Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre takes its inspiration from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. Herzog’s version of the Dracula tale pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized 1922 film, Nosferatu: because Murnau was not awarded the rights to Stoker’s novel, he tweaked the story and changed character names. The author’s heirs won a lawsuit against Murnau, which stipulated that all copies of the film be destroyed. Some copies survived, and Murnau’s Nosferatu became a classic of German Expressionist cinema.
In Herzog’s film, Count Dracula’s story is one of evil. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is a real estate agent in Wismar, Germany. Sent by his boss to Transylvania, he must meet with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) to settle the terms of a contract for a house the Count wants to purchase in Wismar. Harker’s trek up the Carpathian Mountains is replete with foreshadowing. Herzog’s camera follows Harker, as if anticipating trouble at every turn. While resting in a country inn, Harker is told about Count Dracula’s ominous reputation. This encounter introduces Harker, a city-dweller, to the existential vitality of the rural Gypsies.
Harker’s conversation with the villagers signals a foreboding sense of a phantasmagoric world that he does not expect. Harker’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), has nightmares of impending doom. Lucy loves her husband, Harker; love that Count Dracula envies. It is she who anchors the supernatural horror of Dracula’s tale; she who counters and suppresses Count Dracula’s evil. Harker’s plight merely serves as the adventure yarn in Herzog’s film.
Yet horror is not what makes Herzog’s film engrossing. There are many chilling moments in the film, no doubt: The Count is pale as a specter, and has rat-like fangs that must frighten Jonathan Harker. While Harker dines on his first night in Dracula’s castle, the gaunt, ghostly figure with grotesque long fingernails stands and stares at his guest. After Harker cuts his finger while cutting bread, the Count’s composure is violently transformed into the blood-thirsty fiend of Stoker’s novel.
Herzog’s Nosferatu has three easily identifiable overlapping themes which create a vivid impression of the essence of supernatural horror. One of these is the passage of time in relation to human mortality. On their initial meeting, Nosferatu reveals to Harker how terrible it is not to be able to grow old: “Death is not the worst. There are things more terrible than death. Can you imagine, enduring centuries.” As a vampire, he is a soulless entity trapped in time.
Herzog’s Count Dracula is rooted in the Romanian folklore of Dracula as a Strigoi – an evil spirit. The Count’s mood is biliously introspective, like one on his deathbed. The villagers describe the mountain where Count Dracula lives as “the land of phantoms.” On his first night in the castle, Harker writes in his journal that he wonders if the castle is not but a dream: “Everything about it looks so unreal.”
Beyond being frightening, Count Dracula is a deathly, pathetic, and soulless entity. He agonizes over his inability to die. He takes solace in darkness; prefers to simmer alone in anguish. The Count tells Harker that “time is an abyss.” Interestingly, the Count’s brief conversations with Harker sound like nihilistic aphorisms. Centuries come and go, and the Count is trapped in his decrepit, undead body without meaning and purpose.
Another dominant theme of the film is the suppression of superstition and religious belief in an age of science. After the ship carrying the Count and many rat-infested coffins arrives in Wismar, Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) tells Lucy on several occasions that the rats are responsible for the plague in town. Yet Lucy intuits that something other than the plague is killing the town’s people.
Several times throughout the film, the science versus belief motif becomes explicit. Having been bitten by the Count, Harker returns home feverish pale, zombie-like. Van Helsing thinks Harker has a brain fever. Lucy’s perspicuity is more poignant than the doctor’s scientific method, however, and she tells him she knows the reason for the evil in town. Van Helsing counters: “We live in a most enlightened era. Superstitions such as you mention have been refuted by science.” Moved by Christian conviction, Lucy reacts to what she “sees with her own eyes.” Lucy is put off by Van Helsing’s insistence that they wait for science to find the cause of the plague. Nosferatu ends with scientism fueling ineptitude in the bureaucratic State as city officials arrest Van Helsing for the murder of Count Dracula.
The third major theme of Nosferatu is Herzog’s lucid use of Christian symbolism. Among these, we find good versus evil, and love and sacrifice, especially as the latter is the cause of Count Dracula’s death. In contrast to clichéd treatment of vampires in cinema, Herzog effectively uses the consecrated host and Christian symbolism as apotropaics to ward off evil. The film ends with an apocalyptic tone as Lucy encounters a group of somber people dining at a table. They tell her: “Join us, please. It’s our last supper.” Recalling Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, The Triumph of Death (1562), these moribund characters move across the screen without rhythm or rhyme.
Herzog’s treatment of Lucy as a “woman of pure heart” is intriguing. It is her personal sacrifice – the acceptance of her own death – that kills Count Dracula. Rather than considering Dracula’s death as an act of valor, however, Lucy’s destruction of Dracula is an act of Christian sacrifice and love. Lucy delivers Count Dracula – the undead – from the horror of his torturous inability to grow old and die. Lucy’s willingness to die under horrid conditions for the greater good reflects her pure soul. This act, in turn, saves the town from the malignancy that Dracula commandeers.
Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979 Germany 107 minutes)
Prod Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. Prod: Werner Herzog. Dir: Werner Herzog. Phot: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. Ed: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus. Prod Des: Henning von Gierke. Mus: Popol Vuh
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor, Walter Ladengast