The vampire genre is one that has proven longevity since the popularity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Since the inception of film as an artistic genre, we have seen vampires populate horror ever since the 1922 classic Nosferatu. It’s a genre that has become a parody unto itself thanks to its association with teen franchises and the common link between vampirism and sex. What makes Werner Herzog’s 1979 masterpiece so impactful is the sincerity and the minimalism with which it is executed. Herzog brings such a natural approach to the production and yet everything is so clearly calculated. Starring Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, Isabelle Adjani as his wife, Lucy and Klaus Kinski as the titular character, the film follows the story of Jonathan Harker and his encounter with the mysterious Count Dracula who lives among ruins in Transylvania. Dracula subsequently ventures into Wismar and brings along a rat infestation causing a plague in the village while feeling entranced by Lucy. The film is a haunting adaptation of the classic tale and with minimal violence, effectively mounts up fear thanks to the emotionally charged script and the isolating direction.
First thing to talk about is Herzog’s direction and screenplay which I have touched on a bit. What’s genius about Nosferatu the Vampyre is its timelessness. It’s a film that could have been made today and still received in the same way. I think that is a credit to Herzog’s talent as a writer and filmmaker that he is able to create a film that is so unique and provided an impact to the horror genre. The first act of the film follow Jonathan’s journey to Transylvania and is fairly slow burning with the middle portion showing Jonathan’s encounter with Nosferatu and his downfall and the final act sees the plague takeover and final showdown. Herzog successfully creates rounded characters in its main three protagonists: Jonathan, Lucy and Dracula and easily follows their isolated storylines before merging together in Wismar. The film becomes an intricate puzzle and Herzog cleverly manages to slot the pieces in the right place by making it more than a simple linear structure.
Due to the lack of blood and violence, it’s up to the actors to evoke the fear in the film and the cast does so perfectly. Headed by Ganz and Adjani as the Harkers, we are immediately immersed in their world from the opening shot of Lucy screaming herself awake from a nightmare. Kinski isn’t physically in the film that long and first appears halfway through but his presence can be felt even when he is not onscreen. As we see Jonathan succumb to vampirism, we see his attitude shift from loving husband to isolated madman in a performance that is portrayed brilliantly by Ganz. The highlight for me comes from Adjani for her stellar performance as Lucy. Considering the film was made in 1979, Lucy is such a complex character. Herzog makes the audience believe that she is weak and feeble as she struggles to cope when Jonathan sets off on his journey but her strength shines through in the aftermath of the plague that sets upon Wismar. As we see a society led by men crumble, Lucy can be seen actively trying to solve the problem against the advice of the supposedly wise Dr Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast). The nightmares and instincts that Lucy create a sense of otherworldliness to her as she is viewed as a force for Good against the Evil of Nosferatu.
I don’t think I would be doing the film justice if I were not to discuss the iconic soundtrack provided by Popol Vol and featuring the Vocal Ensemble Gordela. The score brings in new sounds and unexpected notes which exemplify the films various twists and turns. It’s hauntingly beautiful and grabs your attention instantly. The score helps the film’s impact on the viewer and really elevates the experience and horror of the subject matter. The track “Tsintskaro” performed by the Vocal Ensemble Gordela is among the many musical highlights in this film as we see Lucy as she ventures through the town square among the madness of the fellow villagers. The incorporation of this traditional folksong brings forth the culture into the film and it clearly made an impact as it also provided inspiration for Kate Bush who sampled this song in “Hello Earth”.
It goes without saying that Nosferatu the Vampyre is my favourite vampire film and among my top horrors of all time. I think that there is a strong argument to say it is the best vampire film of all time and struggle to think of a horror film that has impacted me more. It’s brilliance comes in its simplicity and its fear comes from the performances which shows what a fantastic cast and crew this film had. All the components mesh together beautifully to create a film that is still haunting and impactful 40 years on.
What do you think of Nosferatu the Vampyre? Let me know in the comments below!