Werner Herzog’s (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Woyzeck) absolutely brilliant homage to F.W. Murnau’s infinitely influential classic Nosferatu requires no introduction, nor would I be so bold as to attempt such a feat. Citing Nosferatu as the greatest film to ever come out of Germany, Herzog treats the source material with the greatest of respect while managing to add his own style and thematic elements to create a unique experience that I daresay is as equal as one can get to Murnau’s masterpiece.
Klaus Kinski (Death Smiles on a Murderer, Slaughter Hotel) has been a creepy as fuck genre staple for decades, so casting him in the titular role is a no-brainer. Kinski completely absorbs the role of Count Dracula, channeling the spirit that Max Schreck brought to the screen decades earlier, but adding a far more sinister eccentricity to it. With excellent makeup effects by Japanese artist Reiko Kruk, Kinski lurches about with an ominous aplomb while bringing a sickening creepiness to the character that will likely never be equaled. Kinski is in wonderful company here with the inclusion of Isabelle Adjani (Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, The Last Horror Film) who is gracefully beautiful in the role of Lucy Harker, Bruno Ganz (who would later go on to portray Adolf Hitler in 2004’s Downfall) as the doomed Johnathan Harker, and Roland Topor (Sweet Movie) as the feverish Renfield. Amassing a troupe of such powerful actors and artists only serves to exemplify Herzog’s admiration of the original work that is evident in every single frame.
From its opening sequence, Nosferatu the Vampyre is an unsettling affair; the title credits appear over a backdrop of real mummified cadavers that Murnau filmed in the Museum of Guanajuato – victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic. Seeing these twisted visages while the haunting score provided by German group Popol Vuh murmurs its sweet sadness in the background sets the mood perfectly. Conversely, many segments are completely devoid of music, in particular the scenes where Harker and Dracula meet at the Count’s castle where all that can be heard to punctuate the stillness is the baying of wolves in the background. The effect is chilling, to say the least. In addition, much of the cinematography on display is a work of art in itself. The camera takes full advantage of the opulent and foreboding countryside; many shots of the distant mist-laden woods and crumbling castle walls epitomize the film’s cold lifelessness perfectly. Even Herzog’s brief use of stock footage is a thing of beauty. Of course the film isn’t without its indulgences; the Gypsy boy playing the violin while standing over Harker’s limp body after he plummets to the ground from the castle window a stark reminder of its art house roots, for example. These arty flourishes fortunately manage to add to the somber air of the film rather than prove to be a test of patience.
No longer required to heed the wrath of the Stoker estate (since the copyright to Dracula had fallen into public domain), Herzog was free to keep the names of the original characters intact this iteration – although the roles of Lucy and Mina are inexplicably reversed. A few other liberties are taken primarily with the film’s ending, but principally Nosferatu the Vampyre remains a faithful adaptation of Murnau’s work.
Some of the scenes are intentionally shot-for-shot identical to those in the original, which brings an interesting dynamic to an otherwise modernized version of the silent classic. In other areas Dracula oozes across the screen, bleeding out of the darkness in ways that even Murnau would likely be impressed with. The use of shadow and light here is commanding and brings to mind the work of the illustrious Mario Bava. Also of note is the plague of rats that Count Dracula brings with him to Wismar – Herzog managed to import a sizable amount of them from Hungary and there are scenes that are positively bursting at the seams with the little bastards. Sadly, there have been many reports of animal cruelty when filming – Herzog purportedly insisted that they all be dyed grey (which was an inhumane process that I won’t detail here) causing a great deal of them to perish. In addition, it’s been said that many of the rats turned to cannibalism due to lack of adequate food to sustain their numbers. It’s always disheartening to hear of these sort of practices, especially when a film is so utterly well-made. Fortunately, none of the cruelty is evident on screen at all.
Possessing a dark vision and a deft eye for detail, Herzog has managed to create a brooding update to the vampire classic that one would be imprudent to overlook. Nosferatu the Vampyre is unique enough to stand on its own while still managing to be a respectful love letter to Murnau’s original. Essential.
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