Vampires and Sacrifice

This essay is part of the Film Experience Blog’s Vampire Blog-a-Thon.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

The biggest mistake any viewer can make in approaching Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre is expecting a typical vampire movie. If you want chills, fright, evil, suspense, surprise, or special effects, look elsewhere. Herzog uses all the trappings of the story of Count Drac-oooo-lah but doesn’t approach it as a tale of terror. Instead, he turns Bram Stoker’s basic plot (and F.W. Murnau’s silent classic) into a contemplative study of sacrifice and tragedy.

Klaus Kinski’s Count, foremost, carries himself awkwardly, utterly without charm or relish. When visited by bland real-estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), Dracula freely bares his soul, lamenting that he has lived centuries of dreary sameness. When he feeds on Harker, he does so meekly; a vampire’s got to eat, and the Count has so few visitors these days.

Dracula buys some decrepit property in Wismar — just around the corner from Harker’s house — and travels there with great expectations, as well as a nasty bunch of plague-carrying rats. The Count has seen a picture of Harker’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), and he wants her badly. He tries to win her over after apologizing for his “rude entrance” by offering her the best bargain he can summon: The very ill Jonathan will live, and Dracula will finally find love. Lucy rebuffs him. The Undead is visibly hurt.

But Lucy is torn. Her husband’s condition continues to degenerate, Wismar is ravaged by plague, and the Count has taken her friend Mina. Lucy chooses to seduce Dracula — and to destroy him.

The seduction is powerfully executed. Dracula does not violently rip at Lucy’s throat; instead, he seems to kiss it while feeding, with one hand on her breast. As dawn approaches, he pulls away, but Lucy draws him back. He cannot resist.

Herzog gives us a quiet, dark love story — essentially “Gift of the Magi” with fangs — in which sacrifices aren’t just ironically failed gestures of love but terrible mistakes with unforeseen consequences. Jonathan and Lucy each make choices of generous intent that doom them, while Dracula is guilty of nothing more than longing, a blinding desire that seems to make him oblivious to his carnage.

The production design, makeup, and photography are spectacular and show Herzog’s disciplined, thoughtful approach to the Dracula story. Here is a movie that uses limited sound and music to great effect, content in the power of the lingering imagery: a bat clawing up and battling a curtain, the scores of diseased rats, the haunting opening images of drained corpses.

The movie itself has few words, and would have been better with half as many. Some passages of music — the early guitar-based theme, a strangely optimistic section when a nearly empty ship comes ashore — also threaten the delicious atmosphere Herzog creates. And what to make of Renfield, here a demented purple-clad clod who works as comic relief but seems terribly incongruous to the rest of the work?

But these minor points don’t detract from the joy of Nosferatu. Herzog understood that true horror is based on recognizable human obsessions and flaws, and not in supernatural blood-suckers.

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