The following was written as a contribution to the Vampire Blog-a-Thon hosted by Nathaniel R. at Film Experience Blog. Check it out for more Halloween goodies.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht lacks many of the conventional elements of a horror movie. There are no shocks designed to make the audience jump out of their seats, no elaborate special effects, and very little blood. The film's horror is philosophical, and it springs from our most intimate fears (fear of death, fear of madness, fear of entropy). The mummified corpses that open the film stare vacantly at us, as if they were posing an unanswered question. Werner Herzog, who seems constantly driven to stare life's all-encompassing mysteries straight in the eye, is the perfect fit for a vampire film; few directors are so familiar with the uncanny.
Herzog's remake stays close the the plot of F.W. Murnau's original (although, unlike Murnau, he was allowed to use the characters' original names as the copyright on Bram Stoker's had expired). The film follows Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) as he journeys to a village in the Netherlands in search of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), the object of his desire; a plague follows Dracula, killing and consuming nearly everything in his path. Herzog's changes to the film aren't structural but tonal. In Murnau's film, the plague that threatens to destroy an entire village is presented as an occasion for suspense - can anyone stop the monster before it is too late? But Herzog tells the same story with a silent inevitability. As Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), Lucy's husband, makes the long journey through the Carpathian Mountains to his new employer, the prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold takes the place of typical horror film music on the soundtrack (the piece was also used wonderfully in Terrence Malick's The New World). Herzog subverts our expectations throughout the film; while it's bleak and arguably nihilistic, our response isn't dread, but wonder. Herzog presents fleeting images - a ghoulish cuckoo clock, a bat slowly climbing a curtain - that create a world perched between realty and dreams. Herzog is often labeled a naturalist, but he's really a romanticist - he's drawn to the beauty of decay, collapse, and the end of all things.
At the center of Herzog's vision is Kinski as the lonely Count Dracula. Max Schreck's version of the character is an iconic boogeyman - a feral predator consumed by hunger and singleminded lust. Kinski is equally fearsome, but he's also more recognizably human. Dracula's feelings for Lucy are more romantic than carnal, but he is constantly betrayed by his own nature; the vampire appears embarrassed as he enter's Harker's bedroom late at night for a snack. Kinski weighs down the Count's movements with the fatigue of a thousand years - he almost seems to welcome the respite of a death at sunrise. Kinski is primarily known for his intensity and psychotic temper, but in this and Woycezk (which started filming just days after Nosferatu was completed), he displays astonishing vulnerability. Like the monster in Fuseli's The Nightmare, he is doomed to destroy everything he touches, even that which he desires most.
The saturated reds commonly associate with vampire pictures are absent here, replaced with funereal blacks, cold blues and vacant grays. The always-overcast sky looms over shadowy mountain passes, remote villages and barren landscapes that extend to the horizon. A ghostly palor covers not only Kinski but also Ganz and especially Adjani, whose porcelain beauty has never seemed more tragic. The story progresses with inexorable silence, accompanied by the ethereal score by Popol Vuh. The entire film is driven by a sense of creeping inevitability - only Renfield (played with scenery-chewing glee by Roland Topor, author of The Tenant) possesses a vitality and a gleeful brand of gallows humor. His madness puts him in harmony with the escalating chaos surrounding him.
As the plague and madness overwhelm the village, its residents (including an unusually ineffectual Van Helsing) try in vain to rationalise and solve the problem. A scene depicting members of the upper class going through the motions of a banquet and party among the rats carries a darkly funny charge as a reflection of the ever-changing state of European culture in the 20th century. The vampire here represents not only physical death but also the death of civilization, of enlightenment - of the soul. And Herzog provides no resolution, only the suggestion that evil cannot be stopped, but only travels unnoticed from one place and time to another, carrying out its unknown purpose. Herzog not only honors the original film but surpasses it with his Nosferatu, which is a deeper and more resonant experience; it finds poetry in the horror of the unreal.