Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) – The Unwanted Guest
There is no greater testament to the evolving nature of genre than the Vampire. Once upon a time, the vampire was the poster boy of the gothic romance. He stood for the dark side of the Victorian heart; The swarthy foreigner whose powers of evil and sensuality lured upstanding Victorian women to their fall not through force but through mesmerising gazes and hushed words. The horrifying nature of the Vampire lay in his mastery over the very elements of human nature that Victorian society sought to deny. His was the worst kind of evil. The evil that one wanted to give in to. As society changed and cultural attitudes shifted, the Vampire’s evil seemed to dim. As Horror peeled away from the gothic and what remained sank back down into Romance, the Vampire changed from a dangerous sensual evil into the kind of sensual creature that you would love to date, even if your parents wouldn’t approve : Male Vampires became leather-trouser clad pretty boys with fashionable hair styles and either a fondness for violence or a deep and brooding sense of artistic self-loathing. Female Vampires became invariably bisexual and more or less freaky. The kind of freaky that would scare you but which would also allow you to indulge all of the stuff you see in porn films but would never dare to ask of a real sexual partner. In other words, good freaky.
In the space of a hundred years Vampires have moved from creatures of pure evil to pathetic sexual Mary Sues for frustrated and repressed Westerners. The Vampires themselves haven’t changed. What has changed is our attitude to what the Vampire represents. That which the Victorians feared and denied in themselves, the people of the 21st Century indulge to the point of solipsism.
However, some attempts have been made to keep Vampires true to their role as creatures of Horror. Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) saw in Vampires creatures more in tune with the violent and self-destructive urges that animate humanity as a whole. Creatures for whom the rational mind serves as an organ or self-justification rather than control or repression. Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) presented Vampires as users, creatures who adapt themselves to the demands of the marginalised in order to slowly suck the life out of them. This essay is about a film that returned to one of the first non-romantic presentations of Vampirism.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) is a remake of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu : A Symphony of Terror (1922). But while the remake is, at times, almost shot-for-shot, Herzog’s version presents Vampires as creatures that are not only deeply lonely but whose power is entirely dependent upon the Humans whose blood it drinks.
The most startling difference between Herzog’s version and that of Murnau lies in the film’s opening section. Gustav von Wangenheim’s Thomas Hutter (Stoker’s Dracula was still in copyright when the film was made, prompting him to change the character names) is very much what you would expect from a silent movie leading man. He is not only happy, but almost maniacally so. His love for Greta Schröder’s Ellen Hutter is expressed through his every smile and gesture. The couple not only come across as a loving couple, they also come across as profoundly contented.
Herzog’s Harkers (the copyright on Dracula having lapsed, Herzog restored the characters their original names except for the puzzling decision to swap Mina and Lucy around) are an altogether different affair. Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Harker is a more withdrawn and taciturn man while Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy Harker is a much more ethereal and mystical character. Perhaps better explaining the psychic link with her husband. When the couple spend time together they do not laugh or even smile, instead they go for long walks along bleakly deserted beaches.
From Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) to Fitzcarraldo (1982), Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Herzog has built a career exploring the lives of men who feel compelled to step beyond the boundaries of our world. Men who, in Nietzschean terms, stare into the void and have the void stare back into them and change them. As a result of Herzog’s thematic preferences, it is easy to see in Harker not an ambitious family man lured away to the Carpathians, but a man who wants to step beyond the boundaries of the map. A man who, in some ways, is destined to have his encounter with Dracula. Harker’s arrival in Transylvania is met with the necessary warnings from the local peasantry. But rather than merely stating that a werewolf is out and about (as in the Murnau version), Herzog’s gypsies utter warnings that grow more abstract and bizarre as they go along :
He says that there is a great chasm on the way that swallows the unwary. If those won’t get you, he says the huge cracks will. And in the Borgo pass… the light suddenly divides and… and then it drops. No one has ever returned from that place. The gypsies say that no such castle exists there… except maybe in the imagination of man. There used to be a castle there. But now it is a ghost castle. It’s only a ruin. And whoever enters that land of phantoms is lost… and never returns.
Harker’s face throughout this is impassive. Bored even. On one level, he is a middle-class man of the 19th Century with scorn for peasant superstition but on another level, he knows exactly where he is headed.
Herzog’s depiction of the journey to castle Dracula is rightly famous both for its stunning visuals and for its use of Wagner’s Rheingold prelude. The introduction to the first of the ring cycles, the prelude welcomes us into a fantastical realm. A world full of gods, great heroes and ring-forging dwarves. The warning combined with Harker’s journey and the music suggest that Harker is not simply travelling to a castle, he is leaving the world of moral men behind and stepping into a place filled with and defined by death.
Kinski’s Dracula builds upon the Kabuki gestures and rodent-like appearance of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok. He fills the role not only with an unearthly presence but also a deep sense of loneliness and sadness. Dracula claims that the servants “are not at our disposal” but the state of the castle grant this phrase an eerie sense of finality. Dracula is a creature whose loneliness is not only apparent in his facial gestures but also in his social awkwardness. When Harker enters the dining area, Dracula stands in a corner and then stares him in the eye with a degree of quite impolite fascination, curiosity and yearning.
Having been fed upon, Harker spends the daylight hours exploring the castle, finding it to be a complete ruin. The only person present seems to be a young gypsy boy who plays the violin incredibly badly, granting the already sinister and mournful castle a bleak and surreal edge.
Given Dracula’s loneliness, it is perhaps unsurprising that he should decide to travel to Harker’s home town. As in the Murnau version, Herzog has him travel down stream in a series of black coffins. When the coffins are checked by customs officials, they find only rats. Whereas in Murnau and Stoker’s stories, the coffins serve to carry Transylvanian earth as well as the count, Herzog’s version suggests that the earth and the rats are Dracula. As a rat he is the bringer of plague and death, as the earth he is what all humanity must ultimately become. Like the spectre of death, he is both the cause of death and the embodiment of what it is to be death. An event and a state. Dracula’s loneliness is akin to that of death. Death cannot exist on its own, it has to be the death of something or someone. It craves the company of humans.
Indeed, we can see in Harker the hallmarks of the depressive. He is a man alienated from his loved ones, incapable of experiencing joy, filled with maudlin thoughts and a desire to escape. In a sense his journey to Transylvania is an act of suicide. However, having committed himself to the grim and ruinous castle on the hill, he is suddenly animated by fear and love for the woman he left behind. He realises that his own death will also touch her and he returns home in the hope of saving her.
Dracula’s arrival in the town has an almost instant effect. As in Murnau’s film, his arrival is associated with the coming of a plague and the huge casualties that go with such a plague. He fills the streets with coffins. However, Herzog adds to this. What Harker has unleashed on his home town is not simply death and plague but also madness. Harker intentionally sought out the void. He travelled across Europe and was completely unsurprised when he found it in Transylvania. By contrast, the inhabitants of his home town are forced to look into the void by circumstances beyond their control. Unprepared and unwilling to see what lies beyond they descend rapidly into madness; Dancing and dining amidst the bodies and the rats as their entire world comes apart at the seams. These are people in the same mental state as Kurtz at the end of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. They dance and eat though they could just as easily be putting heads on spikes or fucking each other in the streets. This eruption of madness is neatly symbolised by the lunatic Renfield escaping from the asylum. Begging Nosferatu for instructions, Renfield is told to follow the rats to another city. The rats bring plague, Renfield heralds the arrival of the madness that inevitably follows that much suffering and destruction.
The intensely lonely Dracula stalks Lucy Harker but is rebuffed. Lucy does not feel the call of the infinite in the way her husband once did. Indeed, it is only when she realises that by sacrificing herself she could kill the beast that she allows Dracula to feed upon her. She kills Dracula sure enough but soon after her husband reveals that he has been turned into a vampire. Death can be defeated and outwitted but only particular deaths. There will always be others striking in other ways and in different places.
Unlike the Vampires of the Gothic romances, Herzog’s Vampire is not a dandy. He is not seductive or glamourous or sexy. He is the unwanted visitor. The guest who refuses to leave. the ugly, stinking, poorly socialised outcast who is only ever actively sought out by the marginalised and the unhinged but who we will all invariably wind up inviting to dinner sooner or later.