Nosferatu The Vampyre Review
“Nosferatu The Vampyre” (or “Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht” to give it its German title) was directed by Werner Herzog and released in 1979. It is a reimagining (rather than a remake) of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu” and is both faithful and loose with its interpretation. It tells the story of Jonathan Harker, sent by his employer Renfield to oversee the sale of a house to the reclusive Count Dracula of Transylvania. Despite the reluctance of his wife Lucy for him to travel, Harker wants to provide a better home for them both and is lured by the sizeable commission the sale will attract. The warnings of the local gypsies fail to dampen his spirits and after arriving at Castle Dracula, enjoys a light supper and a good night’s sleep and next day gets the Count to sign for the property. However, the Count has seen a picture of Harker’s wife and attracted by her beauty and virginity, forms an almost telepathic bond with her, resulting in nightmarish visions that she assumes suggest that some harm has come to Jonathan. Meanwhile Count Dracula, having bitten Harker and prepared his own passage to their hometown, then flees the castle, with a pale and weakened Harker in pursuit.
Even from the film’s opening shots of preserved bodies lined up against a wall, undercut with a haunting score, which then cut into slow motion laboratory stock footage of a bat in flight, it’s obvious that Herzog has set out to create a vampire film like no other. Deliberately paced, not to feel slow, but definitely not to feel fast, the film is no shockfest, but instead uses a continuous sense of creeping dread to keep the viewer hooked into the story. The film making style is simple and unshowy; filming with one camera, Herzog uses handheld footage to maximum effect, not to add an energy to the film, but to make the viewer feel more of a participant in the drama. Shooting the scenes of Harker’s journey into the Carpathian mountains in early morning and late in the evening, gives these an almost ethereal dreamlike quality, while also heightening Harker’s sense of isolation at entering this alien environment. Whether it’s a combination of the film stock used, the lighting choices, or some other magical ingredient, Herzog creates a feeling of otherworldliness that increases as the film goes on. Once Dracula has arrived at the town and disease has decimated the inhabitants, a beautifully staged scene involving the coffins of plague victims being carried through the town square, shows how Herzog strives to make even the most sombre of situations a cinematic delight and again, these scenes are scored in a way that perfectly reflects the mood, yet drives the scene on without ever sounding like that’s the intention.
With a small crew and a relatively small budget, Herzog created a film that stands almost alone amongst vampire movies. Not content to simply replay the standard bloodsucker tropes, he throws in just enough familiar aspects of vampire lore to keep the audience on side, while also telling the story with a visual style that isn’t afraid to let the images form as important a part of the narrative as the drama portrayed. The performances are excellent from all of the cast, but special mention has to go to Klaus Kinski, who through a daily four hour makeup session and some platform heels, is transformed into the pale, malevolent figure of Dracula. Just by moving his eyes or turning his head, he gives more character to the Count than most other actors past or present have brought to the role and although I’m sure he and Herzog would acknowledge the influence of Max Schreck’s performance (and look) in Murnau’s original, it’s a delightful turn, in a film full of delights.
The BFI present Nosferatu The Vampyre on Blu-ray in all its original 1.85:1 widescreen glory and I would imagine it has never looked so good. The image is bright, clean and colourful, with low light and interior scenes exhibiting just the right amount of grain, suggesting that this has been a sympathetic mastering. Blacks (or more specifically, shadows and darkness) play a significant role in the film’s look and these are spot on too. The single Blu-ray disc carries two separate versions of the film; one German language and one in English, both of which were shot at the same time and aimed at different markets. Because of this, some reviewers refer to them as two different films. Technically this is correct, as they consist of different takes, leading the English language version to run 16 seconds longer than the German. However, when watched back-to-back, it’s clear that they are exactly the same film and the different takes are staged and photographed in exactly the same manner. Additionally, not only are some scenes where the actor is in a long shot or their mouth is not visible, simply dubbed, Isabelle Adjani as Lucy and Roland Topor as Renfield are re-dubbed entirely for both versions. Herzog himself maintains that irrespective of language, there is only one version of the film and that’s how I see it.
Audio on the English language version is available in its original mono only, whereas the German version gets its original mono, plus a 5.1 surround mix. This obviously allows for a bit of separation of some of the sound elements, which some may find preferable, but personally I was so enraptured with the images on screen, the mono track was clear and punchy enough for me. English subtitles are available for the German language version only.
Extras are slight, but kick off with a great commentary from Herzog, assisted by journalist Norman Hill. Herzog is open and honest about the film and its production, giving real insight into why he made it and what he feels about it today. Hill can unfortunately get a little overawed with the greatness of the man at times and Herzog soon puts him right on the couple of occasions when his effusiveness slides into sycophancy. They also have a habit of not talking during the “dramatic bits”, which although completely understandable, sort of defeats the object of a director’s commentary. These are minor niggles though and overall it’s an entertaining and informative listen.
A 13 minute promotional piece for the film is included, which consists of behind the scenes footage shot during production, with a soundtrack containing interview snippets from Herzog and Kinski. It’s not particularly in-depth or enlightening, but serves as an interesting example of the type of promotional material that was produced in the days before home video. Extras are rounded off with a 3 minute gallery of production stills and a 2 minute trailer. Copies of the Blu-ray also include a fully illustrated booklet with a new essay by Laurie Johnson, full film credits (the movie fades to black and has no end credits) and on-set photographs, however this was not provided with the review copy.
In Nosferatu The Vampyre, Werner Herzog creates a gorgeous take on the oft-told Dracula tale and the combination of his beautiful, deliberately paced imagery, with the powerful yet vulnerable performance of Kinski, creates probably the most distinctive and original film version we’ve seen of Bram Stoker’s novel. The BFI’s disc is simply the best the film has looked for home viewing and a stunning presentation of a stunning film can only mean that this release comes highly recommended.
9 out of 10
10 out of 10
9 out of 10
7 out of 10