NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT/NOSFERATU: PHANTOM OF THE NIGHT.) 1979. BASED ON BRAM STOKER’S ‘DRACULA.’
DIRECTED AND CO-PRODUCED BY WERNER HERZOG. SCREENPLAY BY WERNER HERZOG.
MUSIC BY POPOL VUH. CINEMATOGRAPHY BY JŐRG SCHMIDT-REITWEIN. RATS TRAINED BY MAARTEN’T HART.
STARRING KLAUS KINSKI, ISABELLE ADJANI, ROLAND TOPOR, WALTER LADENGAST AND BRUNO GANZ.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
Dedicated to Bruno Ganz, who passed away last week.
‘The master is coming.’
‘The hold is teeming with rats.’
‘Will you come to me, and be my ally?’
‘Mother Superior, stop the black coffins…!’
‘The cause must be gone into with scientific thoroughness.’
‘We are delivering this man, who appears to belong to this house.’
‘Go now, to Riga. The army of rats and the Black Death go with you.’
‘In the evening, the mate who had the watch disappeared without trace.’
‘Though the vampire is an unnatural being, he must obey some natural laws.’
‘If a woman who is pure of heart can make the vampire forget the cry of the cock…’
‘Join us, please. We have all caught the plague, and must enjoy each day that is left.’
‘I know who you are from Jonathan’s diary. Since he has been with you, he is ruined.’
This film doesn’t have a silent psychopath in a mask stalking half-dressed women and unsuspecting men with his enormous butcher knife. It doesn’t have a Mother-fixated madman stabbing people to death in the shower while dressed in women’s clothing, and neither does it have a well-spoken maniac who likes to eat people’s internal organs with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
In this sense, maybe, it’s not what some people think of when they think of horror movies. What the film does have, however, is a lead character of such subtlety, cruelty and even human-like frailty that he surely deserves his standing as one of the creepiest and most notable horror icons of all time: Nosferatu The Vampyre.
This film is possibly my favourite horror film of all time, jostling for the coveted first place alongside Anthony Schaffer’s THE WICKER MAN (1973) and Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). These would be my Top Three Desert Island films, although there are days when I’d genuinely considering just bringing three copies of Herzog’s NOSFERATU, just to be on the safe side…!
The film was written, produced and directed by Werner Herzog, a German film-maker who made his first movie in 1961 at the age of nineteen and who now has more than sixty feature and documentary films to his name.
It is one of five movies he made with German actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he enjoyed a well-documented relationship that was both productive and wildly tempestuous, given the intensity and passionate nature of each of the protagonists.
This is Herzog’s best film, in my own personal opinion, and Klaus Kinski’s best as well. (Although I loved him also in Sergio Leone’s dusty, gritty and sweaty spaghetti Western, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE.)
Bruno Ganz, Switzerland’s most lauded actor who sadly passed away a few days ago, is superb in NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE and my personal favourite of all the screen Jonathan Harkers. This and DOWNFALL or DER UNTERGANG (2004), in which he plays a certain Adolf Hitler in his last days in the bunker, are his two best performances, again in my own humble opinion.
When people think of Nosferatu, their minds frequently conjure up an image of Max Schreck who played him so brilliantly in the silent production of nearly a century ago, and fair play to old Maxie, he did a cracking job but for me, Kinski is Nosferatu.
He is the bald-headed, sunken-eyed, strangely melancholy creature of the night who resides in his crumbling castle in the Carpathian mountains and feeds off the blood of any humans unfortunate enough to cross his path.
He is desperately lonely and would nearly welcome death at this stage, as an alternative to spending yet more centuries in terrible isolation, craving company but scaring away anyone with whom he comes in contact. You actually feel sorry for the vampire in this film because Kinski plays him so subtly nuanced and so much more of a tragic figure than previously portrayed.
It’s well-known enough at this stage that Werner Herzog, a very clever man indeed, thought that F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film NOSFERATU was the best thing to come out of Germany since Oktoberfest, lol. This was the version of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA that Herzog had in mind when he made his own film version.
It’s as magnificent a tribute as has ever been made. Though I’ve always loved the HAMMER HORROR DRACULA movies starring the iconic and handsome Christopher Lee, I don’t think that anyone but Herzog himself has made a better or more visually stunning film of Bram Stoker’s legendary vampire novel. Every shot is a work of art. Some of them are so beautiful they could even be paintings. What am I saying? They could all be paintings.
The film begins with Jonathan Harker, a clerk in a real estate company, being told by his employer, the decidedly odd and giggly Mr. Renfield, that he must cross the Carpathian mountains to bring legal papers to the rich and reclusive Count Dracula. The Count, you see, has decided to buy a house in their area, the pretty and picturesque town of Wismar in Germany.
Jonathan’s wife, Lucy, played by the stunningly beautiful Isabelle Adjani, begs him not to go as she has had premonitions of the most profound evil but Jonathan disregards her fears and sets off blithely on his journey. I love the way he more or less says to his wife:
‘I’m off now, dear, off to the land of wolves and robbers and phantoms and spirits for several weeks, possibly forever. Well, cheerio, then…!’
The thoughtless git. It certainly seems as if no man, however bang-tidy his missus is, is going to turn down the chance of a business trip that gets him out of the house for a bit. I never met a man yet who’d say no to the chance of a few weeks without the old trouble-and-strife, the wife.
Anyway, the film is worth watching solely for the shots of the glorious but lonely countryside through which he passes on his way to Count Dracula’s castle and also for the superb musical score by German electronic band Popol Vuh.
Check out the opening credits as well, by the way, in which the deliciously spooky music plays while the real mummified bodies (which will creep the living daylights out of you because they’re the real deal!) are put on display for our delectation and edification. That music is repeated throughout the film and I can assure you that it will haunt you for the rest of your days. If you have a soul at all…
As Jonathan nears the castle, he is warned by the locals to turn back and go home before he loses his life but he has come too far to turn back now. Disquieted and edgy, he continues on his way.
The fantastic music reaches a crescendo as he finally enters the courtyard of Count Dracula then fades away as the giant castle doors creak open to reveal… Nosferatu himself, standing at the top of the steps with a smile of quiet welcome on his colourless face.
For Jonathan, events take on a surreal appearance from this point onwards. Nosferatu begins to feed on his blood from the first night of his arrival. While poor Lucy frets and works herself up into a right old state about her absent spouse back in Wismar, Jonathan is trapped in Nosferatu’s castle of mould-stained, whitewashed walls and silent, dusty rooms. He is powerless to prevent the vampire from feasting on him and gradually sapping his strength and will.
There are some moments of genuine heartstopping horror in this part of the film, which incidentally is my favourite part. Check out the moment during Jonathan’s first meal at the castle when he realises that his host is a monster. Talk about awkward. What’s the etiquette for this situation, for crying out loud…?
I dare the viewer not to jump when Nosferatu appears soundlessly in Jonathan’s bedroom in the dead of night, his claws expanding as he moves in for the kill, or when Jonathan pushes back the slab of rock in the dungeon to reveal a sleeping Nosferatu, claws folded and eyes wide open, staring at nothing. Jonathan does some pretty good backing away in this situation, check it out.
The latter half of the film sees Nosferatu travelling to Wismar by sea with his black coffins and his plague of rats. The scene where the ship of death sails silently up the canals of Wismar while the unwitting inhabitants of the town slumber peacefully in their beds sends a shiver down my spine every time I see it. In no time at all the town is overrun with rats and the plague.
Check out the scene where one of the rats (I believe eleven thousand were used in all) appears to be making a grab for personal glory by standing up as tall as he can make himself and appearing to sing his heart out, X FACTOR-style. So darling, but I still wouldn’t want to have to accommodate all eleven thousand of the little beggars while they’re on location, would you? Can you imagine the breakfast orders?
Any-hoo, crazy old Mr. Renfield, who is revealed to be Count Dracula’s loyal servant, is beside himself with happiness at the arrival in the town of the ‘Master.’ These are trying times indeed for Lucy Harker, however. Jonathan has found his way home but he no longer recognises her and sits in his chair all day giggling and chattering nonsense, his mind and body destroyed by Dracula.
The love-starved and lonely Nosferatu comes to Lucy in her bedroom and begs her to be his concubine and companion down through the centuries to come, but Lucy holds fast to her love for Jonathan and sends the Count away empty-handed. It’s a good offer, given that she’s more or less down one husband now. I think she should have taken it, personally. It’s tough being a single woman in the time of the plague…!
Now we come to the climax of this gorgeously-shot film. I’d better warn you, there will be spoilers, but I’m guessing that most horror movie fans know the DRACULA story inside-out and upside-down by now anyway.
The town of Wismar has been devastated by Nosferatu and his delightful plague of rats. The scene where some of the townspeople gather for a grotesque parody of a ‘last supper’ in the town square while the rats climb all over them is a chilling one.
The music here is truly awe-inspiring. I get chills every time I listen to the hauntingly beautiful song that’s playing. It’s a traditional Georgian folk song called ‘Tsintskaro’ and it’s the most beautiful piece of music ever used in a film.
Lucy tries to tell the town physician, Dr. Van Helsing, that Nosferatu is the reason for all the death and destruction in the town of Wismar but the good doctor is a man of science and refuses to believe in the existence of such supernatural creatures as vampires. In this sense, he’s kind of the opposite of his namesake in every other DRACULA movie, in which Van Helsing is actually the vampire-hunter, not the sceptic.
When Lucy’s closest friend and neighbour, Mina, is murdered by Count Dracula, Lucy does the only thing left to her to do. She offers herself to Nosferatu, in the hope that she can keep him occupied throughout the night and make him ‘forget the cry of the cock’ in the morning, thereby causing him to be killed by the first rays of the morning sun. He was clearly listening too hard to the cry of his own cock, heh-heh-heh.
The scene where Nosferatu comes to Lucy in her bedroom and finally feeds on her delicious blood is erotic in the extreme. It always brings back my ‘horny,’ last spotted around the time of the break-up of my last relationship, legging it into a taxi-cab with an overnight bag and an airplane ticket.
Lucy is dressed all in white, her bedclothes are white and delicate flowers in shades of pastel sit on the night-stand and litter the bed. The Vampyre gently pulls back her clothing to look at her body (who says vampires only dig blood?), then he rests his claw on one full rounded breast as he lowers his head to her neck and begins to suck.
They remain locked together in a beautiful and moving sexual congress all night, and when the first rays of the sun begin to filter into Lucy’s bedroom the following morning, she pulls Nosferatu back down to her once more.
The besotted Vampyre thus ‘forgets the cry of the cock’ and dies. Awfully tough luck, old boy. Lucy listens to his death agonies with a smile on her face and then, knowing that she has saved the town of Wismar from the horror of Count Dracula, she closes her eyes and dies herself.
There’s a great little twist at the end which I won’t tell you about here. You’ll just have to go and watch the film for yourself, which I hope you will anyway. (Yeah, I know I’ve told you guys nearly everything else but we’ve gotta draw the line somewhere…!)
Personally speaking, as I may have hinted earlier, if I had to choose only one film to watch for the rest of my life, it would be this one. I want to be buried with it. In the absence of Nosferatu himself coming to me in person in my flower-strewn bedroom and bending his head to my newly-washed neck, then I want to be buried clutching my copy of the film, the coffin lid closing on the sight of my fingers laced around his deathly-white face on the front of the DVD box. And when you watch this film, I can pretty much promise you that you will too.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
You can contact Sandra at: