Initially, I accidentally started watching the German language version of this film (Herzog made two versions, one in German and one in English rather than use dubbing) but it took me a while to realise it such is the visual power of the movie. I’m pretty sure I could have continued to watch the film in German and still have followed the story. Herzog’s masterful restaging of the celebrated silent classic gives us a truly different interpretation of the story, blending Murnau and Stoker to create something uniquely disturbing and horrifyingly beautiful.
When Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sent by his employer to the home of Transylvanian Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), it marks the beginning of a nightmarish sequence of events which sees the Count, enchanted by Harker’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), travel to the Harker’s hometown of Wismar, bringing death and disease in his wake.
With the thorny question of copyright which blighted Murnau’s original “Nosferatu” settled by Stoker’s novel entering the public domain, Herzog is free to ornament his handsome homage to the 1922 movie – one he considers to be the best German film ever made – with the authentic character names and places from Stoker’s novel. Despite these cosmetic embellishments, he remains truer to Murnau’s version of the story, expanding the narrative thanks to the advances in filmmaking technique and technology without losing the dark soul of the classic.
The film honours its predecessor without ever feeling derivative and Kinski’s version of Dracula/ Orlok here is a much more complex and nuanced figure than Max Schreck. There’s a tragic loneliness to the Count which sits uneasily alongside the constant atmosphere of horror, death and pestilence. There’s an acknowledgement of the doomed nature of the Count and his curse of immortality isn’t romanticised away as something ethereal but rather a sombre, Sisyphean affliction, a constant corrupting torture to be endured rather than coveted.
Herzog captures everything with a strikingly beautiful lens. There’s a sensational use of light and shadow that, even with the addition of modern colour film, retains the foreboding and sinister atmosphere of the original. The bleak colour palate and deliberately, meticulously off-set composition give the whole production the feel of a waking nightmare, and the use of real animals – especially real-life bats – is a wonderfully macabre touch.
This is horror as high art without being inaccessible or incomprehensible. As an interpretation of Stoker’s novel, this is a course correction away from the swashbuckling, romantic anti-hero and back to the murine malevolence of the novel’s eponymous monster, as a vampire film it’s one of the rare ones to treat its subject with solemnity and seriousness and as a remake or reboot – and even on its own merits, it’s an utter triumph.