Directed by: Werner Herzog || Produced by: Michael Gruskoff, Werner Herzog
Screenplay by: Werner Herzog || Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Roland Topor, Walter Ladengast
Music by: Popol Vuh || Cinematography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein || Edited by: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus || Country: West Germany, France || Language: German, English
Running Time: 107 minutes
Though vampires in 2000s popular culture received a bad rap amongst my male peers thanks to the popularity of the Twilight (books = 2005-2008; films = 2008-2012) franchise, I never gave up on them primarily because of my affection for the Blade (1998, 2002, 2004) films, or at least that series’ first two installments. My appreciation for the original vampire monster — at least in pop cultural, if not historical mythology — Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and its many cinematic adaptations, is modest by comparison. Prior to the subject of this review, I had only seen Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed big-budget, American New Wave-style film, titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Fright Night (1985; or “1980s Dracula”), and bits and pieces of F. W. Murnau’s unofficial silent German Expressionist adaptation, Nosferatu (1922), as well as the 1931 Dracula starring Bella Lugosi in the title role. Stoker’s original 19th century novel remains on my to-read list along with a half dozen other classics (my consumption of literary fiction has plummeted since high-school).
Sometimes lost in the shuffle of Dracula portrayals on film, I feel, is Werner Herzog’s 1979 half-Dracula adaptation, half-Nosferatu tribute/remake of Nosferatu the Vampyre (also known as “Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht,” or Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night in German). The eclectic, prolific German filmmaker (he’s helmed over 60 productions in his 61 years of filmmaking, including 20 narrative and 31 documentary features) rivals even Takashi Miike in terms of cinematic versatility behind the camera, to say nothing of his acting credits, so I jumped at the chance to view his take on Nosferatu/Dracula upon learning of its free availability on multiple streaming platforms.
Vampyre earns its reputation as both an effective gothic horror film as well as a 1970s colored homage to German Expressionism. The look of Herzog’s picture defines its artistic success more than anything else, even its great sound-design and diverse soundtrack. Daytime sequences are flush with color and effective urban to countryside backdrops, while nighttime cinematography is so low-key yet striking in its legibility that the few actors, props, and movements fully illuminated in these scenes shine like celestial bodies. Locations from the Netherlands to Herzog’s native Germany to the Czech Republic provide physical character to a Germanic take on the Dracula mythos, and a healthy mix of mise-en-scène focused stationary photography and almost documentarian handheld camerawork help sell the realism of this Gothic backdrop.
As far as the screenplay goes, Herzog borrows the basic premise of Stoker’s Dracula indirectly through his primary homage to Murnau’s original Nosferatu, meaning that while characters’ broad strokes correspond to their literary counterparts, the 1979 film’s general narrative rhythm and tone are most comparable to the 1922 film. Major plot beats and the switch in primary narrative setting from London to northern Germany are connected to Vampyre’s reimagining of Murnau’s film first and Stoker’s novel second.
With respect to performances, the cast are all memorable and their performances a function of the script’s somewhat unconventional structure; Bruno Ganz plays the everyman protagonist for the first half of the film as Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves’ meme-worthy role in Coppola’s film) before he succumbs to vampiric parasitism, after which female lead Isabella Adjani takes over as the de facto audience-surrogate as Lucy Harker (Winona Ryder’s character, Mina, in the 1992 film). This atypical narrative format works because the diegetic changes in scenery from Germany to Romania and back again coincide with this switch in point-of-view, as well as lead Klaus Kinski’s memorable antagonistic portrayal of Count Dracula himself. I doubt any performance will best Gary Oldman’s (I really should review Bram Stoker’s Dracula at some point… ) but the weird, sad, understated realization of the classical vampire here by the controversial Polish-German actor fits Herzog’s vision like a glove.
I could further praise the movie’s succinct yet deliberate pacing or its unsettling soundtrack composed of orchestral, concert band, and choral soundscapes, but at some point I’d just belabor my recommendation of this film to general audiences. The only true shortcoming of this rendition of Dracula is how it doesn’t always stand apart from the legions of film adaptations that came before and after it. It’s not the original Nosferatu, of course, nor is it the stereotypical portrayal of the famous bloodsucker established by Bella Lugosi, nor the highbrow Hollywood blockbuster rendition from Francis Ford Coppola. Nosferatu the Vampyre is instead a faithful sound and colorized update of cinematic vampirism as defined by early German Expressionism, and it contains all the charismatic hallmarks of its veteran German filmmaker’s auteur craftsmanship.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As detailed in its set-design, lighting, and camerawork as its ironclad screenplay is focused on pacing, character motivation, and shifting perspectives, Werner Herzog’s 1970s tribute to F. W. Murnau’s iconic Gothic monster is a showcase in cinematic efficiency.
— However… Vampyre pails in comparison to the other, more famous takes on Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, the 1992 adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola most of all, but that doesn’t take away from this Nosferatu’s strengths. Oh, and the Renfield character (French actor Roland Topor as Dracula’s familiar) sucks, as he does in most every adaptation!
? Did Dracula intend to spread the plague or was that rodent infestation an unfortunate byproduct of his travel plans?
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