„Nosferatu the Vampyre” by Werner Herzog

The Most Abject Pain

Werner Herzog grew up in the Bavarian Alps without running water, a flush toilet or a telephone. When he was young, he was so eager to make films that he stole a camera from the Munich Film School, claiming he had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with. As a full-fledged artist, he promised to eat his own shoe if his friend completed a film.

And he kept his promise.

When the film premiered, he boiled his shoes and ate one of them in front of the audience.

During the work on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog and his crew, including indigenous Amazonian Indians, hauled a three-story 320-ton steamship up a muddy 40-degree hillside in the jungle. Somebody asked Herzog if it wouldn’t be wiser to quit. How can you ask this question? he snapped. If I abandoned this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project. (…) Without dreams, we would be cows in a field.

In 1979, Herzog made Nosferatu the Vampyre, a remake of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), itself an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897).

Remaking a famous vampire movie is a huge challenge, no doubt. First, how do you improve on a masterpiece, which Herzog himself considers the greatest German film of all time? Second, how do you breathe new life into the vampire movie with all its inanities, such as neck-biting, bloodsucking, coffins, graveyards, emotionally disturbed whey-faced women, or noble but slow-witted men? And why on earth would Werner Herzog, a world-class arthouse director, want to waste time on remakes and dubious genres?

Some filmmakers, e.g. Roman Polański in The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967), Mel Brooks in Dead and Loving It (1995) and Robert Rodriguez in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), sensibly chose to mock these conventions, assuming there is nothing wrong with the vampire genre, unless it is taken seriously. But Herzog made it clear that he intended to make a reasonably serious art film about the most famous vampire of them all, Count Dracula, aka Nosferatu. He also added that the vampire genre (…) means an intensive, almost dreamlike stylization on screen and (…) is one of the richest and most fertile cinema has to offer. There is fantasy, hallucination, dreams and nightmares, visions, fear and, of course, mythology

The intensive, almost dreamlike stylization is evident already in the opening credits scene with creepy music by Popol Vuh. What is more, if you listen carefully, you will hear heartbeats in the background. The camera tracks across a row of mummified bodies (victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic) at the Mummies’ Museum in Mexico. Their dramatic gestures and pained faces, frozen in time, imply that they died in terror, possibly in agony, as victims of a vampire might. Cut to the slow-motion footage of a bat in midair, a vaguely disturbing image that will reappear several times. Cut to the bedroom: a young woman, Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), suddenly wakes from a nightmare and lets out a blood-curdling scream. Her husband, Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), calms her down, but we already know that something terrible is about to happen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxE4yITfRLo.

In the opening scenes, motifs of death and terror are set side by side with images of peaceful bourgeois life. The action takes place in nineteenth-century Wismar, Germany, here played, if that’s the word, by Delft, a Dutch town famous for – what else? – canals, as well as blue-and-white pottery and the great painter Johannes Vermeer. The stage is all set for evil to invade. Love, happiness, the romantic strolls by the sea, the kittens romping in the kitchen: this idyll will soon turn into a living hell. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g4llrGqoos. 

As the film goes on, things become increasingly gloomy. Witness the scene where Jonathan walks to the Castle of Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains, in Transylvania.

The landscape is permeated with the indefinable something which presages doom. The peaks, the chasms and the wooded slopes are wreathed in swirling mists. The waterfalls tumble into turbulent streams, among walls of sheer rock and monstrous boulders, and the looming ruins of a castle or palace dissolve into the dusk. The line between dream and “reality,” as usual in Herzog, is blurred. Popol Vuh’s eerie chant gives way to the spine-tingling Prelude (Vorspiel) to Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. An ornate coach, similar to those we know from fairy tales, arrives and takes Jonathan to the castle. These remarkable scenes with no action or dialogue were filmed in Central and Eastern Europe: the mountains in the High Tatras (Slovakia); the Borgo Pass in the Partnach Gorge (Bavaria, Germany); and the Castle of Dracula in the Pernstejn Castle (the Czech Republic). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_L2654ai4o 

The plot thickens when Jonathan dines in the castle. Count Dracula, a deathly pale, rat-toothed creature, looks like a giant rodent or spider, and his stupendously long claws seem even longer when he pours wine for Jonathan.

Suddenly a strange grating noise breaks the silence.

The camera cuts to the wall and shows a grandfather clock crowned with a skull. The top of the skull opens, a miniature blacksmith emerges and strikes the anvil with a hammer. The door below the clock opens too and the Grim Reaper comes out. On the stroke of midnight, the top of the skull slams shut, raising a cloud of dust. Terrified, Jonathan cuts his thumb slicing bread, Dracula offers the oldest remedy in the world (The knife is old and could be dirty. It could give you blood poisoning) – an offer Jonathan can’t refuse – and the rest is easy to imagine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jweLDWGtRXs.

In Herzog’s films, the real often blends with the unreal, and the physical with the metaphysical. Try the first encounter between Lucy and Dracula.

The door to Lucy’s boudoir creaks open and a shadow appears, first in the mirror, and then on the wall. Finally, Dracula materializes and discusses philosophy with Lucy – how German is that? At one point, Lucy reflects on the power and cruelty of death. But Count Dracula, a real expert on the subject, argues that Death is not everything. It’s more cruel not to be able to die, and adds: The absence of love is the most abject pain.

Herzog’s Dracula is not your typical soulless vampire from horror movies. In fact, he is a complex and tragic character. He is sufficiently human to yearn for love, for example, but not human enough to have it. Generally speaking, he is caught between life and death, desire and fulfillment, reality and dream. To compound his misery, he cannot die. Can you imagine enduring centuries…experiencing each day the same futile things? he says to Jonathan in a tormented voice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-I8mIljF6I

Even more startling is the surreal scene where Lucy walks through the town square among people afflicted with the plague. It is difficult to tell whether what we see is a crazed party for the doomed or one of Lucy’s recurring nightmares. Be that as it may, it is a topsy-turvy world in which the natural order of things was overthrown by evil.

Coffins with plague victims are scattered all over the cobblestones; a hooded monk prays on his knees; drunken or deranged revelers play and dance with wild abandon; a weird fellow tries to ride, or mate with, a goat among smoking bonfires; pigs wander the square, defecating; and hordes of rats are busy spreading disease. Several townspeople invite Lucy to join them at a groaning table of food (It’s our last supper. We’ve all caught the plague. We must enjoy each day that’s left). A moment later, they disappear. All that remains is the table swarming with rats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdzHAKPV7dk (For this scene, Herzog used a Georgian folk song called Tsintskaro.)

There is no doubt that Count Dracula has outstayed his welcome in Wismar. But how to get rid of him?

Lucy finds the answer in an old book about vampires – (…) if a pure-hearted woman diverts him from the cry of the cock, the first light of day will obliterate him (…)and lures Dracula into her bedroom.

Lucy lies in a white bed strewn with flowers. Spellbound, the vampire feasts his eyes on her and even tries to make love to her. But she pulls him close to make him suck her blood. Predictably, they both die at dawn, Dracula writhing in agony, and Lucy with a smile on her lips. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-5PzpOj57g. Soon after, Doctor Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) comes and drives a wooden stake through Dracula’s heart. The Count has finally found peace in death. Ironically, the brave woman who destroyed him will become a zombie, because the absent-minded Doctor forgot to stab her through the heart.

The last scene: Jonathan morphs into a vampire, orders the servants to bring him his horse and says that he has much to do now. A while later, he gallops on horseback across a sandy plain, under a lowering sky, to the solemn sounds of Sanctus from Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass. Before you know it, he will found a bank, a brokerage house, an insurance company, or some other reputable firm. He will make you work for him. He will make you prosperous. Like him, you will turn into a completely different person. Finally, out of gratitude for his kindness, you will beg him to make you immortal, too.    

And then the screen goes black.

One of the most beautiful, bizarre and haunting films I’ve seen.


© Krzysztof Mąkosa


Director: Werner Herzog

Starring:  Klaus Kinski (Count Dracula),  Isabelle Adjani (Lucy Harker), Bruno Ganz (Jonathan Harker)

Supporting actors: Roland Topor (Renfield), Walter Ladengast (Doctor Van Helsing), Dan van Husen (Warden), Martje Grohmann (Mina), et al.


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