Featured as part of the BFI’s current season, Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, Werner Herzog’s 1979 classic creeps back onto British screens this week, saving audiences from the horror of a Halloween that has come to mean nothing more than the 50p witches hats sold in Tesco’s by the baby food section.
Nosferatu the Vampyre, a tribute to F.W Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu: Symphony of Terror, and to German Expressionist cinema itself, retells Bram Stoker’s immortal Dracula story once more. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is an estate agent who lives with his beautiful wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) in the quaint German town of Wismar. Sent by his boss to Transylvania to make a business deal with a certain Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), surely an unreasonable request, even for an estate agent, Harker embarks on his long and arduous journey, much to the dismay of his young wife, who senses the terrors to come. Reaching the ruined castle, Harker is met by his host, an odd man, whose alarming table manners lead Harker to believe that something strange is afoot within those crumbling walls.
Herzog’s Nosferatu is both bone chilling and strangely erotic. This combination may be over familiar now, post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it is an element notably absent from Murnau’s original film. Herzog said that “it took fifty years to find a vampire to rival the one Murnau created, and I say that no one in the next fifty years will be able to play Nosferatu like Kinski has done”. This statement will probably turn out to be true, but could be stretched further to say that Kinski’s reinvention of Nosferatu far surpasses the power of Max Shreck’s portrayal in Murnau’s film. Kinski’s Dracula may bear physical resemblances to Shreck’s; both bald, deathly pale and with those, now iconic and forever dreadful, clawed hands. Yet there is something comedic in Shreck’s monster, with his wiry eyebrows and a stiffness that makes him seem compressed, as though perpetually being squeezed on either side by two invisible walls.
Kinski’s hanging jaw and sloping, inescapable eyes give Dracula a sense of melancholy, and of deep loneliness. He is, at times, a sympathetic character. The humanity that Kinski brings to Dracula makes the unbeatable persistence with which the Count pursues Harker’s wife, Lucy, seem as rooted in sexual desire as in hunger. The scene in which his personal quest is achieved is undeniably erotic. Isabelle Adjani, who is absolutely ethereal, plays an equal part in the fatalistic attraction of this scene. Her wide-eyed Lucy, adopting many of the performance tropes of the silent era, is the mirrored opposite of Dracula, the beast with no reflection. Both are unblinking and largely silent, they seem to float on screen and drift inevitably together, guided by destiny to their tragic ends.
According to Herzog, Kinski as Nosferatu is only present on screen for around seventeen minutes, a fact that is astounding to realise after watching the film, because his presence is felt intensely throughout, as a great and constant foreboding weight. Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s photography is grim, but gorgeous, with a palate that somehow seems de-saturated as well as rich. Herzog’s unmistakable style is felt as constantly as Nosferatu himself, and its creeping pace is perfectly suited to the Gothic genre. It is a mood that lingers long after the credits roll, as you leave the cinema onto streets that suddenly seem somewhat Victorian, diseased, and with lurking monsters seeming likely round every corner. Have a safe trip back.