Nosferatu The Vampyr (1979) (Blu-ray review).

‘Nosferatu The Vampyr’ (1979) may have some similarities to the old black and white silent version from 1922 directed by FW Marnau but that was German director Werner Herzog’s intention. His version, of course, is in colour with sound and now, 35 years later, the British Film Institute has packaged the limited edition Blu-ray as part of their collection involving the director. As with most offerings from the BFI, it comes with a host of extra material, an integrated presentation which will suit most people’s needs. Overall, it’s a good movie but there are a couple of sticking points, not with the BFI Blu-ray it must be said but with the Herzog production. One is rather silly but the other, as shall be explained later, is deadly serious.


The rather simple story can be told in a few paragraphs. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is a clerk with a mad estate agent (no jokes about them please!) and is in love with his wife, Lucy, the beautiful Isabelle Adjani. Likewise, she loves him but he wants to better himself for the sake of his family and agrees to help with the purchase of a house by none other than Count Dracula, a resident of a far-off castle in Transylvania. We say to ourselves, this is the 19th century, don’t go, you know what’s going to happen but the unwitting chap sets off on a melodramatic journey of mystical proportion.

The journey is actually one of the best parts of the film. Accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’, Harker travels into the depths of the continent in the far-off mountains of Transylvania. Residing in a rather rustic hotel, populated by genuine gypsies, a hushed silence ensues when he mentions Count Dracula. Eventually, plucking up the courage, they tell him not to go because it’s a place of ultimate evil where he would be cast to the depths of hell. Ignoring this as superstition, Harker continues on his way. The coachman wouldn’t take him so he had to go on foot through mountains and water dripping ravines, including a pass which seems to follow the path of a waterfall through a mountain which I’m sure is in Switzerland. Surprisingly, out of nowhere, there arrives something akin to a funeral coach which takes Harker into the courtyard of a ruined castle.

Is the castle real or imaginary? It probably doesn’t matter. Arriving at night he is greeted by the sole occupant, Nosferatu, a pale pathetic creature that has hardly enough strength to speak. Badly in need of a manicure, his fingernails moving like spiders, the most prominent part of his sallow face with sunken eyes and parchment white skin are the two fangs protruding from his upper dentures. Anyone of any sense would have bolted but Harker, keen to make a sale, enters at midnight and is treated to a meal. The conversation is rather muted and when Harker cuts a finger, the sight of the blood makes Dracula go a bit funny. He insists on sucking the blood from the injured digit, preferring this to any of the food on offer.

Usually, estate agents draw blood but this situation is reversed! Harker ends up with strange marks on his neck probably made when asleep and becomes quite wobbly. Meanwhile, Dracula loads up lots of black coffins onto a wagon and disappears into the night. The coffins get transported to a sailing ship bound for Western Europe. Something was mentioned about the Caspian Sea but, the last time I looked, it was landlocked. Maybe Herzog’s geography is a bit lacking.

Everyone on the ship dies of plague but, remarkably, the vessel drifts straight into the harbour of the Dutch town Delft where the citizens look on in amazement. Hundreds of rats creep out of the boat and onto the land, so starting off a deadly plague which will kill most of the population. Meanwhile, the distraught Lucy is desperate to know where her husband languishes. She is the strong character of the story and it is her sacrifice that will save the day. The pathetic Dracula who wants to die and cannot die sees her as salvation.

The rats are everywhere, thousands of them creeping, gnawing, scurrying and the remaining citizens throw caution to the wind, deciding to eat drink and be merry in the town’s square, taunting death to take them or leave them be. Surreal it may be but Lucy can’t persuade them to see where the real evil lies. Throughout, van Helsing is a rather weak character, indecisive to the point of inaction but at least, at the end, he does see the point, at least to the stake. Maybe he has the final say.

One of the problems of making a vampire movie is that you have to steer a narrow course between looking serious without descending to being ludicrous. There are lots of comedy vampires especially with scenes of the innkeeper and the locals turning heads when Dracula is mentioned. Nosferatu descends to the comical on numerous occasions especially with the mistakes so obvious in nature, such as the ruined castle changing appearance and the daytime scenes being of a completely different location. The scene of Kinski running about with a large coffin in the middle of the night resembles something out of Monty Python. However, I remember when the movie was released in 1979, people that did approach with serious intention lost any sense of credibility on discovering that Kinski’s vampire was the spitting image of punk singer Gary Numan.


Maybe Gary Numan isn’t so popular today but even now, it’s still a sticking point though it’s a silly one at that.

The serious sticking point is far more important. When making the scenes of the plague on the boat and more importantly in the town of Delft, thousands of rats were used. This represents something far more horrific than the actual movie because, in the transportation of 12,000 white rats from an establishment in Hungary, it was reported that they had been kept in terrible conditions without food with the result that some had resorted to cannibalism. Thereafter, Herzog wasn’t happy about the colour and wanted them dyed brown which involved being dipped into boiling water, which again killed many, then, left to wander about the scenes countless rats were subjected to terrible cruelties including getting squashed and stood on. What happened after the movie was anybody’s guess. Maybe they were exterminated, who knows, but even then in 1979, the whole escapade was totally inexcusable.

I know some people do not like rats, which is okay, but these were laboratory rats and not the ones that run about in sewers. Maybe that’s a rather vague distinction which many people don’t consider relevant, however, I can remember as a teacher refusing to dissect a rat on the grounds of animal cruelty and the blatant abuse of 12,000 of them is just a bit too much. Watching ‘Nosferatu’, you look with incredulity at the number of rats in the scenes and then begin to wonder how they got there. Now you know. Of course, today it would all be done by CGI but that wasn’t available in 1979. If somebody tried that today you would get hundreds of animal rights people protesting!

There is a feeling that in Herzog’s movie, accuracy has been sacrificed for the sake of creating atmosphere. Faux pas in abundance, it shows neglect. Nevertheless, the atmosphere he created was essentially very good but with a bit more thought the movie could have been that much better. That may sound like sacrilege to many aficionados of Herzog, but it is a valid point of view. There was a tendency for ‘Nosferatuto become a farce and in many respects it was just that. Kinski acted in many spaghetti westerns in his early years and, while this is better, it’s only marginally so. While the acting is good, it’s only as good as the script and the actors have performed with greater credit in other movies (Gantz portrayal of Adolf Hitler in ‘Downfall comes to mind) and it’s unfortunate that other facets of the production are a disappointment.

Extra material with the BFI’s edition is quite superb. It comes with a fine booklet containing an essay, lots of pictures and information about the film. You have the choice of the English and the German versions of the film, each remastered with a selection of sounds. There is even a full-length commentary by Herzog himself. The 13 minute documentary containing interviews with Herzog and Kinski is rather short and leaves you wanting more information. Apart from that, there is a trailer and a collection of stills.

This is a movie which, as mentioned, travels along the fine line between being bad and good. Pretentiousness in abundance, aimed towards the making of a work of art, I think it doesn’t quite achieve the orbit it was intended to reach and has fallen somewhat lower closer to Earth. Thirty-five years have passed since it was made and, believe it or not, it’s probably better received today than it was back then, if for the sole reason it has become an antique. If somebody tried to make the same movie today it wouldn’t stand a chance in the cinema and would be a huge loss maker. So, forgetting about Gary Numan and the rats and the mistakes, it does receive a positive but muted recommendation.

Rod MacDonald

June 2014

(pub: British Film Institute. 1 bul-ray disc. 107 minute film with extras. Price: £22.99 (US). Cat: BFIB1172)

  English and German subtitles

cast: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz

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