Gothic horror: that peculiar brand of horror characterized by great crumbling castles, mythic monsters, and mad doctors, had ruled over Hollywood and European horror films since the beginning of cinema. Films like Nosferatu (1922) and the output from studios like Universal (with their classic monster cycles of the 30s and 40s), Britain’s Hammer Studios, and American International Pictures under the watch of Roger Corman in the 50s and 60s, established and continued the tropes created in literature a century before by names like Shelly, Stoker, Poe and later, in his own unique way, Lovecraft.
However, in 1960, a great blow — or perhaps a knife slash — was struck against this type of horror when one of cinema’s great masters unleashed something wholly new upon the genre. Eight years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the horrors of the real world had overtaken what was seen on screen, and films like Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and perhaps most directly, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (all 1968) openly rejected this old style of horror. By 1976, the Universal cycle had been long over, Corman had moved on to more realistic horror, and Hammer was limping toward its demise. However, gothic horror had one last great gasp in 1979 with three iconic vampire films very much rooted in the classic gothic style: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, John Badham’s Dracula, and Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (also released in an English language version as Nosferatu: The Vampyre) purposely adheres to the long-established tropes and rules of the Gothic vampire film. “I think doing a genre film has to respect certain rules and certain…magic that can be in the genre…Once you do something like this you have to root yourself in some of the basic rules and that’s a very interesting and fine type of work which I’ve never done before or after,” Herzog has said. The reason why he wanted to make the film in the first place was to connect with what he calls “legitimate German culture.”
Well, for me, as a German filmmaker we had no real fathers to learn from and no points of reference. The father generation sided with the Nazis or was forced into emigration, so we were a generation of orphans. And you can’t work without having some sort of reference as to your own culture and the connection and continuity and so it was our grandfathers: Murnau, Fritz Lang, Pabst and others who were our teachers, our guidance. And for me Murnau’s film Nosferatu is the very best German film ever. And I somehow needed to connect to him, had the feeling I had to go back to my own roots as a filmmaker. As an homage to him, I choose to make this film… — Werner Herzog
Critics of the film often cite that Herzog adheres himself too closely to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece. Herzog feels that his film is not a remake at all, but a “free version” of the earlier film. The truth, in my opinion, is somewhere in between. The main story beats are the same as both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Murnau’s Nosferatu until the ending that departs quite a bit from either version. What is unique to this film are Herzog’s inimitable sensibilities as a filmmaker, Klaus Kinski’s central performance as the vampire, and the remarkable performance of the luminous Isabelle Adjani as the innocent who faces evil head-on.
Werner Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian village that had no trappings of modernity whatsoever. He saw his first film at eleven, made his first phone call at seventeen and made his first short film at age nineteen. His work before Nosferatu very much informs the look and feel of this film. Anyone familiar with Herzog’s work will immediately draw parallels between the breathtaking opening shots of Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Jonathan Harker’s travels to Count Dracula’s home in Transylvania. The way Herzog shoots and lingers upon the natural world — mists in the trees, mountains, clouds, rapids in the rivers — is one of his hallmarks and clearly where his greatest interests lie. “I know I’ve seen things that people have never seen and it’s these things that I wish to make visible,” Herzog has said. Often, the story is secondary to the atmosphere he wishes to create in his films. In contrast to the other films I will discuss in this series, Nosferatu has no special effects, is sparse in dialogue, and contains very little blood. In fact, practically the only blood we see in the film is one single solitary drop from Jonathan Harker’s nicked thumb.
Herzog also chooses to allow the audience to fill in the emotional moments of the story. When there are intimate interactions between Jonathan Harker (played by legendary German actor Bruno Ganz) and his wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), they are shot from behind and from some distance. “I don’t want to see an actor cry, I want to see an audience cry,” is Herzog’s feeling on the matter. This kind of emotional detachment was not completely unheard of in Hollywood films, especially during this time when the studios were giving a great deal of freedom to young filmmakers who were so inspired by their European counterparts, but it was, and still is unusual.
The second major difference from Murnau’s film is Klaus Kinski’s unique performance as the vampire. “…in Murnau’s film, the vampire is soul-less,” says Herzog, “like an insect. And Kinski as the vampire is very human…someone who wants to participate in human love in human emotion, even in the most simple thing like dying, and he cannot even die. And his profound sadness that he feels because he cannot participate is much more the centerpiece of my film.”
Herzog had worked with Kinski once before on Aguirre: The Wrath of God and was well aware of his legendary volatility. According to the documentary My Best Fiend (1999), which Herzog made after the actor’s death, the making of Aguirre was a miserable experience for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because of the bizarre behavior of its star. Kinski’s moods would turn wildly on a dime, but what he was able to achieve in performance on film is completely electric. Years later, when writing Nosferatu, Herzog knew that he would have to work with Kinski again, that no one else could play Dracula in his film. Fortunately, this was the most pleasant experience the director had with his actor in the five films they made together. Herzog had also apparently learned from his experiences with him on Aguirre like how to get Kinski into the proper frame of mind to deliver the kind of performance he wished to see for the vampire. “I had…monstrous, big, big fights with Kinski and he wanted to be much more energetic and louder and I provoked him that day into…a real tantrum and then after one and a half hours of screaming at me and yelling at me and abusing me he was kind of mellow and quiet and reduced and dangerous. So, there was always a certain technic and technique to working with him.”
Kinski himself also felt a certain affinity to the vampire. He had never considered and apparently had no desire in playing such a character before. “But from the minute he [Herzog] talked to me about it,” said Kinski, “I felt the vampire growing inside me.” And Herzog has nothing but praise for Kinski’s performance in this film, and for good reason. The portrayal is unusual for a vampire film. It is very emotive, but also calm, measured, and menacing. As in the original, he looks very much like a rodent or a snake with his close-set pointed teeth at the front rather than sides of his mouth, his bald head, and pointed ears. He is a rat, a bringer of plague, but also plagued by his own disease. It is unlike any other vampire performance in cinema and is a known influence for at least one other iconic horror performance: Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger.
The third element that sets Herzog’s Nosferatu apart is Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker, who gives a performance of remarkable delicacy and heart. Herzog accentuated Adjani’s natural fragility, making her look something like a porcelain doll. Her slight frame, fair skin, and dark lined eyes all combine to make her look as though she may break at any moment. But this is all a ruse. This seemingly breakable vessel houses the heart of a lion, fiercely giving all she has to protect her world from the darkness invading it. Adjani is ‘virginal’ in the film, not so much in a sexual way (she is married after all), but in a sense of purity of soul. She is the woman pure of heart that can make the vampire forget the sunrise. Her sacrifice is acceptable because of this purity; she must be undefiled to take on the darkness, making her very much a Christ-like figure in the film. She is willing to give everything in order to save those she loves, and even the strangers of the town, from the plague that faces them because of Count Dracula. However, her sacrifice is ultimately a hollow victory. Though she destroys Dracula, she dies in the process. Van Helsing is arrested for murdering Dracula (the only other instance of blood in the film is the bloody stake used as evidence against him), and Lucy’s husband Jonathan becomes a vampire. In an unforgettable closing shot, he is seen fleeing across the sands presumably to carry the plague to another unfortunate place.
Since making Nosferatu, Herzog seems to have no interest in making another film in the genre or in the tradition of his German filmmaking “grandfathers.” “Since I have done this film I’ve always felt now ‘yes, I am connected.’ Now I belong to a certain flow of culture.” And I am certainly grateful that he felt the need to connect to those roots. Herzog continues to make films that are completely unique both as a documentarian and as a narrative filmmaker, but Nosferatu is a vampire film like no other, and though it firmly follows conventions of Gothic horror, it transcends them in ways few films like it ever have.
Haining, Peter. The Dracula Scrapbook. Longmeadow Press. Stamford, CT. 1987, 1992
Herzog, Werner. Norman Hill. Audio Commentary, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht. Anchor Bay Entertainment. 1999
Making of Nosferatu The Vampyre, The. Dir. Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. 1979
My Best Fiend. Dir. Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Munich; Café Productions, London; and Zaephir Film, Dusseldorf. 1999
Silver, Alain and James Ursini. The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Revised and Updated. Limelight Editions. New York, NY. 1993
Wright, Bruce Lanier. Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies — The Modern Era. Taylor Publishing Company. Dallas Texas. 1995
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