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Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

February 8, 2019

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is an uncommonly soulful take on supernatural horror.

From the original 19th Century novel to the latest adaptations modern cinema has to offer, there are many iterations of the Dracula story. Herzog’s Nosferatu focuses on the tragic triangle that develops between Jonathan Harker, Lucy Harker and Count Dracula, filling out the story with other canonical characters including Renfield, Mina Harker and Dr. Van Helsing. Herzog adds a few twists, and shuffles the characters into slightly different roles in his version, but the general template of the a vampire’s real estate dealings going immeasurably awry remains.

Nosferatu feels like the genuine article despite playing fast and loose with the source material. Though his film is styled as an homage to the 1922 movie (an “unofficial” adaptation in its own right), Herzog seems to have supplanted all Dracula films that came before with a version that feels both unique and uniquely insightful into the legend. It retains the classical gothic horror vibes, while upping the ante with a grander apocalyptic vision. This vision is likely at its most stark in the scene depicting dozens of caskets being carried through the streets of an unsuspecting German town. The town and its residents were irrevocably decimated by an unseen invader.

Count Dracula, uber-villain and one of the longest-tenured nightmares in all of classic literature, has perhaps never been portrayed with as much pitiable sadness as in Herzog’s film. It helps that Klaus Kinski, as Dracula, brings a unique presence to the role. He emotes while silent and frightens while largely still, all with what appears to be an obtrusive prosthetic package applied to his face including indelible snakelike fangs.

Herzog’s Dracula is explicitly modeled after the version played by Max Shreck in F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu from 1922. Murnau’s progenitive horror flick feels like the perfect source material for Herzog’s update. Even when the acting in his film looks to be straight out of the silent era – amplified gestures and facial expressions, etc. – Herzog makes the broader moments work by combining hallucinatory dream sequences with an introspective take on the material. It’s vamping with pathos.

Herzog, who wrote the script, infused the dialogue with poetic beauty that suits the classic tale.

Time is an abyss… Profound as a thousand nights.

The absence of love is the most abject pain.

There are things more horrible than death.

The dialogue is not without clunkers, but even the most ponderous examples manage ring as haunting more often that not. Some, like the lines above, even feel natural coming from the mouth of Kinski’s Dracula, essentially a man out of time and out of touch with the modern world. The events of Nosferatu are tragic, but the sadness belongs to the Count just as much as the poor people he terrorizes.

Part of Nosferatu’s magic, as with other Herzog movies, is that it has the quality of conjuring an authentic fantasy realm out of, theoretically, places that already exist in our world and stories we’ve heard many times before. The visual composition are beautiful even though it never feels like Herzog is overbearingly policing the frame. In imbuing a scenic mountain vista with dread, or conveying despair through an plague of rats, the visuals in this film often operate on an extremely effective level. Nosferatu may be one of the artsier takes on Dracula, but that doesn’t mean it won’t haunt your dreams or linger in your subconscious.

 

Editor’s Note: It’s been a while. I’d say “I’m back,” but I never really went anywhere. A job change and perhaps a few other life changes have made it difficult, but not impossible, to post new content. There are still a lot of things to write about – and I have been writing – and you will eventually find them here if you care to. Thank you.

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