I am not certain what led me to this misunderstanding, but I went into this movie thinking it was the one about the director Murnau trying to make a vampire movie, but finding that the actor playing the vampire is in fact a real life vampire, who goes ahead and feast on the crew. “Nosferatu the Vampire” is not that one (it is called “Shadow of a Vampire) and I had to recover from my disappointment (and grief at my own stupidity) before I could really appreciate this one.
“Nosferatu the Vampire” is instead Werner Herzog’s tribute to the original “Nosferatu” movie from 1922. Or homage may be a better word. This is essentially a remake that tries to reshoot the original movie as it could have looked like in 1979. Scene for scene we find the corresponding scenes in the original, at least for the first half of the movie. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is a real estate agent in Wismar, Germany, who is sent to Transylvania to meet with count Dracula to do the paperwork on his acquiring a house in Wismar. Harker is (again) warned by the locals about the undead at the castle and (again) he is braving the forbidden landscape to arrive at the ruined castle where he is received by a courteous but freaky Count (Klaus Kinski). Harker gets trapped at the castle while the Count relocates with all his coffins and rats to Germany on a boat. Of course, the boat is practically a ghost ship when it arrives in Wismar.
Both the tone and the narrative follow the original so closely that it feels like deja vu. We have been over this ground before and despite the haunting imagery, I was frankly a bit bored with it. But as we return to Wismar, Herzog strays from the original and adds something different to the story, not so much in the narrative as in the characters. In Herzog’s version, Harker has become useless and is on his way to become a vampire himself, van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) is impotent as the scientist who refuse to recognize the undead source of the troubles and it is the fragile Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) who must find strength and do what needs to be done to face and get rid of the evil. She alone in the town recognizes and faces Count Dracula.
This deviation makes the second half a lot more interesting than the first half. The seeds for the interpretation is already there in the original, but Herzog makes it explicit and thereby gives it a feministic message, showing the male dominated German bourgeoisie as impotent and weak and not up to the challenge.
The homage to the original also extends into creating the same, or very similar, eerie ambience. There are times where Herzog’s movie comes across as a silent movie with passages of ambience and pictures and where the dialogue, if it is there, is only part of the tapestry. The original sense of melancholy and fatalism is here as well, but more spelled out by making the count more vocal. Where Murnau’s Dracula was almost an apparition, Herzog’s is an actual man trapped in undead form, sad, longing, but still evil incarnate.
Herzog also went a long way to make Kinski look like Murnau’s Count, but it may be that modern color photography is less forgiving. Where Max Schreck gave the appearance that he really looked like a rat, Kinski’s make-up is more obvious (beware of the neckline!). Still the paleness is a good match, and it is interesting that this extends to Adjani’s make-up. In death-like paleness they are quite comparable, as they were in Murnau’s version.
Herzog’s take on the Dracula story is a good one. The production value is high (even if the English language version is a bit awkward) and the ambience is a winner, but the question is if this movie really needed a remake and if a remake does not need to bring something more to the table? Is it enough to just reshoot with better technology?
I do recommend it, but with a tinge of doubt.