The image of Lugosi's Dracula is heavily copyrighted; Nosferatu is, by contrast, an open source vampire; you could tell that from his cameo a few years back on Sponge Bob Square Pants. The silent classic was originally a bootleg version of Bram Stoker's novel. When Werner Herzog went to work on a remake of F. W. Murnau's 1922 vampire film, he could call his creature Count Dracula, thanks to public domain laws. Herzog preserved much of the original's style out of admiration for Murnau and "the most important film ever made in Germany" (maybe so...any other suggestions?).
But Herzog's skeptical, neo-documentary approach--seen this summer in Rescue Dawn--wouldn't permit him to use Murnau's mistier plotting. He took pains to see how Nosferatu works. Why has no one burned the evil castle down in daylight? Simple: it doesn't really exist except in ruins, "except in the minds of men" who are tricked by the darkness of night. How does the vampire beat Harker home? There's a line about how the sea voyage is faster than heading back from Transylvania overland. (Unlike the book, this is set about the time Murnau set his version, 1838; there are no railroads yet in Central Europe.)
Where Murnau used stop motion to show a group of coffins stacking themselves up on the back of a horse-drawn cart, here we see Count Dracula actually hauling the coffins with their unsanctified earth in them, arranging them for transport to his new home. As they say in the south, a rabbit has to have more than one hole to duck into. And in Herzog's most original payoff, the enchanting high-medieval city of Delft in Holland falls to Nosferatu's reign of terror. It literally goes medieval, losing the gentility of the opening scenes, as the city's top-hatted upper crust wandering by the canals enjoying the summer. Now, maggot-white plague rats swarm, farm animals run loose on the town square, dropping their dung, next to looted furniture abandoned by dying thieves. Among the survivors, the ancient "dance of death" breaks out, as it did centuries before when plague struck.
The plot follows the original tale of Dracula, on the whole. A happily married clerk called Harker (the lamblike Bruno Ganz) is sent off on business, at the behest of his boss, a giggling creature called Renfield. He's arranging the sale of a property in Transylvania ("the land beyond the woods," Harker observes). He sets off on horseback, unwillingly leaving behind his pale, lovely wife Mina (Isabelle Adjani--not many horror movies had a scream queen with such large tragic eyes). In Central Europe, Harker encounters a band of gypsies--an actual, Roma speaking group Herzog found for the occasion. In very matter-of-fact conversational tones, translated for Harker, they warn him about what goes on in Transylvania at night. Harker scales the mountains along a waterfall, accompanied by Popul Vuh's soundtrack music. A chorus of synthesized alpenhorns sounds out as he eventually finds a desolate road. The daylight fades, and finally a carriage picks him up and takes him to his destination.
The tragedy of Dracula is expressed by the one and only Klaus Kinski, one of the most notorious actors who ever lived. Herzog's frequent collaborator--he stars in Herzog's Woyzeck, the last film Ian Curtis watches in the recent Control, Kinski was also the subject of Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend. Born Nikolaus Gunther Naksynski, this mercurial thespian was so infamous for his moods and blasphemies that the 2002 two DVD set of Nosferatu includes a story about him. Kinski was playing Renfield in Jess Franco's 1969 Count Dracula, and he upbraided Franco for using a boring film set, instead of a real madhouse location to give the film authenticity. Franco supposedly responded "It's because I'm afraid they wouldn't let you out."
Kinski is made up even as Max Schreck was in the first Nosferatu: bald, with white but slightly mottled make up, a dark dressing gown, sharp rodenty chisel teeth, and bat-like ears. This neo-doc Drac isn't quite supernatural at first; he's very, very strange looking but not completely inexplicable. Watching him, you think, there has to be some disease that would make you look like that; as always Herzog grounds the story in the real before heading into the mystical.
With his dry lungs sighing, and the slow liquid motions that end in absolute threat, Kinski expresses a convalescent's dignity and ancient longing. It's especially present in the scene where he gives Harker a banquet of overripe hothouse grapes, taxidermied fowl, and stale bread at his castle. (The stale is a supposition on my part, but why else does Harker cut his thumb trying to slice off a piece, thus whetting the Count's appetite?) Better than the food is the marvelous cuckoo clock that marks the time in Castle Dracula: atop it is a hinged skull that pops open to reveal a scythe-carrying figure, spiriting another hour away into eternity. (This grisly clock may just have been something Herzog found on his travels, like the dessicated corpses he uses under the titles: the famed mummies of Guanajuato.)
I'll say no more about the end-game. Mina can't convince Van Helsing--here a small, plump, bourgeois doctor, to stop shadow of the vampire spreading over the Harker's home. Ultimately, it's Mina's decision to redeem her husband from the undead. All of this is scarily effective, even with Herzog's decision (defensible on aesthetic grounds, but a disappointment to gorehounds) to have the finishing off of the vampire occur off screen.
Just as Murnau distinguished himself by taking the camera out of the studio and filming his drama in the night and fog, and the city-scapes of Bremen in Germany. Herzog sought out realistic settings; films in eastern European forests. Slovakia, close to the border with Poland, is his convincing Transylvania.
And the grand finale has the city wiped out, and Mina trying frenziedly to convince the frenzied survivors that she knows the cause of the plague. One warning, though. The English-language version has all actors wrestling with foreign tongues, though Kinski's wheezing, heavily accented English is really something to hear. The German language version with subtitles makes the actors slightly less self-conscious of what they're saying. And as Herzog proves, conviction is all important in a story of the undead.