Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, Werner Herzog)


Aka: Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This remake of 1922’s Nosferatu takes place in 19th-century Wismar and Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? It’s more or less the same story as the 1922 movie. Stoker’s book was in the public domain by 1979, though, so we get the proper character names (unlike in the original film, where everyone was renamed for copyright reasons). There are also a few elements here that don’t come from either 1897 or 1922. The best of which is the journey that Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) takes to Castle Dracula. It’s now almost mythical – he goes past giant waterfalls, which act as a kind of barrier between the real world and Dracula’s. The film hints that Castle Dracula is in some kind of dreamscape.

Best performance: Klaus Kinski as Dracula. He’s visually similar to Count Orlok from 1922, though beefs up the sense of the character’s loneliness. (Coincidentally Kinski had played Renfield in the 1970 Spanish-Italian-German film Count Dracula.)

Best bit: A key scene in any telling of Dracula – traveller stops at inn, casually mentions he’s going to Castle Dracula, and is told not to go by freaked-out locals – is well staged. But the film’s at its best when genuinely unsettling. The creepy opening sequence, for example, was filmed at a museum in Mexico using mummified bodies from an 1833 cholera epidemic. Later, rats invade Harker’s hometown. They’re bloody everywhere. (Around 11,000 were used for the filming and reportedly were treated appallingly by the production team.)

Alternative versions: Two cuts of the film exist – one where the actors speak in English and one where they speak in German. For this write-up, I watched the German version with English subtitles.

Review: There are a number of echoes of the original Nosferatu going on here. There’s even an early scene of a playful cat, which references a similar moment from 1922. The film also sexes up the Nosferatu template a fair bit. The act of vampirism has always been a metaphor for sex, but early Dracula films had to shy away from being blatant. In Nosferatu the Vampyre, when Dracula is draining blood from Lucy Harker (Isabella Adjani), he holds onto her breast – a gesture that was later restaged in 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire. But on the whole this film tests your patience. It’s slow and stilted. Over-the-top Foley sound effects and ADR dialogue are very distracting, while the film’s low budget is all too apparent. In its favour, this lack of polish helps with the vaguely trippy vibe that’s going on – as does a scene where a boy plays a violin very badly. (The actual incidental music, by the way, is one of the film’s best elements. It features folk-rock tracks taken from a pre-existing album by German pop group Popol Vuh. Mixing choral chants with modern instruments, it feels both ancient and fresh at the same time.) Interesting rather than entertaining.

Five bitten cows out of 10

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