Film Review: ‘Nosferatu, the Vampyre’

The second Nosferatu rerelease in as many weeks (F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic rose from its eternal slumber once again last Friday), cult German director Werner Herzog’s own unique interpretation of the Dracula legend, Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), is an altogether different beast. With the ghoulish form of Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski picking up the vamp reigns from the iconic Max Schreck, Herzog’s ‘new expressionist’ rendition of Bram Stoker’s monumental gothic undertaking focuses more on the creature’s unquenchable thirst for mortal love than human blood – though the two are of course intertwined.

As many will already be accustomed, the story sees enthusiastic estate agent Jonathan Harker (here played by Bruno Ganz) departing his recently married young wife Lucy (an ashen-faced Isabelle Adjani) for deepest, darkest Transylvania on the suspect orders of his unhinged employer Renfield (Roland Topor). Upon reaching a small Slavic outpost, hidden amongst the vast Carpathians, Harker is warned of a dark presence laying waste to the surrounding area. Undeterred, our plucky protagonist continues on to the castle of his client, a one Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), who is looking to purchase property in Harker’s idyllic Wismar. So begins a nightmarish tale of the undead and undying love as evil is awoken.

Herzog’s Nosferatu works best as a companion piece to Murnau’s original rather than a usurper, using colour and sound to – more often that not – spectacular effect. The film’s opening sequence set amidst a body-littered catacomb echoes to a great cacophony of choral gutturals that return throughout – an aural signifier of the vampires’ tortuously elongated existence. This is almost immediately juxtaposed with the sun-dappled streets of sleepy Wismar, where Harker and his porcelain bride take breakfast as the cutest of kittens mews contentedly in the background. Their happiness short-lived, Harker returns to Lucy a lifeless shell, slowly degenerating as the Count’s sinister shadow slowly envelops the rat-besieged bourgeois townsfolk in fear and madness. With the streets now belonging to the shape-shifting monstrosity and his ungodly minions, what hope of salvation?

As good as the set and sound design undoubtedly is, it’s ultimately Kinski that makes Herzog’s revisionist tale essential viewing for gothic horror gurus. As with almost all of Kinski’s performances, the line between theatricality and bona fide insanity is as blurred as ever, at points going so far as to bring into question whether E. Elias Merhige’s playful Shadow of the Vampire (2000) (in which Max Schreck is portrayed as an actual bloodsucker) might have truly been onto something. Whether he’s tasting the cool dusk air, listening to the chillingly harmonious cries of his “children of the night” or casually watching his prey before the inevitable strike, the late German maverick is a snakelike presence from beginning to end. As Herzog himself concedes, “No one in the next fifty years will be able to play Nosferatu like Kinski has done.”

Daniel Green