Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (Shout Factory/Bleeding Light Film Group)
The original 1922 film Nosferatu was made as an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite lacking the legal rights to adapt it. As a result, much of the vocabulary of the original was subsequently changed – “vampire”` became “Nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” became “Count Orlok.” Werner Herzog’s adaptation, 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, takes advantage of both stories, combining the more recognizable elements to his advantage: He took the reputation of the film by using its title Nosferatu, while including popularized characters from Stoker’s novel, utilizing “Dracula” over “Orlok” and “Dr. Van Helsing” over “Dr. Bulwer,” as well as the use of both terms Nosferatu and vampire. He picks the strongest elements of both and combines them to suit his needs, which can be said of his style in general.
Herzog’s unique vision as a storyteller is quite apparent, especially for his take on the horror genre. The film is made up mostly of long, quiet and eerie shots, moving at a leisurely pace. It takes its time, but is not slow. Close-ups are scarce, instead opting for wide and medium shots. This creates a feeling of space and distance, which serves more to the dreamy tone of the film.
The film is also shot beautifully, focusing largely on nature and landscapes. Though the visuals are stunning, it’s the sound design that really carries this film. Like most movies of the 1970s, sound recording was largely an unperfected art, often featuring mistimed and badly recorded audio – dialogue especially. Nosferatu the Vampyre is no different in regard to dialogue, though it’s the sound when no one is speaking that truly makes this film what it is. Lush and textured soundscapes intertwine with calm but deliberate imagery, accompanied by a slow and hypnotic score that creates an experience that soothes and at times entrances.
What’s more, many of the emotional cues come through sound rather than images. For instance, when Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) storms around looking for Dracula (Klaus Kinski), the camera is completely static, remaining wide and far away from him. We hear the anger in his actions as he slams through doors and stomps around the castle. The most visceral and frightening scene in the film occurs when Count Dracula enters Jonathan’s room at night for the first time. Herzog, again, keeps the camera at a distance. Slowly, Dracula moves towards the bed, using almost 40 seconds before finally raising his claws. He moves so gently and at such a glacial pace that it could be confused for slow motion, expertly building anticipation in his approach. The sounds of the creaking wood and howling wind set the ominous tone, reassuring us that this will happen, despite our hope that it won’t. When Dracula finally raises his claws, you know it’s over. But the camera doesn’t move. The music doesn’t cue. He just glides over the sounds of their breathing.
Though it adheres fairly strictly to the plot of the novel, Herzog took some liberties with the characterization of many of the characters, most of all Dracula himself. In this version, and unlike any other before it, Dracula suffered a general malaise, feeling more existential crises rather than pure bloodlust. Throughout the film he mentions things like, “Time is an abyss a thousand nights deep. Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible … can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing the same futility each day?” Furthermore, his attraction to Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) is not just out of hunger, but of emotional deprivation, a yearning for love. It humanizes Dracula to the point that we relate to him, making it harder to watch when he goes on his feeding frenzy.
Herzog truly makes this story his own while preserving it’s original foundation, giving it emotion and sadness. He balances it all with brief moments of humor, like Dracula having a skeleton cuckoo clock, and, after the town is ravished by plague, the only remaining town officials apprehending Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast): “Take him to the police!” “But they don’t exist anymore.” Overall, it’s a balanced and fresh take on a story that’s been done countless times. Herzog has a knack for finding interesting aspects in tired things, and this film is no exception. Whether documentary or narrative, new or old, Herzog remains one of the most thought-provoking and entertaining filmmakers today.
Nosferatu the Vampyre
Bleeding Light Film Group
Currently playing at the Cinefamily through May 22
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