Although I’m a pretty big fan of his documentaries — Little Dieter Needs to Fly is one of best docs around — I only recently became aware of Werner Herzog’s 1979 horror film Nosferatu the Vampyre (doesn’t the German title sound much cooler?). I’ve never seen the 1922 Nosferatu, also a German made film and the one that inspired Herzog (hard to get motivated to see a silent movie — gimme the talkies!), but both are essentially an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
So, last night, while the neighborhood boomed, popped, and sparkled for the 4th of July, I got settled in to watch Herzog’s Nosferatu, which happened to be the version with the German language and English subtitles. After a significantly long intermission (I got sleepy), I finished the movie tonight.
One of the first things that stood out with this movie is the soundtrack. It’s definitely Herzog’s taste and could easily have been pulled from any one of his various documentaries. That is to say, the musical selection isn’t what you’d expect if you were expecting a typical Hollywood production of Dracula or any other horror movie for that matter. Much of the music is subtle, sometimes operatic, and often very classical in nature. The first track heard after the opening credits is an acoustic instrumental that is both mellow and uplifting. It is the perfect tune to hear during a morning that promises a good day...
But, this is a Dracula movie, and we know the good day is going to turn into a dark night full of shadows, dread, and blood. Count Dracula in this movie is something else entirely. Instead of a dashing, smooth-talking, romancer with fangs, this Dracula is more what we might expect in the real world: He not only has the usual ultra-pale complexion, but he looks downright sickly, and despite his powers, he comes across as fragile and vulnerable. And just look at his fangs. Instead of the overgrown canines we are accustomed to, they are the top two center teeth and look more like filed down buck teeth. His fangs are at once comical and threatening, as their unusual placement somehow seems more realistic for a diseased or disfigured being. This Dracula also laments several times about how he cannot die, yet he must know he can; he simply doesn’t have the courage to make it happen.
That being said, this movie is not completely without the sexual nature that is so embedded with the typical persona of the vampire. Toward the end of the movie, the estate agent’s wife, Lucy, knowing that Dracula is charmed by her and that the plague that he has brought with him will not end until he has her, decides to turn the tables by seducing him... to death by sunlight.
And if a pure hearted woman...
...diverts his attention
from the cry of the cock...
...the first light of day will obliterate him.
But before that happens, we observe Count Dracula, with his claw-like hands, naively operating his spell of seduction as he pulls back Lucy’s white nightgown just above her legs, all the while gazing with desire. This foreplay, however, does not lead to him taking possession of her through intercourse, but by the vampire’s bite, in which he see him suckling the life from her neck.
One of the other aspects that makes this adaptation particularly interesting is how Herzog scales down the usual Hollywood treatment of vampire movies. For example, we’re used to seeing Dracula in an exaggerated regal setting, usually dressed in princely clothing and shuffling around in a cavernous castle that is in some state of decay, but still quite opulent. Herzog still utilizes the spooky shadow play, the lack of reflection in the mirror, and other traditional vampire characteristics, but in some ways makes his Count Dracula much more modest. The sartorial style of Herzog’s Dracula is fairly muted, yet creepy; he wears what looks like a trench coat made of black satin or silk. His castle appears as complete ruins in long shots, but up close and inside, it’s still in tact, but clearly in decline. Instead of vast dining halls and grand staircases, the inner dimensions are small and somewhat claustrophobic. Claustrophobic, too, because Dracula himself, with his menacing shadow looming large in the background, seems to always be there, close, clingy, and thirsty.
The ending of the movie is interesting. Thanks to Lucy’s sacrifice, Count Dracula is killed (and stabbed with a stake by Van Helsing for good measure), but Jonathan Harker, the estate agent sent to formalize the real estate purchase early on, has been infected with the vampire’s curse. There is an earlier scene in the movie that suggests this was all anticipated by Count Dracula and that he may be living on through Harker. If you’ve seen this, what do you think?
tl;dr The movie isn’t really scary, has an unusual, but cool soundtrack, and is totally worth seeing.
You can see Herzog’s Nosferatu on YouTube.
And, if you like, the 1922 version as well.