The earliest extant film version of Dracula, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok, ironically mirrors the Count’s own struggle to survive death. The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel was successfully sued by the copyright holders, and every copy but one of the film was destroyed. It would be nice to think stakes were driven through the cans of celluloid. Once the copyright had expired, that one copy rose from the dead, and Murnau’s Nosferatu firmly established itself as an early classic of German Expressionism, and would haunt horror cinema everywhere.
Werner Herzog’s decision to remake the film was a typically bold, even foolhardy, one, but it is also one of the best post-war retellings of the Dracula story. Eschewing the camp and cheaply Freudian reiterations, Herzog took a grimly sympathetic approach. First of all, he firmly establishes his innocents. An uncannily beautiful Isabella Adjani plays Lucy (not Mina as in the novel) and Bruno Ganz is Jonathan Harker. They live a weirdly colourless and blurry existence of mutual adoration in Wismar. Their watery love is depicted with a walk along a mud-coloured beach in a scene that anticipates the sopping romantics of Terrence Malick’s bathetic To the Wonder. Given the job of finalising a property deal, Harker journeys to the remote mountains of Transylvania. Here, using the thrusting theme from Wagner’s Rheingold (which Malick would also borrow for The New World), Harker becomes a Caspar David Friedrich romantic who – the sea-level dweller having gained some altitude – begins to pose heroic. The sublime is almost a cleansing ceremony, a man alone in the racing clouds, but it is at exactly this point that the romantic tourist meets the resident of the mountains, and discovers the true meaning of loneliness. As Goethe would have reminded Harker, unhappy people are dangerous.
In his second collaboration with Herzog, Klaus Kinski gives a compellingly haunted performance. His Dracula is a creature who is as much a victim of his own condition as anyone else: a vampyre who thinks with his fingernails, while his big frightened eyes look on helpless at the damage he is compelled to commit. His remarkable ugliness, his determinedly unsexy creepiness, and his famished need make a mockery of the teenage rip ‘em up fantasies that now parade as nightmares. Kinski’s creation invades Jonathan and Lucy’s hometown, bringing with him disease, rats and death, a Pied Piper in reverse. As with many Kinski/Herzog films, the latter half slides towards disaster with the unstoppable force of a bad dream, but, as like with other great horror films (and I’d include The Shining in this category), the film is not really frightening as such. Nothing goes bang in the night. Rather there is a continuous unsettling drone screech of everything going wrong all the way through.
Watch the original trailer: