NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE. 1979. DIRECTED BY WERNER HERZOG AND STARRING KLAUS KINSKI, ISABELLE ADJANI AND BRUNO GANZ.
by Sandra Harris
This film doesn’t have a silent psychopath in a mask stalking half-dressed women and unsuspecting men with his butcher knife. It doesn’t have a Mother-fixated madman stabbing people to death in the shower, and neither does it have a well-spoken maniac who likes to eat people’s internal organs with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. In this sense, maybe, it’s not what some people automatically think of when they think of horror movies. What the film does have, however, is a lead character of such subtlety, cruelty and even human-like frailty that he surely deserves his standing as one of the creepiest and most notable horror icons of all time: Nosferatu The Vampyre.
The film was written, produced and directed by Werner Herzog, a German film-maker who made his first movie in 1961 at the age of nineteen and who now has more than sixty feature and documentary films to his name. It is one of five he made with German actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he enjoyed a well-documented relationship that was both productive and wildly tempestuous, given the intensely passionate nature of each of the protagonists. When people think of Nosferatu, their minds frequently conjure up an image of Max Shreck who played him so brilliantly in the silent production of nearly a century ago, and fair play to old Maxie, he did a cracking job but for me, Kinski is Nosferatu. He is the bald-headed, sunken-eyed, strangely melancholy creature of the night who resides in his crumbling castle in the Carpathian mountains and feeds off the blood of any humans unfortunate enough to cross his path.
The film begins with Jonathan Harker being told by his employer, the decidedly odd Mr. Renfield, that he must cross the Carpathian mountains to bring legal papers to the rich and reclusive Count Dracula who has decided to buy a house in their area, the pretty and picturesque town of Wismar. Jonathan’s wife, Lucy, played by the beautiful Isabelle Adjani, begs him not to go as she has had premonitions of the most profound evil but Jonathan disregards her fears and sets off blithely on his journey. The film is worth watching solely for the shots of the countryside through which he passes on his way to Count Dracula’s castle and also for the superb musical score by German electronic band Popol Vuh. As Jonathan nears the castle, he is warned by the locals to turn back and go home before he loses his soul but he has come too far to turn back now. Disquieted and edgy, he continues on his way. The music reaches a crescendo as he finally enters the courtyard of Count Dracula, then it fades away as the giant castle doors creak open to reveal… Nosferatu himself, standing at the top of the steps with a smile of quiet welcome on his colourless face.
For Jonathan, events take on a surreal appearance from this point onwards. Nosferatu begins to feed on his blood from the first night of his arrival. While poor Lucy frets and works herself up into a right old state about her absent spouse back in Wismar, Jonathan is trapped in Nosferatu’s castle of mould-stained, whitewashed walls and silent, dusty rooms, powerless to prevent the vampire from feasting on him nightly and gradually sapping his strength and will. There are some moments of genuine heartstopping horror in this part of the film, which incidentally is my favourite part. I dare the viewer not to jump when Nosferatu appears soundlessly in Jonathan’s bedroom in the dead of night, his claws expanding as he moves in for the kill, or when Jonathan pushes back the slab of rock in the dungeon to reveal a sleeping Nosferatu, claws folded and sightless eyes wide open, staring at nothing.
The latter half of the film sees Nosferatu travelling to Wismar by sea with his black coffins and the plague of rats. The scene where the ship of death sails silently up the canals of Wismar while the unwitting inhabitants of the town slumber peacefully in their beds sends a shiver down my spine every time I see it. In no time at all the town is overrun with rats and the plague. Mr. Renfield, who is revealed to be Count Dracula’s loyal servant, is beside himself with happiness at the arrival in the town of the ‘Master.’ These are trying times indeed for Lucy Harker, however. Jonathan has found his way home but he no longer recognises her and sits in his chair all day giggling and chattering nonsense, his mind and body destroyed by Dracula. The love-starved and lonely Nosferatu comes to Lucy in her bedroom and begs her to be his concubine and companion down through the centuries to come, but Lucy holds fast to her love for Jonathan and sends the Count away empty-handed.
Now we come to the climax of this gorgeously-shot film. The town of Wismar has been devastated by Nosferatu and his plague of rats. The scene where some of the townspeople gather for a grotesque parody of a ‘last supper’ in the town square while the rats climb all over them is a chilling one indeed. Lucy tries to tell the town physician, Dr. Van Helsing, that Nosferatu is the reason for all the death and destruction but the good doctor is a man of science and refuses to believe in the existence of such supernatural creatures as vampires. (Unlike in most other versions of the film!) When Lucy’s closest friend, Mina, is murdered by the Count, Lucy does the only thing left to her to do. She offers herself to Nosferatu, in the hope that she can keep him occupied throughout the night and make him ‘forget the cry of the cock’ in the morning, thereby causing him to be killed by the first rays of the morning sun.
The scene where Nosferatu comes to Lucy in her bedroom and finally feeds on her is erotic in the extreme. Lucy is dressed all in white, her bedclothes are white and flowers in shades of pastel sit on the night-stand. The Vampyre gently pulls back her clothing to look at her body, then rests his claw on one full rounded breast as he lowers his head to her neck and begins to softly suck. They remain locked together in a beautiful and moving sexual congress all night, and when the first rays of the sun begin to filter into Lucy’s bedroom the following morning, she pulls Nosferatu back down to her once more. The besotted Vampyre thus ‘forgets the cry of the cock’ and dies. Lucy listens to his death agonies with a smile on her face and then, knowing that she has saved the town of Wismar from the horror of Count Dracula, she closes her eyes and dies.
There’s a great little twist at the end which I won’t tell you about here. You’ll just have to go and watch the film for yourself, which I hope you will anyway. Personally speaking, if I had to choose only one film to watch for the rest of my life, it would be this one. I want to be buried with it. In the absence of Nosferatu coming to me in person in my flower-strewn bedroom and bending his head to my newly-washed neck, then I want to be buried clutching my copy of the film, the coffin lid closing for all eternity on the sight of my fingers laced around his deathly-white face on the front of the DVD box. And when you watch this film, I promise you that you will too.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based performance poet, novelist, film blogger and short story writer. She has given more than 200 performances of her comedy sex-and-relationship poems in different venues around Dublin, including The Irish Writers’ Centre, The International Bar, Toners’ Pub (Ireland’s Most Literary Pub), the Ha’penny Inn and The Strokestown Poetry Festival. Her articles, short stories and poems have appeared in The Metro-Herald newspaper, Ireland’s Big Issue magazine, The Irish Daily Star, The Irish Daily Sun and The Boyne Berries literary journal. She is addicted to buying books and will swap you anything you like for Hammer Horror or JAWS memorabilia, and would be a great person to chat to about the differences between the Director’s Cut and the Theatrical Cut of The Wicker Man.