Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor
Boy, here’s something that sounds pretty good: Werner Herzog, in full-on madman 1979 nightmare mode (by the time the movie premiered, Herzog was already in the jungle for what would become the three-year nightmare of making FITZCARRALDO) directing Kinski in a remake of NOSFERATU which is actually (apparently?) some sort of crazy ass allegory for Nazism. There’s no possible way to screw that up, is there?
Normally when I type that last sentence, I have to follow it by explaining how some joker managed to do exactly that (looking at you, John Boorman in EXORCIST II). But hey, not this time. There literally was no possible way this was not going to be the greatest movie ever and guess what, it is. Herzog delivers the goods in every imaginable way in his take on Stoker’s classic vampire, which sort of remakes NOSFERATU and sort of adapts DRACULA but remains particularly faithful to neither, instead followingly only the wild dictates of Herzog’s strange and wonderful brand of insanity.
|Dracula does not respect your personal space.|
We begin this particular nightmare with Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), this time a German estate agent instead of an English solicitor, being sent off to sunny Transylvania by his openly insane boss Renfield (Roland Topor). You know you can relax right away, because Topor is that crazy ass French animator who did FANTASTIC PLANET and wrote the novel that Polanski’s THE TENANT is based on* and he spends most of his time in his movie giggling like a maniac and acting weird. So you’ve got immediate proof that you’re in good hands. That makes it easier to wait as Harker transverses the Romania countryside, encounters traditional peasants and hears worrisome tales about his new client. This being a Herzog movie, it’s all shot on location with what I assume are real Romanian peasants and Gypsies, and honestly I’m kind of surprised he didn’t hunt down a genuine bloodsucker a la SHADOW OF A VAMPIRE (is it too soon to do a remake of that movie which concerns the remake of the movie they make in that movie?). Instead, you’ve got to be content with a typically amazing performance by Klaus Kinski in the iconic rodentious Nosferatu makeup.
|Boy, the German version of Coyote Ugly is a little different.|
As impossible as it is to top Max Schreck’s original Nosferatu, Kinski may well come close in his completely inhuman take on the character. Dracula (the copyright had expired, so we don’t have to wink-wink nudge-nudge about someone named “Count Orlok” anymore) has been a monster for so long that he doesn’t make the slightest effort to affect a normal human demeanor, basically coming off as an alien, calculating predator moved by a logic incomprehensible to anyone else. That makes Kinski almost typecasting, and he handily proves that even nearly 60 years after the original NOSFERATU, the character still has the capacity to be completely terrifying. There’s an amazing sequence where a deeply weirded-out Harker refuses to let the count suck the blood from his paper cut, and Dracula responds by leaping at him and basically chasing him into a corner. This is not a creature which is used to being told no, or even having to give the most rudimentary excuses for his behavior; he relates to people about as much as a human might relate to a chicken, and has virtually no patience for pretending otherwise, going through the barest motions with Harker only because he desires to move to Germany and put the moves on Harker’s wife.
In this, the audience can at least relate to his motives, because Harker’s wife Lucy is ridiculously gorgeous Isabelle Adjani, (POSSESSION (1981), THE DRIVER, ONE DEADLY SUMMER) who seems content to hang around in her kitten-infested drawing room and walk moodily on the beach, but who also apparently isn’t above fucking up some errant vampires should the need arise (spoiler: the need arises). The need arises with the arrival of the Count, who waltzes into town aboard a suspiciously deserted ship amid a seething flood of rats (thousands were used in the production) and promptly sets about stealthily eating the entire population.
|There is no Smiths song ever written that would not be appropriate playing over this image.|
Though the story hews fairly closely to the original NOSFERATU (much more so than it does to Stoker’s Dracula, although the character names remain) it is this section which distinguishes the character and intent of Herzog’s film. From Dracula’s arrival onward, the movie seems to slip into a kind of apocalyptic dream, filled with strange sequences (dozens of coffins paraded through the town square, dancing merrymakers and piles of corpses) and only the barest thread of story. I had heard that this was an allegory for Nazism, with Dracula gradually consuming the locals and taking control of the town. That would be an interesting movie, but I think Herzog is interested in something a little more timeless here, more of an apocalyptic fear of societal collapse. Lucy figures out what’s going on but she can’t get anyone to listen to her, and the sequences of her wandering through the decimated town --gradually realizing that not only is no one going to help her but the situation may already be well beyond help-- are maybe the best portrayal of the Cassandra nightmare ever put to celluloid. To the extent that is is about Nazism, it’s not about the political consequences of that ethos but more an exploration of what it’s like to suddenly find your homeland transformed into something evil and alien and being utterly powerless to understand or stop it.
|Drac does not find all this as amusing as Renfield does.|
Interestingly, Herzog (not someone I usually associate with female empowerment) chooses to make Lucy the star of the second half of the movie (Van Helsing does appear, which I believe is a change from the original NOSFERATU, but if anything he causes more harm than good) and with John Harker out of commission, she’s got to take bold action against this evil. Adjani is great for this role because she isn’t exactly a Ripley action hero type, but she has a resoluteness and steely determination which makes her feel believably badass in a period-appropriate feminine way. Obviously she’d prefer it if the men handled this, but since they aren’t, someone’s gotta cowboy up, and she’s the only one volunteering. After so many Dracula adaptations with fey, victimized Lucy and Mina (why those two characters have their names reversed here is unclear), it’s nice that this one finally gives her a chance to step up her game while the husband is the sickly victim. Aside from the enjoyable girl-power angle, this change also pleasingly simplifies Stoker’s storyline, narrowing the focus to the timeless love triangle between husband, wife, and Klaus Kinski, and allowing Herzog plenty of space for ambiance and atmosphere.
That’s good, because although it does have a literal story to anchor it, NOSFERATU: THE VAMPYRE is more a brooding meditation on dread than aggressive horror movie. As you might imagine, Herzog isn’t interested in capturing a bunch of bloody effects scenes or “boo!” moments so much as he is interested in capturing the strange details that grow out of the grotesque. The film begins with footage of real mummified corpses (in Guanajaunto, Mexico; Herzog never let a few thousand miles keep him away from a big idea), but where other directors might use corpses to evoke our squeamishness and our fear of death, Herzog is more philosophical. His camera lingers, probes, finds something more complex. It’s not about our revulsion of death, but about the entropy, about the helplessness epidemic engenders. The loss not of life but of hope. The collapse of systems. Dracula is not a seducer; he is a desirer, a symbol of a burning need that can never be satiated, a hole so deep it might swallow the whole world. That’s Herzog’s horror, the horror of a universe filled with want which nevertheless mercilessly winds down to nothing.
|This is a really weird episode of What Not To Wear, but still not the weirdest.|
But there’s also a perverse beauty in that kind of horror, and it’s kind of a beautiful movie. Strange, cold, and dark, but also peppered with iconic imagery and, I think, a very slight, very deep black humor. The film’s final epilogue (to my knowledge, completely exclusive to this version of the story) is even a little more wicked than I expected from Herzog, a blatant sucker punch but delivered with what I think might be the lightest hint of a malicious grin. Evil may not be vanquished, but indeed, what would be the fun in that? Herzog’s love affair is living in the strangeness of the evil world, not destroying it. In that sense, this film (his only [fictional**] horror film until MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE in 2009) is sort of a love letter to the grotesque, the perverse, the creeping stagnation that gnaws on the heart of all hope and dreams. Without that, what would there be to make movies about?
*Wikipedia: 1989 --With Henri Xhonneux [Topor] co-writes the screenplay for the film Marquis, loosely based on the life and writings of Marquis de Sade. The cast consisted of actors in period costumes with animal masks, with a separate puppet for de Sade's anthropomorphised "bodily appendage."
** INTO THE ABYSS could hardly be more of a horror movie, but alas, it’s all real.