Fango Flashback: “NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE” (1979)
Dreadful, ambitious and philosophical, Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE begins today at New York’s Film Forum (203 W. Houston Street; (212) 727-8110) for an exclusive two-week run in its alternate, unseen German-language form. Sporting a new 35-mm print of Herzog’s slow-burning and eerie reimagining of F.W. Murnau’s classic film from the Bleeding Lights Film Group, Film Forum will be running the film until Thursday, November 7th, and in fact, on Monday, November 4th, the 9:15 screening will be preceded by a special screening of Murnau’s film, accompanied by a live piano score by Steve Sterner.
Shot in two-versions simultaneously, including an English-language cut that was released in the U.S. in theaters in 1979 and subsequently on video, the subtitled, German-language version of the film has been virtually unseen by stateside audiences. Directed by the inimitable Herzog, and starring Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula, visually emulating Max Schreck’s vampire with uncanny results and offering a distant, emotional take on Dracula that had never been previously represented, NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE is a wonder of art direction and patient, methodical filmmaking. The moments of horror often come from the implication and the building of suspense, with the sweeping and naturalistic images on display only adding to the universe built by Herzog and inspired by the tales of vampirism before it.
Also starring Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani, Herzog’s take on the tale of NOSFERATU is incredibly in line with Murnau’s 1922 film, and properly requires patience and an open mind. But for those willing to devote their time and attention, NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE is worth every second, providing the audience with a cavalcade of beautiful, striking images throughout, filled with incredible, era-appropriate architecture and costumes, while also settling in an unsettling atmosphere of impending doom. Herzog twists the audience’s expectation of the Count, emphasizing vampirism as a catalyst for death itself and often times dipping into the world of the surreal when not introducing challenging and poignant philosophical notions. Even more impressive is how Herzog weaves these notions into the vampire mythos, rarely compromising the established rules of fending off the bloodlusting undead whilst subverting the expectations of a sexually attractive and powerful Dracula.
If anything, Herzog and Kinski’s take on Dracula is much more practical to the nature of the vampire: deathly pale, adapting to its food source and existentially devastated by years of loneliness and self-loathing. The presence of rats is incredibly relevant to Dracula, allegorically speaking, bringing death within their presence and often times surviving at the cost of the world around them. Furthermore, Kinski’s take on Dracula is exceptionally restrained for the notorious performer, perhaps creating one of the most definitively accurate depictions of a vampire to date and often times reveling in the castles and cobblestone of his surroundings.
This by no means takes away from the performances by the supporting cast. Isabelle Adjani portrays Lucy Harker, using her stunning beauty and theatrical training to create a melodramatic yet endearing performance, which adds to the relevance to the source material of the film. Bruno Ganz is absolutely incredible as Jonathan Harker, devoting his body and his time to a physical and complex performance of a man locked in a bout with despair and futility. And Roland Topor’s Renfield is, of course, a fascinating piece of outright bizarreness and dark humor throughout an otherwise grimly serious genre film.
NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE remains an awe-inspiring work of genre vindication, adding an art-house level of attention to detail and an unwavering dedication to visual engagement. Thanks to director Werner Herzog, DP Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein and composer Popol Vuh, this tale of Dracula is unlike any before it, or since for that matter, and even though straightforward gorehounds will be left disappointed, tried-and-true horror fans will find much to love about the film, especially in the committed and frightening performance by Kinski. For fans of Herzog, this screening is a must-see, and for horror fans unfamiliar with the work of the singular filmmaker, this would be a great place to begin.