DraculaFest: Nosferatu, the Vampyre

Werner Herzog and Count Dracula, together at last. Has any pairing ever made more sense? The Prince of Darkness and the King of Existential Despair. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Herzog would not adapt this story.

Pardon my reach.

Pardon my reach.

Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979) is more a remake of Murnau’s silent classic than an adaptation of Stoker’s novel. It’s faithful to its unlicensed predecessor, though lapsed rights allow Herzog to revert to the characters named in the book. While Dracula in name, the central character deliberately pays homage to Count Orlok, down to his rodent fangs and cauliflower ears. But he is no longer silent. The joint French-German production shot two versions, one in English and one in German. Unlike the twin Universal films, the same cast speak their lines in each language. Herzog declared the German version definitive, but I’d say they’re about equal. Though the German is more appropriate to the location, you don’t miss much in English.

Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, star of many a Hitler meme), travels from his native Wismar, Germany to the castle of Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) for the standard real estate transaction. Many versions of Dracula rush through the scenes in Transylvania in order to focus on the Count’s invasion of modern culture. But Herzog lingers on Harker’s lone journey through narrow crags and foggy mountain passes and on his introduction to the vampyre in his home setting. As in Nosferatu, this Count is no deceptive charmer. He zooms from pleasant to creepy in a matter of minutes as he lunges after Harker’s bleeding thumb. Dracula bites and enslaves Harker, then boards a ship with his coffins full of rats. (Red flag, stevedores! Just saying.) When Harker returns to Wismar he is pale and insane, much like his employer, Renfield (Roland Topor). The Count arrives shortly after, but is rebuffed by Jonathan’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), who quickly grows suspicious of him. Dracula’s rat army carries the plague to Wismar, decimating the population as Harker’s condition worsens. Unable to convince Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast)–or anyone, really–of the Count’s true nature, Lucy pulls the old seduce-him-until-the-sun-comes-up routine that worked so well for her predecessor. But come now, did anyone expect a happy ending from Werner Herzog? In a twist ending that Shyamalan would kill for, Harker frames Van Helsing for the Count’s murder and assumes his mantle, riding off on horseback to continue spreading the rat plague.

Still not convinced you need to sail from Transylvania to Germany.

Still not convinced you need to sail from Transylvania to Germany.

Herzog delivers a deliciously creepy take on Murnau’s unofficial story. Shots of bats flying in slow motion and stacked, mummified corpses provide atmosphere. The surreal landscape of plague-shattered Wismar adds to Lucy’s alienation as she pleads with the sick and insane to listen to her warning. Klaus Kinski transforms into perhaps the most disturbing take on Count Dracula; his soft-spoken, almost shy demeanor seeks sympathy even as his misshapen appearance repulses. French star Isabelle Adjani is, without question, the most compelling heroine of any Dracula film. This Lucy is defiant and determined to rid herself of the Count from their first introduction. “Good night,” she says to Dracula, dismissing him with a wave of her crucifix as he slinks away. She also serves as Herzog’s mouthpiece with several hilarious philosophical musings that could have come from the downbeat director himself: “God is so far from us in the hour of distress”; “Do you think it is possible that we are so insane that one day we will all wake to find ourselves in straightjackets?” For every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud over Werner Herzog, and he never fails to amuse with the depths of his despondency.

Those Germans do know their horror. Ein weiterer Klassiker! Nosferatu, the Vampyre earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Two rat’s teeth dripping with bubonic ennui!