F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) rightly ranks on nearly every historian’s list of the greatest films to emerge from the silent era (as does his Sunrise). Murnau’s concept of the vampire manages to embrace its absurdities and simultaneously repel us. Probably as much “Varney The Vampire” as Dracula, Murnau’s demonic, Victorian count is more a diseased, toothsome, carnivorous rat than a crepuscular Valentino. Murnau, who served as his own cameraman, artistic director, designer, and editor, and did his own lighting, filtered this greatest of all vampire films through his perfectionist sensibilities (only Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s 1932 Vampyr has a comparable, but contrasting beauty.
Of course, the vampire genre became increasingly ludicrous. Worse, Dracula and his cohorts became dull, repetitive, and insignificant. The Lord of the Undead became so tame that producers tapped Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian-tinged “Carmilla” (repeatedly) in an attempt to reinstate an edge, which suited the 1970s sexual revolution. Despite mixed results, it worked to a degree (We have yet to see buxom lesbo vampires selling breakfast cereal, but give it time).
Just when we thought the masculine bloodsuckers had given up the ghost to their more interesting female counterparts, Werner Herzog, of all directors, gave new vitality to a very old story by doing something out of the ordinary with his 1979 homage to Murnau, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).
Herzog’s Nosferatu boasts a startling aesthetic with stained hues and bizarre, cool pacing. Petrified interiors strikingly contrast stony exteriors seething with grey life. Cinephiles wax endlessly about Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive use of sterile whites to parallel opaque reds. Herzog utilizes greys, browns, and whites much differently. Lack of color conveys something seething with life, but not life as typically defined. Klaus Kinski’s whitened, fleshy count pierces the bluest skies and greenest forests.
One of Herzog’s motives in making the film was a chance for a second collaboration with Kinski (they first teamed up for 1972’s Agguire: The Wrath of God, while Woyzeck immediately followed Nosferatu in the very same year). Due to copyright restraints, Murnau was unable to use the names of Bram Stoker’s cast of characters. Fifty years later, Herzog did not have to contend with the author’s estate, and although he utilized the familiar names, Herzog took liberties with the story.
Kinski’s is a surprisingly sympathetic performance that still manages to convey grotesque mania. Kinski’s Dracula is as inimitable as Max Schreck’s in the 1922 original. Although both actors took the count-as-a-rodent approach, Kinski’s arouses a pronounced degree of empathy. Playing opposite Kinski’s bleached bat is the gossamer Isabelle Adjani as Lucy. Mina is jettisoned completely. Apparently, Herzog felt Lucy was a more compelling character (Sadie Frost, as a concupiscent Lucy, validated that point in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula, wholly dismissing Winona Ryder’s waxen Mina). Adjani is in every way Kinski’s equal. You can’t take your eyes off of this enlivened, spectral figure. Unlike Murnau’s Greta Schroder, Adjani is no dormant sacrificial lamb. It is she, not Harker (Bruno Ganz) or Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), who is the film’s protagonist.
Herzog reinstates the novel’s contrast of the sacramental with the Satanic (Schreck’s count is an anti-Semitic caricature preying on Schroder’s German virgin). Lucy actively tracks down Dracula’s heterodox sanctuary, eradicating it with the Eucharist.
Paradoxes abound: White rats (thousands, millions of them) gift the vivacious breath of disease. The Transylvanian aboriginals (echoing the populace of Aguirre) contrast with urbane Londoners. Humor pierces a milieu of soulful solemnity when Dracula, in chalky voice, says: “I thought he’d never leave,” after his sole encounter with the raving Renfield (Roland Topor). The redemptive goal is offset, in the film’s climax, with cynicism.
As expected, Herzog is too authentic an artist to produce a mere fan film. Nosferatu The Vamypre is stamped with the artist’s personal aesthetics, giving at least some credence to the occasional claim that this homage actually surpasses Murnau’s original.