Review – Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu: The Vampyre [1979]

Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenwriter: Werner Herzog

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more beautiful vampire film, and I’ve seen quite a few. Writing this review when I’m writing it, with the onslaught of tween-themed vampire franchises like Twilight, and even more enjoyable fare like HBO’s True Blood, I think makes me appreciate Herzog’s film more than I might have ever been able to appreciate it in a time when vampires were not the “in” thing. Now, it seems so fresh.

The film is essentially a retelling of F.W. Murnau’s horror masterpiece Nosferatu. But unlike Murnau, who could not obtain the rights to Bram Stokers novel, and thus changed the names of all the characters, Herzog leaves the names intact from Stoker’s novel. In that sense, Herzog is both adapting Stoker’s novel as well as creating an homage to Murnau’s film. In both attempts he succeeds. But Herzog does something extraordinary with what has become such an ordinary story.

Consider for a moment Count Dracula as you perhaps have not before. He is immortal, considered a monster or demon by the world. He lives alone in his castle, isolated from everything and everyone except his own thoughts, and insatiable hunger. When has he ever experienced love, or seen true beauty? These are, I believe, the questions Herzog asked himself when he formulated his Dracula, and asking these questions fundamentally changes how we see the Count. Is he a monster? Perhaps, yet perhaps no more than a wolf. He feeds on people because he must survive; he does it because it is his nature.

Herzog paints Dracula as an almost tragic figure, and Kinski portrays that character with a terrifying presence. In the first scenes in which we see him, he is frightening. He and Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) sit at the dinner table, and as Jonathan eats, he simply stares, cold and deathly. It is not until he opens his mouth that we start to see him not as simply a frightening movie monster, but as a tragic creature fated to a life one could only dread. “Death is not the worst” he says, “Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities?” When Dracula catches a glimpse of Jonathan’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), it is not with an insatiable hunger on which he longs, but a hidden pain. “The absence of love is the most abject pain,” he states. Take the contrast between him and humans. There is a haunting scene in which Lucy stumbles upon a group of people merrily eating, rats surrounding them. They believe the black plague has come, and that they, too, will soon die. Rather than mourn, however, they feast. Unlike Dracula, who lives centuries without love or happiness, they at least can experience one moment. As Kinski portrays him, these words don’t just have meaning, but resonance. The final scenes between Dracula and Lucy are almost heartbreaking, and are darkly enchanting.

Dracula himself is not the only worthwhile thing, however. Herzog paints a dreamlike vision of a quiet German town, and his ability to realize the vision of its descent into darkness is brilliant. The film is shot on brilliant 35mm, and Herzog’s pallet for the German countryside and city streets evokes a certain lightness. It’s an interesting choice, because vampire films are usually shot in such dark or washed out tones. Herzog allows the light to make the audience comfortable, so that when darkness comes, or the strange become stranger, they seem all that more out of place and bizarre. The performances outside of Kinski himself are also all quite good, especially Adjani, who has to convey the sadness and despair of the world falling apart around her, and who delivers wonderfully.

In a day and age in which vampires are “cool” and associated with petty one-note issues like teen abstinence, Herzog’s film seems all the more poignant. He brings substance and beauty to a creature that could just as well be a worthless monster.

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One Response to Review – Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979)

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nathan Donarum, Nathan Donarum. Nathan Donarum said: Review – Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979): http://wp.me/piahv-8l [...]

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