Werner Herzog’s best films allow you to simultaneously see the obsessive as they truly are and as they see themselves. This flexibility of point of view is often achieved in the imagery, which is trickier and more ambitious than is often acknowledged, even by the filmmaker’s acolytes: Herzog has a gift, like fellow director and countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder did, for portraying craziness as seriocomically banal. A more conventional filmmaker might’ve rendered Aguirre, the Wrath of God, for instance, in surreal formal terms that would’ve validated the protagonist’s insanity as visionary (see Apocalypse Now). But Herzog emphasizes the vérité quotidian so pointedly that Aguirre’s quest for El Dorado comes to resemble a particularly awful family vacation. One of cinema’s great self-professed egomaniacs, Herzog is also one of cinema’s great parodists of egomania.
An occupation with egomania certainly runs through the legendary director’s awkwardly titled Nosferatu the Vampyre (more or less literally translated as “Vampire the Vampire”; a more ideal English translation would be Nosferatu Phantom of the Night), which offers a case study in how you can follow a prior film’s narrative structure while greatly altering its meaning. Freely adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu fashioned a disconcertingly textured parable of plague that explicitly reveled in the rats, dilapidation, decay, and accompanying hopelessness of an unstoppable malady. Herzog’s remake restores the comic sense of entitlement that was suggested in Stoker’s novel, turning Dracula into another of his quixotic, tragic misfits.
Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t viscerally terrifying in the tradition of the original film, but it’s tonally varied and surprising; in it, you sense a young upstart director’s pleasure in screwing around with a masterpiece. As in many of his other films, Herzog alternates moments of divine beauty with nearly comic vignettes that point toward the microcosmic absurdity of humankind, so as to facetiously emphasize the ego the latter must possess in order to believe it can master or explain the former. There’s a glorious scene set in the Carpathian Mountains as Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) hikes upward toward Count Dracula’s (Klaus Kinski) forbidden castle. Herzog allows us to enjoy the great flowing rivers of the mountains, and a portion of Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold ensures that we grasp the majesty of the setting, which clearly humbles Harker, the steadfast careerist. It’s an odd and wonderful refutation of a horror movie cliché: Herzog emphasizes transcendence at a moment when many directors would be nurturing an element of fear.
Herzog follows that reverie with Dracula’s entrance as he takes Harker into his castle and proceeds to treat his guest to a dinner that’s amusingly fraught with dangerous portent. This Dracula has the same memorable albino rat features of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok (whose differing name resulted from legal contentions from the Stoker estate), but Kinski’s more in tune with the ridiculousness of the situation; his character is so obviously a monster that he sheds a light of parody on the do-gooders who later take forever to see the menace that’s destroying their city right in front of them. Kinski’s fierce, pleading eye gestures bring Dracula this close to shtick, though he ultimately detonates the solemnity of a musty horror-movie situation while finding a new quasi-autobiographical pathos. Or, simply: Kinski’s inability to play horror tropes straight reflects Dracula’s inability to pass as human.
This friction between reverence and deconstruction informs the entire film. Incredible images—of a ravaged village at dusk that suggests Stonehenge in silhouette, of a ghostly woman standing among tombstones irrationally cramped together on a beach—connote timeless, existential inexplicability. At times, the film is bathed in gorgeous blues and greens and whites that celebrate purity and earthly pleasure, but in other, more conventionally plot-driven passages, Herzog favors the handheld documentary approach the he refined in prior films. This dialogue, between older-school expressionism and contemporary fly-on-the-wall impressionism, fosters a vague notion of instability within this production, which always appears to be on the verge of becoming a meta prank. This intentional wobbliness of tone charges the later outbreak scenes with real tension: The film’s precariousness as a convincing narrative mirrors the endangered existence of the villagers who’re caught in Dracula’s wrath of destruction. It’s that instability that turns Herzog on: He specializes in the weirdly cathartic comfort that springs from the blossoming of a worst-case scenario, which is what his obsessive heroes are often revealed to have been courting from the outset anyway.
The image is soft and grain textures vary at times. Foreground color vibrancy is strong, particularly in the case of the blacks and blues, but the backgrounds are often murkier than presumably intended. From scene to scene, this is a competent transfer, but there appears to be visual information that’s hasn’t been fully restored or emphasized. There’s a similar, though less pointed, issue with the various sound tracks, which could be sharper in terms of mixing the dialogue in contrast to the other diegetic effects. In fairness, these sound issues may partially reflect the conditions of the film’s low-budget production. Passable, but far from definitive.
Werner Herzog gives good interview, and both his German and English-language audio commentaries testify to the filmmaker’s thoughtfulness, grandiosity, and perceptive eloquence. Herzog discusses working with Klaus Kinski, occasionally differentiating between fact and carefully cultivated myth, and most interestingly offers context regarding post-WWII Germany’s collected impression of cultural rootlessness. He says he made Nosferatu the Vampyre partly as a gesture towards bridging (then) contemporary German filmmaking to the cinema of forefathers such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang—an ambition that’s palpable in the film. The package is otherwise slim, including a skippable making-of featurette as well as the obligatory trailers and photo gallery.
Werner Herzog’s idiosyncratic horror classic remains a vital conversation between two distinct generations of brilliant German filmmakers. Too bad this transfer doesn’t quite allow the film’s formal beauty to reach full bloom.