Nosferatu The Vampyre
Rating -

Horror (Germany); 1979; Rated PG; 107 Minutes

Klaus Kinski:
Count Dracula
Isabelle Adjani: Lucy Harker
Bruno Ganz: Jonathan Harker
Roland Topor: Renfield
Walter Ladengast: Dr. Van Helsing

Produced by Werner Herzog and Walter Saxer; Directed and screenwritten by Werner Herzog; based on the novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker

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Written by DAVID KEYES

The German director Werner Herzog is not one of those conventional moviemakers who uses typical devices and stories in his movies. He is a man of raw vision and power, who emphasizes Germanic expressionism, just as much as he embodies the spirit of moviemaking. There are variations of foreign directors, but none quite like him. As captivating as some are, like Ingmar Bergman, Herzog remains the translucent master of the foreign cinema. His movies are evocative and surreal, using texture upon texture of brilliant imagery, backed by music as haunting as it is beautiful. One might even say that he is the seventh wonder of filmmaking.

Take the movie, "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God," for example. The making of that picture is a legend all on its own; years after its release, the actor Klaus Kinski shared his accounts of the production, describing it as something of a depressing experience. Herzog forced his cast and crew into the deep jungles of South America, where anything from death to starvation was distinctly probable. There were even various bizarre rumors surrounding Herzog, notably in which he held a gun up to Kinski's head and forced him to stay in the production. He is sometimes so obsessed with the translucence of his movies that he will stop at nothing to ensure perfection, no matter where the location or what the situation. If he were making a movie about the holocaust, he'd probably want to jump back into time and have the cameras roll just as the Jews were being moved into concentration camps.

It's what he, and others, call the 'voodoo of the location.' That belief is also in direct effect of another one of his best movies, "Nosferatu The Vampyre," which is also one of his most seldom-seen. Recently, however, the film was finally released to video in the United States, hopefully for earning the attention that it deserves but never got while in US theaters back in 1979. To describe the movie in words is almost impossible, because what we have here is a work of seductive imagery and compelling storytelling, without being boring or clichéd. Herzog modifies the old Dracula legend at his own free will, and yet that is okay, because he imagines the story for what it is not, instead of what it already is. He, like the director F.W. Murnau, makes us believe in vampires through the nourishing visionary treatment presented, ever so often adding in new twists and turns to give the picture a feeling of remarkable uniqueness. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," is, naturally, a much better film, but both are equally fascinating and eerie. The 1979 version renews a faith in the originality of vampire movies, for us and for the filmmakers. It's as if Herzog had seen Dracula and wanted to share his traumatic experiences.

The movie also bears close resemblance to the silent version, which is odd, since Herzog likes to create his own unparalleled look in movies. Dracula's fangs instead of where they should be, off to the side. He is lonely and depressed, longing to be human, and seeking a plan to carry out that urge. Kinski, like in "Aguirre The Wrath Of God," plays a man whose personality is developed by his facial expressions rather than his dialogue. His stares into the eyes of others tell us that he is indeed sad and melancholy, and that he wishes to be more than what he really is. In ways, he looks like an offspring of the original Nosferatu vampire, and not just in the face. Kinski's voice is distinctively moody, just like his character. This is the way we would imagine Dracula to sound if the 1922 version weren't silent.

Little is known, however, on how these movies came to be. The original "Nosferatu," based on "Dracula" by the brilliant Bram Stoker, was reportedly made without consent of adapting the famous story. The title was later changed to "Nosferatu" to avoid potential conflicts with the novel's publishing laws. Instead of using the clichés of today's Dracula story, Herzog uses Murnau's scenario to study the depths of evil and fear; it's a decision that makes the movie all the more profound.

The only problem is the ending. At the heart of the climax, when Dracula is exposed to the sun and collapses dead in Lucy's bedroom, we see that downstairs, Jonathan Harker remains in his vampiric state, as if the legend was not totally accurate when it said that all vampires revert to humans once the head vampire is killed. We hear (offscreen) Dr. Van Helsing finishing the job on Dracula (naturally, with a wooden stake), and then the pale Jonathan crosses over a circle of garlic after a made sweeps it away, and announces that he must leave. Then he rides off into the dry desert, his cloak blowing in the wind as the hair on the horse does.

What does all of this mean, anyway? Is Harker now the head vampire? Where does he go? Why does he leave? None of those questions are answered, even though they should be.

Still, I must not sidetrack myself from praising its numerous virtues. It is hypnotic, evocative, scary, and well photographed by Herzog's cinematographers. During the opening shot, we see rows of bones from the bodies of the dead, stacked up along the wall like they had been nailed to it. The soundtrack is distinctively eerie, as if a moody choir had been walking through the halls at the same time the camera did, expressing their emotions through the music. Here, like Herzog's own filmmaking, the movie challenges us with images and emotions that have hardly ever been seen before.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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