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Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

“Time is an abyss… profound as a thousand nights…  Centuries come and go… To be unable to grow old is terrible…  Death is not the worst…  Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day; the same futilities?” says Count Dracula to Jonathan Harker.

I first came across Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu almost 15 years ago on the Independent Film Channel (or IFC, as it’s called today, and this was back in a time when they showed movies without commercial interruption).  It was the English language version, and although I had only caught the second half of the film, I was mesmerized by it.  I suppose it was one of the first European films I ever saw on TV.  Several years later, I bought the 2-disc DVD of the film and was surprised to discover that there was a second version of the film: an alternate German language version that had been shot simultaneously with the English version using the same cast (I later found out that Herzog had always intended to shoot the film in German and that it was U.S. distributor 20th Century Fox that requested an English language version be shot as well).  Very recently, I had the opportunity to catch a screening of the German language version of Nosferatu the Vampyre at Film Forum in New York City.  Watching it in its entirety for the first time, I can safely state that the film had lost none of its power.

This was one of three Dracula-related films to hit theaters in 1979 (the other two being Dracula with Frank Langella and the satirical Love At First Bite with George Hamilton).  Herzog sets the tone for his film at the beginning with shots of mummified corpses and ominous music, creating an eerie atmosphere that will soon engulf numerous lives.  The story follows Jonathan Harker as he journeys to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula and finalize a real estate purchase.  Harker soon falls victim to Dracula, who soon after leaves with several black coffins (and thousands of rats) and is bound for Wismar, Germany (his new home).  Harker manages to escape Dracula’s castle and struggles to return to Wismar and his wife Lucy.  Harker arrives home not long after Dracula’s arrival and is taken ill.  Lucy soon discovers Dracula’s plans and, after the plague is mistakenly identified as the cause of the numerous deaths that sprung up in Wismar, takes it upon herself to stop Dracula.  The three main leads here are superb: Klaus Kinski (as Count Dracula), Isabelle Adjani (as Lucy Harker), and Bruno Ganz (as Jonathan Harker).  Kinski in particular is intense and haunting as the Count, a somewhat sympathetic figure who has grown weary of not being able to grow old and die.  He is a creature who longs for death, hating that he must continually spread his evil because of what he is.

Herzog’s direction was strong; he brought a unique vision to his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, which itself was an unauthorized film adaptation of Stoker’s novel).  I especially liked the use of the shots of moving clouds.  There’s one particular shot at night early on where the clouds, combined with the moonlight, almost look like a giant bat that slowly swallows the sky (foreshadowing what’s to come).  Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s cinematography was phenomenal, especially in the shots with Dracula.  I was impressed by the use of shadows and how Herzog managed to get the shot of Dracula entering Lucy’s room in one take (the camera is aimed at Lucy’s mirror; we see the door open but no reflection of Dracula save for his shadow in the background, and eventually Dracula comes into frame on the right side, scaring Lucy).  Henning Von Gierke’s production design was terrific, cleverly masking the shooting locations in the Netherlands to make them look like Wismar.  The use of Czechoslovakian locales to stand in for Transylvania was inspiring.  I liked that a real castle was used as Dracula’s castle; it adds an extra layer of creepiness to the film and you can definitely tell this was no studio set.

Gisela Storch’s period costumes were terrific; I especially liked the black costume for Dracula (one of many homages to the 1922 film version).  Dominique Colladant and Reiko Kruk were responsible for the excellent makeup design, (again) in particular the Dracula makeup (the bald head, bat-like ears, long fingernails, and rat-like teeth).  Kruk was the one who did the makeup for Kinski, who was surprisingly patient throughout the four-hour makeup process and got along with Kruk just fine (Kinski was known for not getting along very often with cast and crew members on all of his films).  Then there’s the haunting score by the German band Popul Vuh, which adds another layer of creepiness to the film.  Overall, Herzog’s film stands as one of the best horror films ever made as well as being a rare remake that can proudly stand side-by-side with its original counterpart.  Strangely enough, he would do the same 30 years later with 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call- New Orleans, a film that is every bit as good as 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, if not better.

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