Before he filmed his eccentric version of what makes a bad lieutenant, and before he fictionalized his documentary about Dieter needing to fly, Werner Herzog in 1979 wrote and directed a full-fledged remake of a silent film classic. His Nosferatu the Vampyre, an exceptionally faithful take on F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu from 1922, recalls the original in story, tenor, and potency. No matter the subject, Herzog frequently manages to endow the mundane and banal with qualities of inherent peculiarity; here, working specifically within the horror genre, his capacity for the uncanny is as intoxicating as ever.
In a contemporary documentary about the making of the film, included as part of the newly released Blu-ray, Herzog declares Murnau’s picture to be “the most important film ever made in Germany.” That’s quite a statement, certainly a debatable one, but it is nevertheless evident that Herzog has the utmost reverence for Nosferatu. Such respect is clear in this documentary and on Herzog’s commentary track (it’s always great to hear him speak, no matter what he’s talking about). It’s also obvious in the film itself.
Herzog’s Nosferatu has the same basic story as the Murnau release. Wismar resident Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is hired by Renfield (Roland Topor) to sell a house to the mysterious Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Jonathan travels to Transylvania to meet the count, who, it is quite obviously revealed, is a vampire. Dracula is inspired by a photo of Jonathan’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), or more specifically, her throat, and travels to Wismar to track her down, whereupon pestilence and death follow. The story is admittedly secondary, if for no other reason than its familiarity. Where Herzog’s Nosferatu excels is in its deliberately contemplative form and its relentless sense of dread.
This dread is immediate, despite the initial setting of tranquility. The serene town of Wismar is first shown as if in a dream; it’s calm and leisurely. There’s a whimsical quality to the imagery, enhanced by a melodic Popol Vuh score. But when the bizarre Renfield divulges the ominous real estate proposal to Jonathan, a shift in mood is clear. Jonathan is cautiously optimistic, stressing that he and Lucy need the money, but she is instantly troubled by a disconcerting premonition, something to do with a threatening and fearsome force. Once Jonathan departs, the score takes on a more menacing tone, as does the look of the film. Now, darkness prevails. The landscape is still gorgeously shot (no surprise from Herzog and Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, his frequent cinematographer at the time), but Jonathan is clearly traveling to a place where terror pervades. Near Dracula’s castle, the locals refuse to assist Jonathan, and they warn him about what awaits. The rumors of evil and impending doom keep everyone on edge. (Transylvania is “a wonderful place,” Renfield contended, “a little gloomy, but very exciting.”) Jonathan is determined though, and marches on by himself. Finally, at the castle, and after a brief and most unorthodox dinner with the count, Jonathan discovers that there is indeed cause for concern.
Notorious Herzog collaborator and “best fiend” Klaus Kinski is extraordinary as Dracula. Caked in hours of makeup, his flesh is a pasty pale that is almost luminescent. He walks with a stilting gait, his rigid body barely containing a potentially explosive violence. And when Dracula makes a nocturnal visit to Jonathan’s bedroom, approaching slowly, hands out, grappling pointed fingers spread, the effect, as Herzog films it in one continuous shot, is truly terrifying. The terror is also manifest via the excellent production design by Henning von Gierke (another Herzog regular). The castle interiors are intimidating in their expansiveness, like some sort of elaborate and sparsely domesticated echo chamber, divided into rooms and halls that appear as barren cells of disquiet, trepidation lurking around every corner, no sign of life now or ever before. As Jonathan explores the grounds, it become apparent that things here are not as they should be, a portent of what’s to come.
Once Dracula arrives in Wismar, a new sort of darkness emerges. His massive shadow enveloping the Harker house conveys his veiled omnipresence, and as much as anything, the theme of terror in the unknown and unseen runs throughout Nosferatu, adding to an inexplicable yet distinct haunting quality. Dracula’s appearance in the town also brings the plague, transmitted by hoards of rats that run rampant in the town, scurrying along the streets, down alleyways, on stoops, on tables, etc. This turns the whole community into a surreal arena of death, fascinatingly juxtaposed with a still present, though transient, life. Herzog strikingly contrasts the steady infection and ultimate death with images of dancing and dining, revelry conducted by the townsfolk under the impression that they may as well make the most of what time they have left. It’s a further instance of the slow but sure torment that is a focus of this particular vampiric tale. With Jonathan debilitated, slowly descending into his own transitional being, Lucy steps in to pique Dracula’s interest, distracting him, eventually leading to his demise.
Everything about Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu is methodically enacted. Kinski’s performance and von Gierke’s sets are but two elements utilized by Herzog to keep Nosferatu frightening, but there’s a crucial difference with this film between something scary (which it isn’t) and something haunting (as it is). Rarely is Nosferatu scary in the sense of eliciting jumps or screams. Instead, its horrific power lies in a slow, meandering exploration of death. Jonathan’s transformation once bitten is painfully plodding, and Dracula’s own torment is his eternally daunting immortality. Somewhat a result of this, and despite great performances from Kinski, Ganz, and Adjani, the film doesn’t affect on a normal emotional level. It’s something deeper than that. In the documentary, Herzog (rather tragically) acknowledges that he develops his films from pain, not pleasure, and while Nosferatu is a wonderful film, with much to admire, it isn’t exactly pleasurable, except perhaps visually. As noted above, it doesn’t offer up any cathartic release typically associated with a horror film. This is something more gradual, something that works its way in and isn’t necessarily let out. Like so many of Herzog’s finest films, this picture operates on a level of tone and image, more so than any strong emotionally stirring resonance. And make no mistake, it’s all the better for it.
— Jeremy Carr