You don’t usually get the chance to ponder why anyone ever remakes a film, seeing as the answer is almost always “because money”. However, this isn’t necessarily the case with Werner Herzog’s remake of the 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu. After all, Werner Herzog has never seemed like a director who has ever done anything for the money (including his head-scratching turn as the villain in Jack Reacher).
So why remake a genre picture? Especially when it seems so far removed from the kind of subject matter that typically concerns Herzog’s career-long search for “the ecstatic truth”? Well, for one, Herzog described F.W. Murnau’s original as the greatest German film ever made. So it says something that Herzog had the ambition to take on this very influential film, while also managing to make a film nearly as good.
Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the original Nosferatu, so it’s a little hard for me to compare the two. It’s also been a while since I’ve seen the 1931 version of Dracula, both of which are more or less adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Though it seems neither of them were straight adaptations of Stoker’s novel, due to copyright limitations, while Herzog’s adaptation was made after the story had drifted into the public domain. Though, as I hinted at, Herzog seemed to hold Murnau’s interpretation of this story in the highest regard, so that seems to be Nosferatu the Vampyre‘s clearest inspiration.
Which might explain why despite having seen this story onscreen before, it didn’t feel overly familiar to me this time around. Still, the Dracula story is nonetheless a pretty basic one: estate agent John Harker (played here by Bruno Ganz) hears from his underling Renfield (Roland Topor) that there is this reclusive Count living in Transylvania who is interested in buying a home in Harker’s hometown of Wismar. So Harker embarks on a four week journey to Transylvania, despite the ominous premonitions of his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani).
After making it through the trials and tribulations of his journey, Harker meets Count Dracula (played by Klaus Kinski), and unsurprisingly, is taken aback by his frightful appearance. It’s hard to say whether Kinski’s Dracula is more unsettling to look at than Max Schrek in the original Nosferatu. I’d probably say not, but the look and make-up certainly capture the garishness of that iconic vampire.
Either way, Harker is undeterred by Dracula’s iconic creepiness, and stays with him while transferring the property’s deed to him. However, one night Dracula just can’t contain himself, and ends up sucking some sweet sweet blood nectar from Harker’s neck before heading off on a journey to suck the supple neck of Harker’s beloved Lucy.
I suppose one thing I was not necessarily expecting from this film was for it to contain Herzog’s signature theme of man vs. nature. But in Harker’s journey through the European wilderness toward Transylvania, we do see him brave the elements somewhat. Though there’s more of a meditative tone to these sequences, while there’s also this sense of impending doom for Harker. It’s kind of a tricky tone that the film manages to pull off (partially thanks to the baroque folk score by Popol Vuh), which might not necessarily be scary, but it does stick with you.
Similarly, I’m not sure that Klaus Kinski’s turn as the famous Count is as nightmare-inducing as you’d assume from his make-up. Instead, the character has this kind of moroseness to him, as if the burden of sucking people’s blood and living for centuries has begun to pile up on him. Though his desire to prey on humans never quite makes him a sympathetic character. A part of me wishes the film had delved a little more deeply into the vampire’s lonely existence, but I suppose it did lay the groundwork for the jaded immortals in Jim Jarmusch’s hangout vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive.
Another thing the movie possibly could’ve used was a bit more urgency in its final act. There is something interesting about the way Dracula uses the plague as an excuse for all of the dead sailors he’s impaled on his way to Wismar in the film’s finale, considered what looks like hundreds of rats were used in the film. But Nosferatu the Vampyre seems a bit too committed to its leisurely pace to give you anything resembling a traditional horror narrative. And yet, like any great horror film, Nosferatu still leaves you with plenty of indelible images to sink your teeth into.
Can’t get enough of that Nosferatu™