Nosferatu the Vampyre July 14, 2016
Look into the eyes of Greek goddess Medusa and you’ll find yourself suddenly turned into stone, not solely because of petrifying fear but also because of a masochistic curse placed upon her. Gaze into the eyes of Nosferatu the Vampyre’s Count Dracula and you might want to turn into stone — to be in anyone else’s presence would be much more favorable. Despite silky good manners that suggest he’s little else besides a serpentinely eloquent nobleman blessed with high class courtesy, terror overcomes you the instance he makes his way into the room.
He does not resemble a man but a monster, a being who is one with the night. His skin is as pale as the glistening moonlight that only sometimes dares to hang over him; his eyes are beady and bloodthirsty, feral even. His body is hairless, untouched by a sign of humanity. His ears are pointed like a portentous bies, his fingernails and teeth sets of ivory daggers varying in size. He seems to glide, not walk; he exists as nothing, as no one — he’s perhaps older than the universe itself, a force of personified evil impossible to arrantly distinguish.
His design is directly based off the mysterious Count Orlok of 1922’s legendary Nosferatu, a German silent film (directed by F.W. Murnau) that exploited the horrors of vampirism before it was turned into iconic camp in 1931 by Bela Lugosi. This 1979 quasi-remake, written and directed by uncompromising iconoclast Werner Herzog, is hardly an homage (or is too good to feel like one) nor a shameful rip-off: it’s the spiritual, modern counterpart to a cinematic great, unspoiled by unnecessary comparison because it, in itself, inspires dread on an individualistic level. Herzog, both visually and technically, derives a sense of nightmarish beauty that haunts us long after we’re through with its menacing inflictions.
Nosferatu the Vampyre initially stars Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, a real estate agent assigned by his boss, the mad Renfield (Roland Topor), to travel to the Transylvanian mansion of Count Dracula, an enigmatic recluse who wishes to buy property in Germany. Tasked with enforcing a lucrative deal, plans are made to stay with the grandee until a final decision is made. The expedition is somewhat protested by Harker’s wife, the doe-eyed Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), but it’s understood that Dracula’s potential purchase could do much for business. Harker isn’t much skeptical; this kind of work is nothing new for an experienced man of his distinction.
But warning signs steadily appear the closer he gets to Dracula’s evasive manor. The journey is peppered by numerous instances of strenuous paths that no man should ever find himself wandering on. Villagers fall deathly silent so long as the count’s name is simply mentioned. But Harker is too determined to let his instincts get the better of him; it’s not like his client can hold him prisoner once he arrives. If disquiet becomes too overwhelming, he can leave if necessary.
But the second Dracula (Klaus Kinski) greets him at the gates of his home, however, Harker is instantaneously afflicted by uncertainty. As his customer looks more like a beast than an average man, the forewarnings that affected him before arrival suddenly seem to bear more weight. As the nights proliferate, Harker is victim to several strange, dream-like exchanges with the count; impacted, too, is Lucy, who is saddled by a recurring nightmare of future desolation.
By 1979, there had already been several adaptations of Bram Stoker’s classic novel (or, at least, several works indebted to the source), making Dracula a figure so recognizable and so familiar that the public, in no doubt, were past automatically recoiling in fear at the mention of the villain’s name. Herzog’s adaptation alters familiarity so painstakingly that the story no longer hints at mundane repetition. His art design, so eerily dank and so intrinsically saturated, evokes alarm that never settles down; the film is an expertly sculpted mood piece as contemporarily artistically pulsating as it is distinctly old-fashioned. Like a silent movie, it doesn’t seem to be of this Earth, existing in a separate galaxy in which evil proves to be almost apocalyptic in power. Herzog’s direction is nothing short of transcendentally brilliant.
Most haunting about Nosferatu the Vampyre is its final act, whereby Dracula eventually does make his way into Harker’s German town and therefore leads the city into ghastly chaos. As citizens roam around the premises looking lost, fires burn left and right, animals, especially rats, scattered about as if to reflect unsalvageable humanity. It is this stretch of hopeless pandemonium that best summarizes the film’s atmosphere — it’s one where our existential fears cause irreversible imbalance in our stability, and that’s more terrifying than any blood drinking creature could ever be.
Still, Kinski as Dracula is pretty paralyzing; the role is transformative for the temperamental actor, who, despite his famously unpredictable emotional palette, sat through agonizing four hour long makeup application sessions without putting up a fuss. Avoiding mimicking the easily schlocky performances of Lugosi and Christopher Lee, Kinski is better in sync with Max Schreck characterization in the 1922 film, utilizing ghostly bodily movement and minimal facial expression as a way to convey the idea that Dracula is more of an entity than he is an outright being. Resulting is a disturbing performance that stands as one of the best of Kinski’s career — here is a role that begs to be enacted with the mindset of a stage actor, hammy and mockable, and yet Kinski brings it to life with phantasmic determination.
Supported by the flawlessly cast Adjani, whose glassy beauty imitates the untouchable attractiveness of a silent screen siren, and a convincingly heroic Ganz, Nosferatu the Vampyre epitomizes that rare ideal that onscreen terror can be lush and richly designed, a feature regularly ignored in a genre that prefers ugliness to poeticism. Herzog has outdone himself. A