The cinematic collaborations between German director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski are among the most accomplished, and tumultuous, of any such pairs. Much has been made of the heated, violent, and often murderous intensity between the two, much of it fabricated by the people themselves, and Herzog himself made an entire documentary, My Best Fiend, detailing this relationship following Kinski’s death. Despite the frequent animosity, and threats of death, they made five of the best films either artist ever made. Though their first film, 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God gets applauded for its raw and disturbing nature, and their 1982 film Fitzcarraldo gets plaudits for its massive spectacle (both very deserving of the acclaim, by the way), in my opinion, their best and most humanistic film is actually their 1979 horror film, Nosferatu the Vampyre, which has recently gotten a restoration, and now a Blu-ray release.
Herzog believed that F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was the finest German film ever made and wanted to pay homage to it. However, Murnau’s film, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, was unable to use any of the names from the book because of legalities. In fact, all prints of the film were ordered destroyed by Stoker’s lawyers, but luckily they were not. All of this is to say that Herzog recognized how important Murnau’s film was to German Expressionism and how close it came to being lost forever. Being made in 1979, long after Dracula had fallen into the public domain, Nosferatu the Vampyre was able to use the names Count Dracula, Van Helsing, Renfield, and the rest.
The story is one you probably know by heart: a young real estate agent travels to deepest Transylvania to attempt to sell property to a mysterious wealthy recluse named Count Dracula at the behest of his boss, Mr. Renfield. Dracula is a pale and rodent-like man who is actually a vampire, a creature of the night who needs blood to survive. He’d have been very happy to just drain the man of his blood, but he sees a picture in a locket of the man’s wife. Dracula’s longing for this woman leads him to bring his coffin, his cadre of rats, and indeed the debilitating plague that follows him, to Germany where he stalks the woman while her husband begins to transform slowly into a creature of the night himself. As the town begins to succumb to the plague, the wife must find a way to stop the immortal bringer of death.
The film is a bit of a hybrid: visually, it is very, very close to Murnau’s film, with the added grit and blue hue of late-70s film stock, while it stays quite close to Stoker’s novel, until the end of course when it becomes all Herzog. It’s also a mixture of tones. There are sections of long and languid shots where Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is riding to Dracula’s castle, and others where Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) walks along on the beach, that go on for quite a long time, giving the audience time to contemplate things, as the characters do. Other scenes are very clearly played for humor, as when Harker announces in the tiny inn that he plans to go to the castle and is met with a dozen large Bavarian people starring daggers at him. Herzog is a master at changing tact like this to fit the moment. No one’s real life is entirely one genre.
Herzog diverges from both Murnau and Stoker in a few places and a few characters, most notably Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing. In this film, Harker is a victim of Dracula who tries his hardest to get back to Lucy to save her but as he becomes more vampiric, his memory and his humanity begins to fade. He even starts wearing a cape, randomly. Van Helsing is entirely different from his earlier portrayals. Instead of being the expert in the occult and vampires, he’s a doubting medical professional who thinks a scientific solution must be the answer. By the end of the film, he’s arrested for murder, a scene played entirely for laughs.
The joy of this movie comes from two factors: the performances of Kinski and Adjani, and the amazing and haunting visuals by Herzog and cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Kinski’s Dracula is sad and soulful, trying to have Lucy as his own not for evil machinations, but to stave off loneliness. He feels old, though is strong and sprightly when he needs to be. Adjani is wide-eyed and innocent, but nevertheless is forced to become strong and eventually a martyr. The horror of the escalating situation is shown entirely on her angelic, pale face.
The visuals are absolutely amazing. Giant, stark shadows which hearken back to Murnau, the gloominess of the German winter, and the blue-hued color palate are quite disturbing. There’s a scene in which Lucy is in her boudoir looking in her vanity mirror. The door suddenly swings open and Dracula’s shadow is seen on the wall getting larger and larger until finally the man himself walks into frame, completely unseen in the mirror. It’s one of the very best in the whole film, and a completely cheap and un-effected shot. Another scene in which Lucy walks through the town square where dead bodies and thousands of rats litter the ground and a family eats their last supper outside among them is nothing short of chilling.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is one of, of not the very, most atmospheric and dour versions of the Dracula story and has a macabre feeling from beginning to end. There’s nothing Hollywood or romantic about this version of the Count; he’s a sad and pathetic, though completely terrifying, creature of the night. Herzog and Kinski again prove that their collaborations are a true wonder to behold.
The Blu-ray from Shout Factory contains both the German language and English language versions of the film, in very pretty high definition from the new restoration. Herzog shot both languages simultaneously, with different takes and performances for each one. It’s a slightly different film depending on which one you watch, though most agree the German one is slightly better. The only extras on here are a commentary by Herzog recorded in 1998 and a vintage making-of done for German television.
The film itself is why you should get this Blu-ray. It looks amazing, the performances are masterful, and it’s one of the creepiest vampire movies ever made