Werner Herzog’s 1979 film has been remastered for this Blu-ray release by the British Film Institute and while it has some similarity to FW Marnau’s 1922 silent black and white original, it remains a world apart from that and from the world we live in today. Both are dated and both have become curiosities we can look back on with some amusement and horror. As will be explained, the true horror of Nosferatu was not in the vampire but in the abysmal treatment of the animals used to make the scenes.
Herzog is a master of atmosphere. One has only got to think of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with its opening scene of conquistadors descending from the Peruvian mountains into the jungle to understand what the director was trying to convey to us, and in Nosferatu we have a similar creation where estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) makes a journey through the Carpathian Mountains to Transylvania accompanied by the music of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Sent on a mission to complete a house sale with Count Dracula, he traverses mountainous paths, waterfalls and dark woods with a sky of threatening clouds hanging above his head, warning of the dangers to come.
In a story that isn’t overcomplicated, Harker departs from his beautiful wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) to certain doom. Even the ubiquitous gypsies in the tavern who first greet him with stony silence and then with pity try to dissuade him from completing the journey, but it’s all to no avail because in the castle he meets Dracula (Klaus Kinski) with a thirst for blood. This isn’t the Christopher Lee Dracula but rather a pathetic and shriveled creature, emaciated and weary of life. His fingers move like tarantulas and his eyes stare from a pallid white face that has not seen sunlight for centuries. The most prominent part of his features are the fangs protruding in rabbit-like fashion from the upper jaw.
Completing the transaction, Harker has the impression that something is amiss, particularly his blood, and there are marks on his neck. Seeing the vampire’s lair in the crypt, and also Dracula leaving the castle with a wagon full of black coffins, his ardent wish is to get back to save Lucy. On a sailing boat, Dracula makes short work of the crew and the coffins are full of rats! When the vessel conveniently drifts into the 19th century town of Delft, nobody appears to be alive except for the multitude of rats which crawl into the city to pass on a deadly plague responsible for wiping out most of the population.
With Dracula creeping about at night intent on transporting coffins, the plague shuts down the town, and the remaining people, in a state of abandonment, set about drinking and dancing, waiting for death to ensnare them. Only Lucy knows who the real culprit is but she cannot persuade the townspeople towards her reasoning and all the time, thousands upon thousands of rats crawl everywhere. Looking at the scenes, you begin to wonder where they came from. These were the days before computer graphics and the scenes could only have been done with live rats.
It was reported that 12,000 rats were used. Imported from Hungary, the white laboratory rats had been kept in cramped conditions without food and, starving, had resorted to cannibalism. Following this, Herzog demanded that the rats be dyed, a process that, unbelievably, involved them being dipped into boiling water. The survivors were not treated very favourably and probably were exterminated after the scenes were shot because being contaminated they would have been unsuitable for laboratory experiments. Along with the other animals which were left to wander about the town, farm animals in fact, the production was a catastrophe in animal rights which represented the true horror of the movie.
Bruno Ganz, while adequate at playing Harker, wasn’t given complicated lines. He performed to much better acclaim in other movies, notably as Adolf Hitler in Downfall, likewise Isabelle Adjani, who played the part of the Queen in the 1994 production of La Reine Margot. Klaus Kinski’s Dracula was a feat of make up engineering, purportedly taking four hours to complete, and this former spaghetti western actor played his part to perfection. When the film was released in 1979 it was unfortunate that Kinski’s vampire had a distinct similarity to punk singer Gary Numan, this somewhat bursting the bubble of his credibility.
Van Helsing does make an appearance in the movie but he’s a lacklustre vampire hunter and though he gets the last roll of the dice, it’s a half-hearted and anaemic display. Overall there is tendency to descend into the absurd on several occasions, especially when mistakes are made such as the changing scenes at the castle and the errors of geographical information and there is a feeling that Herzog sacrificed many facets of the movie in order to create atmosphere. There are occasions when it becomes ludicrous, with the antics of Dracula and the madness of the estate agent for example, thus diminishing any sense of horror which was originally intended. Looking at it now, 35 years later, Nosferatu can’t really be viewed as a horror movie.
The BFI Blu-ray comes with a host of extra material which includes both German and English versions, a full-length commentary by Herzog, lots of pictures and a short documentary. There is also an interesting booklet with an essay and full facts about the movie.
The director Herzog did many things par excellence but unfortunately there were also some less laudable aspects to his work. However, he will be remembered and images from his films stick in the mind. That’s what he probably set out to achieve. This Blu-ray is not just a vampire movie, it’s a piece of cinema history and it should be viewed from this perspective. Regardless of whether or not you laugh or scream at the sight of Kinski’s Dracula, you will undoubtedly remember him!