1979 was a big year for cinema’s original bloodsuckers: there a major Hollywood revival of Dracula and Werner Herzog turned his attention to the granddaddy of cinematic vampires, Nosferatu. Though both films have their roots in classic sources of inspiration, they are worlds apart artistically. The 1979 version of Dracula attempted to make it into a late ’70s blockbusters, complete with a “romantic” take on the title character. Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre pays homage to the Murnau original, even directly emulating a few shots, but mostly offers a moody and dreamy response to the expectations of the horror crowd.
Like its predecessor, Herzog’s version of Nosferatu lifts its basic plot directly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sent to Transylvania to complete a real estate deal for the mysterious Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Despite the dire visions of his beloved wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), Harker undertakes the trip in hopes that making the sale will improve their standard of living.
Of course, Harker has made a tragic mistake: Dracula reveals himself to be a vampire who puts the bite on him and sets sail for Jonathan’s home to take Lucy for his own. As Harker struggles to make his way home, Dracula descends upon his new home, wreaking havoc with a plague of rats. It’s up to Lucy to put an end to his reign of terror – and the only way out comes with a tragic cost.
The above synopsis may sound pro-forma but Nosferatu The Vampyre is not interested in doing the expected. Herzog follows the basic plot and maintains some horror conventions but otherwise remakes the vampire film to his own artistic standards. Scares and shocks are basically thrown out, replaced with a focus on tragedy and an ironic commentary on how the ambitions and rationality of modern man often leads them right into danger.
Herzog also twists gothic atmosphere to his own stylistic ends, mostly replacing the expected dread with a sense of grandeur that finds beauty and dark humor in the tale’s inevitable tragedy (Harker’s approach to Dracula’s castle is appropriately scored with a rousing passage from a Richard Wagner composition). Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein’s cinematography lulls the viewer into Herzog’s dreamworld with a series of painterly images and the pastoral, sometimes hymn-like score by Popul Vuh seals the film’s oddly serene approach to the horror genre.
The director also uses his cast well, adding emotional depth to his take on the story by having them play against the expectations of their roles. Ganz plays Harker like a lost soul instead of a hero, thus heightening the tragedy of his character arc. Adjani is similarly impressive as Lucy, making her a woman who finds independence and strength when the efforts of the men around her fail. Most importantly, Kinski makes the most of his limited screen time by making the titular vampire a figure of sorrow rather than menace: he lashes out from a place of isolation and longing rather than a need to conquer. Horror fans should look out for a memorable character turn from Roland Topor as Renfield, one of the few who fulfills genre expectations with an appropriately maniacal take on the character.
Herzog orchestrates the efforts of his cast and collaborators to create a film full of deliberately-paced sequences that cumulatively achieve a powerful effect: Harker’s journey across and through mountains to reach Dracula’s castle, a seemingly abandoned boat calmly drifting into the town’s canals, Lucy frantically trying to get the town elders’ attention as they walk a parade of coffins through the town square. Herzog also comes up with an satirical coda that you might not expect.
In short, Nosferatu The Vampyre is the rare remake that stands apart from its inspiration by bringing its own style and set of obsessions to a familiar premise. Any student of horror should add it to the survey of the vampire film as it represents the artier side of this subgenre.