautiful, melancholy traditional Georgian folk melody performed as a chorale for a male voice choir (and also used by Kate Bush on a track from her 1985 “Hounds of Love” album), its fatalistic sense of doom becoming almost overpowering by the end, crystallising the film’s tragic sense of Death being a numinous stage in the mysterious cycles of the natural order.
Herzog’s “Nosferatu the Vampire” was shot simultaneously in two versions, one in English and the other in German (some of the great classics of German cinema such as “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” and “The Blue Angel” were also shot the same way in the early days of sound), although the latter is by far the superior one, since the heavily accented English the international cast are clearly struggling with in the English presentation, inevitably adversely affects some of the performances in a film where the screenplay already requires the actors to commit to some pretty unwieldy existential musing at times. In this case, the German transfer also looks the slightly better of the two, although both have been restored nicely and retain their natural grain as well as the film’s atmospherically muted colour palette. The German version seals the deal by also including a 5.1 Surround audio track for those not content with the perfectly serviceable mono audio (which is also still an option here) – and of course, the English version also includes a mono English audio track. (Subtitles for the hard of hearing are present also.)
This BFI Blu-ray Steelbook is a limited edition release, but both English and German language presentations of the film will also be included in the BFI’s forthcoming Werner Herzog box set, which spans twenty-years of the director’s career. Extras here consist of an interesting and informative audio commentary with Herzog, moderated by Norman Hill; a short on-set documentary which includes fascinating behind the scenes footage and interviews with Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski; an original theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery (again, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes shots). The BFI release also comes with a nice little booklet featuring a new essay appreciation by Laurie Johnson and a reprint of Tom Milne’s 1979 review for Monthly Film Bulletin.
Herzog’s film is the very definition of flawed genius. It in no way comes close to matching Murnau’s poetic masterpiece but it does uncover new and evocative facets in the material that allow it to achieve what Herzog always set out to do – that is, to rediscover the rich complement of artistic influences connecting Germany’s silent heyday with the contemporary German cinema of the late-seventies. This task it manages to accomplish with a satisfying poetic grace.
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