Summary: Young real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sent by his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) to sell an old dilapidated house in Wismar (across from Harker’s own, as luck would have it) to a Transylvanian count named Dracula (Klaus Kinski). Harker’s psychic wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) begs him not to go as she feels his life will be in danger, but like a good husband, he ignores her and goes to Transylvania to meet with Dracula anyway. Upon arrival in “the land of thieves and phantoms,” Harker is met by the rat-like Dracula, who wastes little time in attacking him and drinking his blood. After a few days of suffering these attacks, Harker escapes the castle–but Dracula too is on the move. He has chartered a ship filled with boxes of plague rats and grave dirt, and intends to travel to Wismar to pay a special visit to Lucy before settling into his new digs. Did I mistakenly use character names from Bram Stoker’s Dracula in my summary when I intended to use the character names from F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece instead? Nope. Aggravation ensues as this film swings from being Nosferatu to So-Not-Feratu.
Thoughts: I saw this movie once before, but that was a muddy bootleg VHS copy of the English dub way back before any copy was commercially available. I hated it at the time. About a year ago, I took the time to view the superior German language version on the now-defunct streaming service FilmStruck, and I have to say that my opinion of it has changed greatly. I found myself enjoying it.
Until I didn’t anymore.
Allow me to say first and foremost that Nosferatu the Vampyre is an experience that captures the mood and tone of the 1922 original very well (until the end, but more on that in a bit). The story follows (mostly) the same timeline of events, with added attention to atmosphere and emphasis on symbolism. Some of the dialogue (much of the dialogue, in fact) is ripped right from the original. The acting is top notch, and the characters will be (somewhat) familiar to fans of the F. W. Murnau classic. The costuming and make-up are exceptionally accurate to the source material. The sets are striking and suitably German, as they should be–this isn’t supposed to be Stoker’s London, but rather Murnau’s Wisborg.
Except…it isn’t Murnau’s Wisborg. Sure, it looks like Murnau’s Wisborg (a fictional city), but director Werner Herzog chooses to call it “Wismar” (a real city). One can only suspect that Herzog did this because Murnau shot half of his urban scenes in the real Wismar, but that would mean that Herzog failed to take into account that the other half of Murnau’s urban scenes were shot in neighboring Lubeck–which was the very reason for creating the fictional city in the first place.
Further, these aren’t Murnau’s characters (or script writer Henrik Galeen’s characters, if you want to be technical). Sure, they look like Murnau’s characters, dress like them, sound like them (insofar as characters in a silent film can sound like anything), and even act like them most of the time–but they’re Bram Stoker’s characters, because they carry names torn from the pages of Dracula. Klaus Kinski doesn’t play Graf Orlok; no, he’s “Count Dracula.” Ignore the fact that he looks like a human rodent and comes off as pathetically tragic rather than commanding and charismatic.
And Walter Ladengast doesn’t play Professor Bulwer, but rather “Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.” Forget that, like Murnau’s Bulwer and unlike Stoker’s Van Helsing, Herzog’s Van Helsing is a strict rationalist who spends most of his time in the film rejecting outright the possibility of the supernatural. I mean, ignore the fact that if you were to replace the Van Helsing in Stoker’s novel with Herzog’s Van Helsing, the book would only be half as long because everyone in London would be dead (which is what comes close to happening in Murnau’s Nosferatu; many, many people die in Wisborg). Forget that without Van Helsing’s unique mix of rationality and knowledge of folklore to correctly diagnose and face the threat, there would have been no one to stop Stoker’s Dracula, as the other characters were far too “enlightened” for that sort of “nonsense.”
Who cares how the characters act? They’re Dracula‘s characters, honest.
You could make the argument that Murnau’s Nosferatu was a veiled attempt at making a film adaptation of Dracula, and you’d be right–but you’d be losing sight of the forest for the trees. By choosing to set the original in early 19th Century Germany (culturally different from Victorian England), by choosing to change the characters’ names and behaviors/archetypes, by choosing to subordinate the main themes of the novel and promote secondary themes in their place, Murnau created something inspired by Dracula but distinct and separate enough from it to be its own thing. So, Herzog’s attempt to re-Draculize Nosferatu is asinine. And Herzog even fails at that, because he names the wife of “Jonathan Harker” (the renamed Thomas Hutter) “Lucy”–as in, “Lucy Westenra”–not “Mina Harker,” who Murnau’s Ellen Hutter was meant to replace in his film. No, in Herzog’s vision, Murnau’s Annie is Mina–not Lucy, because Ellen is Lucy. Why? Because screw everything that makes sense: Herzog is making his movie, damn it!
And then there’s the ending. In a turn that would make the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society swoon with pleasure (seriously, you bastards, action and romance and a 50s atomic sci-fi ending have no place in The Whisperer in Darkness), the ending from the original is present in this film, sure–but Herzog adds a little bit to it, just to make sure you understand that this is his film. Because it wasn’t enough to successfully remake a widely acclaimed masterpiece. Why be a mere tire manufacturer when you can attempt to reinvent the fucking wheel?
Conclusion: Nosferatu the Vampyre could have been to Murnau’s Nosferatu what Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983) is to the Howard Hawks 1932 original of the same name (that same name being, of course, Scarface). It is mere inches away from being a perfect remake, and if I’m being honest, the film is all kinds of fantastic in various aspects–but those mere inches in theory are a gulf’s width in reality.
Put another way: The film is 90% Murnau and 10% Stoker–not a very large difference to be sure, but that 10% is a bullet, and it damages the movie for me. The Stoker stuff is a distraction, and its inclusion is, with apologies to Klaus Kinski, “moronically shitty.” The closer something is to perfection, the worse it is when it fails to achieve that perfection by a hair. If only. If not for.
Was Herzog making the film he thought Murnau would have made if only Prana had the rights to Dracula? Perhaps. Who really knows–or cares, for that matter? In the end, I’m left wondering if Herzog–for all that he gets right–truly understands what makes Murnau’s original such a unique classic in the first place. So, if you liked the original, you might like this remake–but if you’re anything like me, the film will only frustrate you in the end.
2 thoughts on “Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)”
I might be wrong, but I heard that they filmed both language tracks as different takes, one in native German, and then again in English.
It was also this English version that got me to appreciate the film, even if it’s not necessarily my cup of tea either way. The only foreign language I’ve trained myself to be able to listen to and read subtitles “comfortably” is Japanese, and that was through consuming all the Godzilla & kaiju movies.
I used to pair this with Victor Frankenstein/Terror of Frankenstein (1975) for a similar atmosphere, but I think the BBC’s Count Dracula (1977) is better equipped in that regard, even though the interior scenes are shot on video.
From what I understand, you are correct–and the German version is, as expected, superior to the English version in every way. I just wish it were overall a more perfect movie. Herzog really treats the material well until he gets in his own way. Let’s hope Robert Eggers (of VVITCH and THE LIGHTHOUSE fame) gets it 100% right.