Werner Herzog never does what we expect. His surreal, often challenging fictional filmmaking regularly belies genre or narrative trappings. So, when entering into the cinematic pact of watching his 1979 take on the vampire myth, you might expect something utterly strange and hard to connect with. Instead, Herzog delivers a tragically beautiful period piece about love, losing it, and the vulnerability of giving your heart to another. Some critics have called the soaring German melodrama the definitive take on Dracula. That’s entirely fair. Herzog and his star Klaus Kinski–in arguably his best role—recast the cinematic vampire in Nosferatu the Vampyre with more emotion, sadness, and profound loneliness than we’ve seen before.
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Kinski doesn’t just play a vampire, he becomes one. His Dracula creeps, crawls, and shudders through his Transylvanian castle. There’s a distinct discomfort to the performance as Dracula, Jonathan Harker’s (Bruno Ganz) host, struggles between his need for company and his thirst for blood. Ganz is a perfectly naive Harker. A dedicated husband to Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), he’s the kind of simpleton who takes a dangerous job from a decidedly grotesque Renfield without a second thought. His desire to become successful and build a life for himself and Lucy effectively puts him in blinders. He can’t see the true horror of his situation until it’s far too late. It’s a rightfully dark reflection of the ways we work ourselves to death under capitalism—as well as all the red flags we’ll ignore if we believe we’re in love.
Many stories portray Dracula as a tragic figure. But that tragedy is usually steeped in power, lust, and a brazen sexuality that allows him to find companionship if not true love. Kinski and Herzog have no interest in that aspect of the legendary bloodsucker. Instead, this iteration is a shell of himself, desperate for love and tired of a loneliness that has forever defined him. Jonathan is no match for the rabid desperation of Kinski’s Dracula. And it’s that which sets both he and Lucy on a tragic path. There are no happy endings in Herzog’s Nosferatu. If love should overcome all, here it overwhelms all, creating nothing but disaster, death, and distress. In fact, it’s that desire for love that brings Dracula’s downfall. But in this iteration he is not its only victim, as Lucy sacrifices herself to his love to defeat him.
Before that, though, the Count’s desperation infects the town. His need for Lucy and her love is true, but its presence brings nothing but death. Just like F.W. Murnau’s original Nosferatu, the vampire’s arrival brings with it a wave of fatal sickness. Against the supernatural of it all, the most starkly realistic and depressing fact is that Lucy knows her would-be lover is behind it all and no one has any interest in listening to her. Society’s disbelief of women has caused many crises and killed many women, and here we see it in action in the most brutal way. And like many women before and after her, Lucy has only one choice: put herself in the path of destruction in the hopes that she can stop the man decimating her world.
Kinski imbues the Count with a drastic humanity, a depression and tiredness that pulses around him like an aura. That ultimately transfers to the other man who once loved Lucy. In the original text of Dracula, Harker and his lover Mina survive after defeating the Count. But here, taking the name of Mina’s ill-fated friend Lucy, she dies in order to kill Dracula. Her sacrifice frees the town but it’s not enough to save Jonathan.
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In fact, in the most dark twist of all, Lucy’s husband imprisons Van Helsing for the murder of the Count. The vampire hunter stakes him when he finds his sun-drained body. It’s a final trick from the transformed Jonathan, now a vampire himself. His dark cloak billows around his body as he rides into the sunset, echoing Dracula’s own attire. Now it is Jonathan whose loneliness will haunt him. The death of his lover at the hands of the man he brought into their lives will become the albatross around his own vampiric neck. In this moment the hero becomes the villain. And with Dracula’s death the original vampire takes on a tragic air that fits his fatal pursuit of love. It’s far from the happy, comforting endings we’re used to. But it’s the right one for this beautiful, strange, and haunting take on one of horror’s most famous stories.