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‘Nosferatu’ Remake: Remembering Director Werner Herzog’s 1979 Film

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'Nosferatu' Remake: Remembering Director Werner Herzog's 1979 Film

A great deal of attention is being paid this year to the 1922 silent film, Nosferatu, and that’s understandable, given that 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the film’s German premiere. It’s a significant film for several reasons, most prominently for being the first movie to take Bram Stoker’s story and put it to the screen—albeit in a shady, unethical way that irked Stoker’s widow. It’s also regarded by some as the greatest horror film of the Silent Era, though proponents of Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame might make a counter argument.

Directed by FW Murnau, Nosferatu is certainly a powerful film, particularly in the way that it portrays a Dracula-like vampire in such a beastly, grotesque, and unromantic way. One can only imagine how German audiences of 1922 reacted to the site of Count Orlok, with his pointed ears, enlarged nose, and repulsive facial features. Orlok is still a frightening sight for viewers of today; it must have been particularly jarring for filmgoers in the early days of the moviemaking industry.

As important a film as Nosferatu remains, let’s not forget about the remake that came many years later, 57 to be exact. In 1979, acclaimed German director Werner Herzog gave us his interpretation, with its slightly different title, Nosferatu the Vampyre. He created both a German language and an English language version, in order to appeal to a broader audience. It may strike some fans of the original Nosferatu as heresy, but Herzog’s adaptation might be even better than its counterpart. Given the improved filmmaking techniques, the use of full color, and more advanced special effects, Nosferatu the Vampyre succeeds as one of the most effective vampire-themed films ever made. At the very least, it deserves to be discussed as one of the best remakes of the horror genre.

Nosferatu Remake 1979 Film

With copyright concerns no longer an issue by the late 1970s, Herzog felt safe in dispatching with the alternate name of Count Orlok, instead referring to his vampire as Count Dracula, the way that Stoker first did in 1897. Dracula, living in Transylvania, is visited by Jonathan Harker, a German real estate agent who is attempting to convince the Count to buy property in the East German city of Wismar. When Dracula sees a photograph of Harker’s beautiful wife, Lucy, he becomes so smitten that he decides to make the purchase and relocate to Wismar. Shortly after Dracula’s arrival, the city is invaded by a plague of rats, which spread a lethal contagion that soon renders Wismar into a ghost town.

To play the part of Count Dracula, Herzog selected the talented but temperamental Klaus Kinski. Herzog would become very familiar with Kinski, working with him on several films in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In much the same way that Max Schreck portrayed Orlok in 1922, Kinski’s Dracula is a completely hideous creature, one who lacks any of the attractive qualities or physical charms of the Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee depictions.

In order to achieve the look that was so reminiscent of the Schreck portrayal, Kinski spent approximately four hours a day in the makeup chair. A new pair of fresh latex ear pieces had to be poured and molded each day, before being thrown out at the end of the day’s filming. Remarkably, the usually volatile Kinski remained patient with the lengthy and monotonous applications and forged a good relationship with makeup man Reiko Kruk.

Nosferatu Klaus Kinski and Roland Topor

Yet, Kinski was no saint while on the set of Nosferatu the Vampyre. He battled repeatedly with Herzog, cementing his reputation as a director’s nightmare. As Herzog himself once said, the many rats used in the production behaved more obediently than Kinski! Knowing full well about Kinski’s temper, Herzog purposefully exacerbated the situation. The director intentionally provoked Kinski into tantrums, in an effort to wear down and bring fatigue to the veteran actor. Herzog wanted to lessen Kinski’s energy on screen, in order to make Orlok less frenetic (the way that Kinski wanted) and instead render him a more somber and depressing character.

There’s little doubt that Kinski was horrific on a personal level; some have contended that he was actually a psychopath. In a later film, a 1986 venture called Crawlspace, Kinski turned the set into a living hell. According to just about everyone who worked on Crawlspace, Kinski stirred up a constant state of misery for his fellow crew members and director David Schmoeller. During the first three days of filming on Crawlspace, Kinski allegedly started six different fistfights with cast and crew members. He refused to take even basic direction from Schmoeller, who would yell “Action!” only to have Kinski stand still and refuse to move or speak. At one point, one of the producers of Crawlspace became so angry with Kinski that he actually plotted to kill him. The producer never followed through, but that he even considered such extreme measures speaks to the difficulty of working with the monstrous Kinski.

In spite of his antisocial behavior, Kinski could turn in exceptional performances. He was an enormously talented actor with tremendous range and depth. His portrayal of Dracula is another piece of evidence indicative of his talent. In Nosferatu the Vampyre, he plays Dracula as a downtrodden, disease-infested, evil creature, in much the same way that Schreck played Orlok in the original Nosferatu. Under Herzog’s direction, Kinski fulfills the role to nearly ghoulish perfection. Thanks to Kinski and Herzog, the tenor and tone to the film become even more powerful, ridden with a pervading gloominess, as the Count essentially lays waste to his new city by spreading his deadly vampiric virus.

Nosferatu Klaus Kinski

The supporting cast behind Kinski also delivered the goods. Stunning French actress Isabelle Adjani plays Lucy Harker to near perfection, as she becomes Dracula’s love interest, only to meet with tragedy. The accomplished Swiss actor, Bruno Ganz, is very good as Jonathan Harker. And then there is the relatively little known French actor, Roland Topor, who is quite memorable as the hysterical, cackling Renfield, the deranged assistant to Dracula.

Herzog adds to the film’s effectiveness through his use of stark imagery. In one scene, Kinski’s Dracula descends upon a German city accompanied by hundreds (if not thousands) of rats. Those were live rats, but they were actually white in color, and each one had to be painted gray in order to be used in the film. Imported from a nearby research facility, those rats, along with Kinski’s grotesque portrayal of a sickly vampire, make the film a true experience in ghastly horror.

Beyond the rats, Herzog presents a film full of many prime examples of Gothic imagery, including a wonderfully shot scene at an oceanside cemetery, a close-up of a bat in mid-flight, and an overpowering scene in which numerous men are seen carrying newly made coffins in the midst of the decrepit, dying city. It is a film that is very faithful to the original Silent Era version, but also succeeds in advancing Murnau’s work through the use of Herzog’s more sophisticated filmmaking methods.

For fans of vintage horror, and particularly for fans of the Nosferatu and Dracula franchises, Nosferatu the Vampyre is a film that remains a must-see.

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