Looking back at Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu

Now 35 years old, Werner Herzog's take on Nosferatu still contains a shadowy, uundiminished power, Jeff writes...

“For me, genre means an intensive, almost dreamlike stylization on screen, and I feel the vampire genre is one of the richest and most fertile cinema has to offer. There is fantasy, hallucination, dreams and nightmares, visions, fear, and of course, mythology.” Werner Herzog

Back in 1979, maverick director Werner Herzog decided the time was right to update FW Murnau’s silent 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, which he considered to be the finest film to come out of Germany at the time. Now freshly minted in a crisp new HD transfer from Scream Factory in North America, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht is certainly as effective a mood piece as Murnau’s original (draining it of some similar imagery), or even Carl Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr.

It begins traditionally enough. Solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sent by boss Renfield (a hilariously over-the-top Roland Topor) on a month-long journey from Wismar, Germany, into the heart of Transylvania to get some paperwork done for Count Dracula. Leaving familiar comforts and trappings behind him, Harker enters a land where old superstitions around ghouls and vampires run deep. Needless to say, few locals will aid him on his quest across the Borgo pass to Castle Dracula, and Harker is forced to walk much of the way by foot. This solo journey provides director of photography Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein many opportunities to lens a wild and savage landscape – sometimes in strong static shots with deep, verdant greens – other times with hand-held jitters as Harker edges through a dangerous, rapid-filled canyon. He’s then picked up by a mysterious hearse and taken to Castle Dracula, where we’re introduced to the enigmatic count (Klaus Kinski).

It’s at this point that Herzog has fun turning the original story on its side. 

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Harker is reduced to the Count’s zombified prisoner; Van Helsing is an ineffectual old man, leaving the heroics to Harker’s fetching wife Mina (Isabelle Adjani) to stop Dracula from decimating the town’s population – not through traditional bloodsucking (of which there is little), but through a rat-borne plague. According to this version’s mythology, only a pure-hearted woman might lull a vampire into staying out until daybreak. You can guess how things play out from there.

Klaus Kinski is simply mesmerising as Dracula, moving with either an otherworldly grace as if floating through the night, or lunging hungrily for a mere drop of blood on poor Harker’s thumb. It’s a hugely physical performance that pays homage to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, but taken to the ultimate degree (flexing taloned hands, gnashing overlong teeth, giving hypnotic glances). I don’t think Kinski even blinks once in the entire movie.

It’s also a performance injected with an ancient pathos, providing the groundwork for Gary Oldman’s take on the character 13 years later. Kinski’s hissed dialogue suggests a creature tormented from years of loneliness, searching for a death that just won’t come. Best to watch him in the German version; an English take was simultaneously filmed with the actors delivering their lines in a less familiar tongue. Both are available on the new Blu-ray.

The makeup job is phenomenal, based on the iconic work from Murnau’s Nosferatu. Unlike the more refined look of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, Herzog’s Dracula is not trying to conceal any aspect of his monstrous physicality under a more polished veneer. Preserved from the original are the count’s bat-like ears, the barren planetoid of a head, and a pair of pronounced fangs that have no intention of staying hidden. 

The editing here makes a strong case for holding a shot for more than a second or two. The film is often at its most entrancing when Herzog and editor Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus allow for long takes of potent imagery, such as tumultuous clouds rolling over the craggy Carpathian mountainscape, Dracula prowling the streets by night, or the eerie opening shots panning across a series of mummified corpses. Lengthy takes like these establish a hypnotic rhythm that is dreamlike. The overall effect of the imagery works well on a decent-sized home theatre system with the lights off; even better would be tracking down a theatrical screening for maximum effect.

As lensed by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht is a masterclass in composition and lighting. We’re given an array of gorgeous images: Kinski’s Count slowly emerging from shadowy corridors, or the play of high contrast shadows as Kinski stalks the city by night, lugging his black coffins under his arms like airport luggage.

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Some of the imagery has been lifted directly from Murnau’s original, but overall, the look of this picture is unique. Schmidt-Reitwein appears to have applied the concept of vampirism to the cinematography – it’s almost as if some bloodsucking parasite has latched to the celluloid and drained most of the colour palette away, casting many scenes in muted tones and deep shadows. Kinski’s head is blanched to resemble a skull; meanwhile Isabelle Adjini appears to have been rendered from porcelain. (Admittedly, there’s a graininess in some shots that the updated transfer just can’t handle). 

Still, what’s notable, especially in the light of modern fantasy and horror filmmaking, is how few special effects are in play. Much of the film’s visual appeal comes from a combination of well-choreographed mise-en-scene, costume, makeup and set design. It’s all cemented into place with a soundtrack full of creaking doors, and the steady moan of wind pushing through ancient structures. Then there’s Popol Vuh’s evocative, haunting score, which seems to have wandered in from another century altogether.

Plus, you simply must tip your hat to whoever was in charge of wrangling the seething mass of 11,000 rats roaming the streets of Wismar in this flick – purportedly shot in a mad dash just before the crew packed up and left the location. 

Ultimately, Herzog’s take on Dracula emerged as the best of a trio of 1979 vampire films which also included John Badham’s adaptation of the popular stage play, and the campy Love At First Bite. Herzog’s interpretation raises the proverbial stakes for what a vampire film can accomplish. This shadowy, subdued approach has resulted in a film out of time, as evocative today as it was 35 years ago.