There’s a long, unrespectable tradition of vampires’ being unable to decide whether we humans are lunch, lovers, or a bite of both. My irritation at coming across a pile of Twilights and their no-less-sensitive kin heaped under the heading “undying love” in a neighborhood Barnes & Noble was thus curmudgeonly and somewhat unfair. For those who can understand my reaction (well, you are reading NRO, so you just might), and are themselves getting a little sick of the simpering-emo-tofu undead, here’s a recommendation: This weekend, celebrate both Halloween and the 30th anniversary of the release of the finest — and grandest — vampire movie of them all by watching Nosferatu the Vampyre. It’s a 1979 film by the German director Werner Herzog that transforms genre into art and an old story into something new. It never goes near a high school and rarely goes bump in the night.
Blood is sucked, not shed, there’s no gore, and there’s none of the ripping and tearing so characteristic of another type of modern vampire, those ill-bred ones oafs who choose to adopt the revolting table manners of their loutish zombie counterparts. (If you saw 30 Days of Night, you know what I mean.) The sentiments that run through Herzog’s film owe nothing to either psychotic rage or prom-night angst, but a great deal to German Romanticism, ancient profound weariness, exhausted fatalism, and hysteria — complete with a grotesquely parodied danse macabre-in the face of onrushing death. Naturally there’s also a moment of supremely noble, erotically charged self-sacrifice. Inevitably it is pointless. Yes, Nosferatu is a German film, a very German film.
Shot in Holland, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, and, in its eerie opening sequence, Mexico, Herzog’s film, which was made on a budget — under $1 million — almost as incredible as its subject matter, is a slow, stately, hallucinatory, unexpectedly lavish, unexpectedly lovely “free version” of the first filmed Nosferatu (1922’sNosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, Friedrich Murnau’s German expressionist masterpiece).
Owing to his studio’s failure to secure the rights to Bram Stoker’s then-still-within-copyright classic, Murnau’s movie was itself something of a reinterpretation. The count lost all his hair and all his wives but gained long, claw-like fingernails, the B-movie-alien name of Orlok, and a face that was part bat, part rat, and all ugly. Unlike Dracula, Orlok’s bite lacked even the gift of twisted immortality: It was permanently fatal to others and, in what was to become a familiar addition to vampire lore, sunlight was fatal to him. Additionally, some of Stoker’s characters were edited out or jumbled around, and the narrative was shifted in time (to the 1830s from the 1890s) and place (from England to the fictional Wisborg, a blend of Wismar and Lübeck, in north Germany).
These changes were not enough. The widow Stoker successfully sued the studio (which promptly went bankrupt), and all prints of the film were ordered destroyed. By then, however, copies had already circulated across the world. The film lived on, legendary, indestructible, and illicit, ready to reappear in the form of Herzog’s allusive, elusive, and dreamlike reworking.
In Herzog’s view, Murnau’s Nosferatu is the greatest German movie ever shot. Remaking it was his attempt to reconnect with an earlier generation of German filmmakers, the “grandfathers” untainted by the Third Reich (Murnau died two years before Hitler rose to power), and, through them, to an older, better national cultural heritage. Herzog may have borrowed much of Murnau’s storyline, but the earlier Nosferatu was merely a starting point for what the later director was trying to achieve. To be sure, some of Herzog’s shots are almost exact recreations of Murnau’s, and there are instances when the modern cast adopts the mannered acting style of Weimar expressionism, but the later film has a grandeur almost entirely missing from the slightly crabbed original.