What’s wrong with most vampire movies is that they don’t realize that Dracula has a disease. Ever since the seminal Dracula from 1931, vampires on film have become more dapper and suave until it’s hard to imagine why Bella wouldn’t want to become one. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu gets this right, with Max Schreck as a pitiable wretch Count Orlock, doomed to sleep in a coffin and drink blood. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre understands this as well, giving us Klaus Kinski, a man whose intensity is on par with Schreck’s, as Dracula. The 1922 film haunts one’s memory, so much so that moments in the 1979 version recalled in me the earlier picture. It also brought to mind the Bela Lagosi in that 1931 Dracula, the most influential of all time, but the gulf between the way Legosi and Kinski deliver the line, “Children of the night, what music they make,” reveals the distance between the purpose of both films.
Like the 1922 Murnau, Herzog’s Nosferatu equates vampirism with the plague, where the 1931 Dracula and many of its descendents play up the sexual frenzy that vampirism also represents. There is some of that in the Herzog picture, as there is in the Murnau, but I kept coming back to how unenviable being a vampire would be, how awful. Kinski says it himself, “There are things worse than death,” he groans. It is a testament to the presence of Kinski that the usual eyeball magnet Bruno Ganz, as Jonathan Harker, can barely make himself known. Isabelle Adjani holds her own as Lucy, she has a pale round face, an eerie aura and a neck that begs to be bitten. The photography is masterful and no one is better at atmosphere than Herzog, the trip to the castle eclipses the 1922 film in its sense of foreboding.
In typical Herzog fashion the story that for the first hour has been moving forward at a healthy gait, begins to take a more deliberate pace and even embarks on a few side trips. It follows Adjani around the dying city that believes it’s in the grip of the plague. There is a dreamlike quality to the whole movie (is nightmarelike a word?) none more than during these scenes. This all adds up to a faithful remake that also bears all the signature marks of a Herzog film, especially in Renfield, who is a tailor-made Herzog character.