31 Nights of Dractober: Nosferatu (1979)

Nosferatu (1979)

Nosferatu_Phantom_der_NachtDirector: Werner Herzog

Dracula: Klaus Kinski

“For me, genre means an intensive, almost dreamlike stylization on screen, and I feel the vampire genre 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.”

— Werner Herzog, giving us the epigraph for this whole project

“This is not a remake” insisted Werner Herzog, who seemed to consider it first and foremost an exorcism of the greatest of German films, Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which we’ll get to anon. (That’s in Herzog’s estimation anyhow; I’d put Lang’s M above it myself.) It was also, I suspect, an exorcism of Klaus Kinski, his “best fiend” collaborator, as much as it was a vehicle for that actor, who may have been the best ever for the part both physically and emotionally. Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy deserves as much appreciation as Kinski’s Dracula; her iconic purity precisely equals his iconic poison. The combination of epochal director and ideal actors gives this film a claim to be the best ever Dracula film, and it may in fact be the best ever film to be made of Dracula, which is not quite the same thing.

First and foremost, Kinski’s Dracula is motivated not by greed and rapacity but by inertia: he is cursed with immortality, and exists to spread death. His presence in Wismar sets off not an orgy of biting — although he does fang “Mina” (the film’s Lucy-equivalent, Martje Grohmann) she doesn’t become a vampire — but the plague, spread by a horde of … ineffectually-dyed white rats. (Herzog’s inability to obtain proper gray rats just cripples the horror, it has to be admitted.) Herzog restores the original names Murnau couldn’t use for fear of lawsuit, but keeps Murnau’s plot mostly intact, with an extra Herzogian note of existential bleakness. As against that, Harker (Bruno Ganz) works much harder to damn himself than in any other version, a Catholic interpolation along with the crucifixes and holy wafers Herzog re-introduces to the story after the irreligious Murnau excised them. The cross is not enough to turn Orlok into Dracula, however — Kinski apparently fought to keep the original Murnau names, but (sadly) lost. Indeed, by getting past fidelity to Stoker’s myth Herzog opens up a world of sound and vision, creating and re-creating a documentary of a nightmare.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Remade and enriched (perhaps by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order 11,000 darling hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

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