Nearly a decade after their astonishing first collaboration, 1972’s historical allegory Aguirre, the Wrath of God, German director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski reteamed for this audacious remake of a silent-cinema classic: F.W. Murnau’s 1922 frightfest Nosferatu. In addition to being one of the titanic works of early German film, the Murnau picture is infamous because the filmmaker didn’t get permission to adapt his story from Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. To disguise the source material, Murnau ditched Stoker’s character names and replaced the suave bloodsucker of the book with a ghoulish spectre whose pale skin, pointed ears, and talon-like fingers added up to a horrific vision.
Herzog’s remake retains the look of the 1922 vampire, but by adding dialogue and a script filled with weirdly humanistic nuances, he transforms the monster of the original film into a pathetic creature. As played by Kinski with a beguiling mixture of pathos and villainy, Count Dracula (Herzog reverted to Stoker’s character names) is a desperately lonely being doomed to outlive everyone he knows and fated to survive on the blood of the very people whose company he craves.
In this context, an existential love triangle develops between Dracula, the German real-estate agent who travels to Dracula’s castle, and the agent’s beautiful wife. Dracula subsists on the agent’s blood, and then he falls for the wife, who in turn risks sacrificing herself to the vampire’s bite as a way of releasing her husband from supernatural servitude. Herzog captures this bizarre dynamic in an appropriately odd style, employing lyrical montages of the European countryside and long dialogue scenes to convey a sense of otherworldly ennui.
Yet Herzog’s most extravagant flourishes are the scenes depicting the terrible pestilence that arrives with Dracula when the ghoul relocates from his native Transylvania to Germany. According to the lore surrounding this movie, Herzog let thousands of rats loose into the town where he was shooting because he wanted “real” shots of vampire-loosed vermin stalking the streets; in addition to irking animal-safety experts, Herzog was reportedly chased from the town.
Whatever the circumstances, there’s no question that Herzog captured something truly singular with his cameras: Nosferatu somehow manages to be one of the coldest vampire films ever made and also one of the most emotional. Kinski’s eccentric performance dominates, but New German Cinema stalwart Bruno Ganz provides a stalwart presence as the real-estate agent, and fearless French leading lady Isabelle Adjani (playing the wife) nearly qualifies as a special effect. In addition to providing offbeat soulfulness, she’s so beguiling that it’s easy to understand why she drives Dracula batty.
Take note that Nosferatu is widely available in two versions, which were shot simultaneously. The incrementally superior German-language version is called Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, and the English-language version is a decent alternative for the subtitle-averse.
Nosferatu the Vampyre: RIGHT ON