Several great film makers and actors have had a go at the Dracula story since FW Murnau’s stunning Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens in 1924, and each extrapolates something very different, but still bewitching, from the same raw material: And so it is that Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu – the Vampyre – ostensibly a remake of Nosferatu itself – does nothing more than borrow the odd visual motif from Murnau.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is decidedly an expressionist film so, if your interest lies in the bloodlust and suspense of the Dracula story, then look elsewhere: The only flowing blood you’ll see – honestly – is when Jonathan Harker cuts his thumb. Instead, Herzog builds a haunting atmosphere through some quite startling cinematography. The credits roll over hundreds of desiccated cadavers arranged in a crypt; on his way to Castle Dracula Jonathan Harker struggles into the Carpathian Mountains against all nature can throw at him: verdant Romanian valleys give way to cathedralesque caverns, furious waterfalls, and still, through seemingly impassable mountain terrain, Harker battles on. But when we reach the castle, Kinski’s morose portrayal of the Count, drawn on a psychic level to Lucy Harker, poses questions of a curiously more unsettling variety: Who is the victim in all this, and who is the predator? The lonely, pallid count, drawn like a wasp to the honey-pot or the seemingly pure-in-heart Lucy Harker, dressed head to toe in virginal white, but with tresses of black hair befitting a black widow? If you think I’m reading too much in to this, consider Lucy’s makeup: it’s virtually identical to Dracula’s – sickly white skin and black, sunken eyes. And consider the outcome of the film (which I won’t give away here).
In its final twenty minutes Nosferatu really makes its mark, and one scene in particular gave me the willies: In Delft’s main square, the Black Plague has taken hold, and Lucy runs through stray farm animals, miscellaneous household furniture and contaminated townsfolk who are intoxicatedly celebrating their own last hurrah. What makes the scene so striking is that it is totally silent (and thus reflective of the original Nosferatu), and accompanied by an extraordinary piece of polyphonic choral music. The credits don’t mention it, and after about three days trying to track it down I’ve finally found it: it is a traditional Georgian folk song entitled Tsintsqaro (“At the Spring”) which you may track down on the internet. This confluence of music and images is perhaps one of the most haunting scenes Herzog has captured on film (which, given his gift for such scenes, is saying something).
The DVD presentation is great – I don’t think the English version of the film is significantly inferior to the German one (Adjani, who’s French, was dubbed in both languages anyway) and in a couple of places had a nicer touch – Kinski’s groan of irritation at laying eyes on a crucifix is funnier in the English version, for example. The commentary from Herzog is also well worth listening to. In other words, I watched the same film three times in five days, and I’m still singing its praises!
DVD reviewed: Anchor Bay DVD (region 2)