Tuesday, January 24, 2012


“Fitzcarraldo” director Werner Herzog “Nosferatu the Vampyre” (**** out of ****) pays tribute to F.W. Murnau’s classic chiller, but this 107-minute, color masterpiece departs from the original in many respects. Essentially, the narrative doesn’t deviate drastically until the second half after Count Dracula bids the ruins of his castle farewell and travels by ship to Varna. Of course, the names have been changed since Herzog didn’t have to worry about the issue of copyright infringement. Although “Nosferatu the Vampyre” ranks as a brilliant film and a reverential remake, this German production creeps along at a gradual pace but the sets are for the most part genuine. Produced for under a million dollars, this atmospheric chiller doesn’t generate the degree of horror that the Hammer “Dracula” franchise or even the Universal franchise boasted. You are not going to lose any sleep watching this painstakingly recreated film. Marginal amounts of blood appear. Unlike the traditional Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee Dracula, the eponymous villain here is a hideous Dracula. He is bald, cadaverous, with long fingernails and two fangs at the front of his mouth. Mind you, Klaus Kinski delivers a spellbinding performance, but he doesn’t eclipse the portrait of evil the Max Schreck forged for the unforgettable 1922 silent film. Nevertheless, Kinski’s Dracula differs in more respects from the Schreck incarnation. Schreck epitomized unadulterated evil, while Kinski evokes a measure of sympathy. The Kinski vampire qualifies as a post-modern vampire because he emerges as a tragic figure. At one point in the subtitles of the German language version, the Kinski Dracula confides in the heroine that “Cruel is when you can’t die even if you want to die.” Like the Murnau original, vampires are susceptible to the damning rays of sunlight. Unlike the Schreck vampire, Kinski’s vampire doesn’t dissolve when the sunlight strikes him. He goes into convulsions and wallows around on the floor until Dr. Van Helsing takes a stake to him. Reminiscent of “Dracula’s Daughter, Van Helsing is arrested at fadeout for the murder of Dracula. The irony is that the plague that has infested Wismar in the form of rats has killed off all the police as well as prison officials so Van Helsing’s arrest is purely a matter of form instead of substance.

The major departures “Nosferatu the Vampyre” makes occur after Dracula leaves his castle. The scenes aboard the ship remain intact with the crew dying, but you don’t see anybody diving off the ship. Whereas Murnau showed several rats in his film, Herzog displays no restrain. He bought eleven-thousand white rats from a laboratory and painted them gray. According to Herzog on the Anchor Bay commentary track, the production company didn’t lose a single rodent, but the sight of the rats made a customs official faint. Furthermore, Herzog took elaborate precautions on the set to ensure that none of the rodents escaped. The co-commentator observed that Herzog also neutered the rats so that they couldn’t reproduce. Not since either version of “Willard” have so many rats appeared on camera. One striking scene involving the rodents occurs toward the end of the story. A group of plague-infected friends attempt to prolong their happiness by dining on one final meal before they die. They are surrounded by literally hundreds of rats. Murnau’s film cannot compete with the vast horde of rats that Herzog used. If the sight of rats is terrifying, you might have a problem with this film.

Bruno Ganz doesn’t play Jonathan Harker with the gusto that Gustav von Wangenheim imbued Hutter in the silent epic. Harker travels to the remote mountains of Transylvania on a mission similar to Hutter’s. Indeed, Renfield (Roland Topor) dispatches him with the same promise that he might lose some blood. Harker slices his thumb up while carving bread during his dinner and Count Dracula attacks him. Far away, Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani of “The Story of Adele H”) reacts to the vampire’s attack on her husband. Later, Harker watches as Dracula loads up coffins (more than Schreck loaded) and departs from the castle by a horse-drawn wagon. Interestingly enough, Ganz’s Harker has to walk on foot from the inn, where he rode by horse, to reach the rendezvous point with Count Dracula’s carriage. More importantly, Harker is bitten by Dracula, escapes from the castle, spends time in a church hospital but returns to Wismar. Unlike Hutter, Harker is slowly turning into a vampire.

At this point, the character of Lucy assumes greater significance than her counterpart in the Murnau film. Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy is a real combatant. She has a scene in her bedroom where she confronts Dracula and spurns him. Of course, she is wearing a crucifix, but she makes it blatantly clear that she wants nothing to do with him. She claims that she is prepared to spurn the Lord, too. After Harker returns but fails to recognize her, Lucy dredges up the book of vampires from his belongings and reads about the fiends. She approaches Dr. Van Helsing, but he dismisses her warnings about the real plague in the town. When Mina (Martje Grohmann) dies, the town officials say that she died from the plague. Herzog doesn’t have a drum-beating official reading a warning to the town. Instead, he shows black-clad, top-hatted officials carrying coffins on their shoulders by the dozens. Anyway, Lucy exemplifies female empowerment. She crumbles up sacred crackers to keep her husband at bay and seduces the unwitting Dracula so that he will sup from her neck and forget the dawn that destroys him.

Herzog doesn’t rely on any special effects in his version of “Dracula.” All the effects were produced in camera. The scene when Dracula entered Lucy’s bedroom while she stared in the mirror and watched the door swing open and a shadow appear is an example. Indeed, Herzog made the most of his budget. This period piece is steeped in atmosphere. “Nosferatu the Vampyre” isn’t a scary movie. It amounts to more of a literary exercise. The environment creates a genuine sense of dread as does Herzog’s use of the original music by Popol Vuh. Herzog does some amazing things with his camera and he doesn’t rely on the usual snap editing so that “Nosferatu the Vampyre” is a film of remarkable cohesion.