1979, Werner Herzog dir.
By Nick Jackson
There are some scenes in which, Herzog’s ‘Nosferatu’ appears an almost frame-by-frame remake of Murnau’s 1922 Expressionist masterpiece. Yet, it is infused with surreal details and a certain unmistakeable lugubrious humour that mark it out as a Herzogian creation. Murnau’s jagged set designs are softened and romanticised and Max Schreck’s eerie woodenness as Count Orlok is replaced by Klaus Kinski’s studied emotional ambiguity in the role of Dracula.
From the opening credits, it draws the reader into a peculiarly grotesque vision. The credits appear as the camera pans a series of contemporary mummies from Mexico’s Museo de las Momias in Guanajuato whose arid climate has preserved the twisted corpses as if in their death throes. The soundtrack is a plaintive oboe ascending and descending in a minor key with a throbbing heartbeat accompaniment.
Then, from this surreal opening, the scene changes to a domestic interior in the Baltic port of Wismar where a pair of kittens playfully bat at a miniature portrait of Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), the wife of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz). All is polished wood, frilly muslin curtains, shafts of sunlight as the couple breakfast. It’s almost too kitschy but strangely it presages disaster – to sustain this kind of cutesy happiness would be impossible and we all know it. Herzog is showing us the birds in their gilded cage before they’re taken out and torn to shreds.
As in Murnau’s original, the young hero seems to rush headlong towards his doom, wasting his youthful energy in a dash for wealth and consequence. After a lightning change of scene we see him despatched by the sinister estate agent Renfield to fulfil a commission for Graf Dracula in deepest, darkest Transylvania who wishes to find a nice property with a convenient source of human sustenance. There’s a touching scene as Lucy pleads with Jonathan not to leave her. But the desire for wealth has already corrupted Harker’s mind.
Herzog enters into his element as the film follows Harker through an increasingly wild and stormy landscape. The scenery mirrors the paintings of the High German romantics. One particular shot of Harker, outlined against the mountains is strongly suggestive of Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Mist. The soundtrack is Wagner at his most lyrical.
In the act of reaching for these impossibly romantic visions, Harker is also arriving at his nemesis. In this case the nemesis takes the shape of Klaus Kinski in the role of Dracula. This is Kinski at his most ineffable – he plays a part that is at once comic and profound. His speeches are larded with the kind of sycophancy that makes your flesh crawl, yet he has lines that are awful in their suggestion of desolation. And the homoerotic possibilities of the their encounter are not downplayed: Bruno Ganz has the shocked air of a man who suddenly realizes that he has wandered into a gay club as his host insinuates himself and plies him with a double measure of wine in an impossibly camp goblet. The sight of Lucy’s miniature portrait, which clearly entrances Dracula, serves only to heighten the perverse sexual tension between the two men.
From this moment, now under the spell of his host, Harker is a lost man. We see this in his sidelong glances, his air of confusion and resignation. There’s nothing he can do to save himself and his fate seems settled. Count Dracula’s attitude to his victim is contempt, thinly veiled by an oily subservience that wavers into moments of desperate impatience. There’s a hilarious moment as Dracula, unable to control himself, lunges for Harker over a lavishly spread table and we think he is going to take his victim by force but then he regains his self-control and the dreadful anticipation is prolonged. It’s impossible also to resist a feeling of pathos towards the desolate figure of Dracula as well as a creeping sense of horror. Harker’s actual seduction is played out, as in Murnau’s film, with a kind of stiff, cartoonish hyperbole. Herzog can’t avoid the clichés of the piece, so plays along with them in a delicious spirit of excess.
The film proceeds to cut between the three characters of Harker, Lucy and Dracula. Tension builds as we follow Harker falling into a state of illness, recovering and setting off in desperation to try and reach Wismar before Dracula, who journeys by ship preying on the crew in the process. These scenes are intercut with clips of Lucy, wandering in a state of miserable anticipation by the sea looking for all the world like a jilted lover. Isabelle Adjani gets a fairly rotten script but looks ravishing in every scene she is in. At least she gets to do more than scream pathetically and wait passively for the men to sort things out. Lucy is the fulcrum on which the film’s plot turns. Her beauty and incorruptibility make her a match for Dracula’s nihilism who, as we know, can only be despatched by a woman of impeachable morals.
She is the lone voice of reason, in fact, in a town where the entire populace seems to be descending into collective madness. The arrival of Dracula in Wismar heralds not only sickness and plague but also social disintegration. Herzog makes much of this with surreal sequences filmed from a high camera angle in the streets and squares of the old town. Successive groups of feasting revellers try to seduce Lucy as she wanders from place to place but she, reflecting her inner moral strength, pulls away. We see the townsfolk drunk and incontinent like the animals that wander in their midst; a pig has a notable role letting loose a stream of shit in the middle of the square as men and women carouse in the background.
The film is replete with references to insanity. The agent Renfield (Roland Topor) crops up in mental asylum where he has been placed for ‘biting a cow’ and there are some astonishing shots of him being restrained with a strait-jacket. I don’t think I’ve ever seen madness played with such gleeful energy.
The final scenes of the film, predictable as they are, hold our attention, perhaps because of a sharp attention to detail. Certain atmospheric details – the particularly revolting similarity of the fiend to a baby feeding at its mother’s breast in the key scene of ravishment – seem freshly horrific. And the ending, as evil seems to be the ultimate victor, is somehow unexpectedly upbeat. The soundtrack is Gounod’s Sanctus for the St. Cecilia Mass, a lovely, airy choral setting which soars into brightness and spiritual purity. Why? Perhaps it’s part of the film’s dialectic between romance and horror, beauty and desolation, hope and despair.