It’s certainly nothing new to tackle on the Dracula story. By some estimates nearly 200 films have been created about the Transylvanian count. But, in 1979, German maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog decided not only to give the world his take on the classic character, but to remake what is considered to be one of the true Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema, fellow countryman F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu.
Nosferatu is steeped in legend, since Murnau’s decision to make the film infringed on the copyright of the original Bram Stoker work Dracula. In an effort to circumvent the ownership of the property by Stoker’s widow Florence, Murnau changed the name of the characters–specifically renaming the lead Count Orlok–and other minor details. Herzog on the other hand, has essentially recast the film and populated it with the basic stars of the book (although his has merged Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra into the single character Lucy Harker). Once again Dracula is Dracula, and this time he is played by the venerable Klaus Kinski.
To call the film a simple remake of Murnau’s epic is to gloss over the brilliance that Herzog has brought to the story. While it is true that some of the film’s scenes are virtually shot-for-shot recreations of the original, Herzog’s use of atmospheric and dreamlike cinematography lends an air of unease about the production. Something achieved in the original by the stark expressionist lighting and set design, but more difficult to recreate in the soft cobblestone streets of Delft, Netherlands–where Herzog was forced to film the production, after Wismar, Germany (the films setting) refused to allow the director to shoot.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of the film, remains the physical transformation of the formidable Kinski into the slight and hollow Count Dracula. Retaining the ghost white appearance and rat-like fangs and ears from Murnau’s film, Kinski plays his Dracula not as the fiercely imposing and exotic Bela Lugosi, or the dapper Count’s of Christopher Lee and Frank Langella. Kinski’s Dracula is the ultimate tragic figure, a man doomed to a life eternal, consumed by the desire for blood, long since given up on the hopeful promise of death. It’s a haunting film and an unforgettable performance. Herzog hints at the permeation of death and despair that envelops and defines his film as early on as the opening credits sequence, which is comprised of super-imposed title cards over actual footage of the famous Mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico. The leather-like corpses covered in soft orange dust of their desert resting place cry out in immortal pain and stare at you through empty eyes. In so many ways, these silent dead project the same pathos as the Count.
Kinski and Herzog (who had known each other since the director was a teenager in the 1950’s) would create one of the cinema’s most enduring creative partnerships. They made 5 films together over the course of 15-years. Those films are book-ended by the great Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and the unsettling genius of Cobra Verde (1987). After Kinski’s death in 1991, Herzog eulogized the manical actor in the great documentary love letter My Best Fiend (1999) , detailing their turbulent and sometimes outright violent partnership.
The legacy of Nosferatu remains that of its enduring and iconic imagery, albeit imagery and design that are borrowed from another film. Still, any arguments that magic didn’t occur on the set of this production–in the streets of Delft, Netherlands–can be immediately refuted by taking a look at 1988’s Vampire in Venice. That film, a sort of spiritual sequel to Herzog’s production sees the Count, now simply called Nosferatu (and once again played by Kinski) tooling around the Italian city during Carnival and searching for a Transylvania Princess. While Vampire in Venice is visually interesting and Kinski is as intense as ever, the spark of the earlier production is missing, and the film comes off as melodramatic and dull. Additionally, Kinski refused to cut his hair for the production, leaving the count quite a bit less pale and with long, flowing locks of brilliant silver tresses. A stark image to be sure, but not nearly as iconic as Herzog’s Murnau homage.
Nosferatu is available on DVD from Anchor Bay in a 2-disc special edition that includes the English Language version of the film, in addition to the German Language version. What sets this film apart, once again, from the standard is that instead of hiring actors or even the original cast to dub their voices into English for the North American release, Herzog, simply (or rather make that, much more complexly) shot the film twice. Once in English and once with his actors speaking in German. He then cut the two versions of the film for release. Simple, as they say, is not a word in the vocabulary of Werner Herzog. And, yet the simplistic beauty of Nosferatu (coupled with the powerful performance of Kinski) is what makes the production so memorable.