It’s late October, so the only thing to do is catch up on classic horror movies. A year ago I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, so it seemed appropriate to check out the original film version, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922; streaming on Amazon Prime). And then I watched Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979; also on Amazon Prime or the Criterion Channel). (And, by the way, if you want a movie that I thought was even creepier than both of these, watch Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. But that’s in a slightly different vein than these two.)
I’m not huge on silent movies. I tend to watch them primarily for their value to the history of film. I realize this may be a personal failing, but there it is. But among the silent films that people continually talk about, Nosferatu is always there, so I figured it was time to watch it.
Neither the film nor the vampire are scary in the way that modern horror films are scary. There are no jump scares. There is little to no blood(!). There’s not constant biting and killing. It’s much more about the building dread and threat of Dracula invading Jonathon Harker’s civilized country (facilitated by the insane Renfield). In this case, the silence adds to the creepiness, because it’s all about the motion and the shadows. It’s about the fingernails and the eyes. This is not a vampire who would go unrecognized on the street.
(One interesting detail—noted by a pastor friend of mine, Kurt Onken—about the version on Amazon Prime is that the score for the movie includes variations on a 1694 melody to which is set a hymn of the Lutheran Pietist, Johann Burkhard Freystein. That hymn’s English translation includes the words, “Rise, my soul, to watch and pray;/From your sleep awaken!/Be not by the evil day/Unawares o’ertaken;/For the foe,/Well we know,/Is a harvest reaping/While the saints are sleeping” [Lutheran Service Book, 663:1]. The rest of the stanzas are also about the battle the Christian should wage in prayer against the devil. I haven’t been able to discover whether the melody was put with the film originally, or if it just happened to be attached to this version.)
Likewise, Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is about increasing and spreading dread—tied much more prominently in this movie to the plague that Dracula brings with him. What this movie shares with the original is almost scene-for-scene. There are added details and scenes here and there that bring out motivations and add color to the narrative, and the silent movie melodrama is muted. But overall Herzog matches Murnau, including in the look of Dracula. (On that, there aren’t many movie vampires where the fangs are front and center, rather than on the canines. I suppose it’s easier to hide canine fangs, but these are stranger and, for that reason, more sinister.)
Herzog, though, includes more of the religious imagery of Stoker’s novel. The novel is suffused with religious ideas and Stoker very clearly makes the vampire story a conflict between the evil, un-dead, and anti-Christian Dracula and the powerful, sacred, living Roman Catholic emblems that are necessary to defeat him. Murnau has very little of that, while Herzog makes it much more central.
But there is a much more significant difference and it is exactly at the climax of Dracula’s defeat that Herzog undercuts our expectations (and my own semi-boredom at the close re-make of a movie I’d just watched) and inverts the story.
[NECESSARY SPOILERS—but you’ve had almost 100 years and 40 years respectively to watch these, so…]
While Murnau has Lucy follow the instructions in Jonathon’s book about how to defeat the vampire—that a “pure-hearted woman” has to keep the vampire “occupied” until dawn—Herzog does also, but it is not the victory we are expecting. Murnau’s Nosferatu vanishes in a puff of smoke at the first light that passes through the window. Herzog’s is blinded and killed as well. But while Murnau’s Lucy and Jonathon recover and everything seems to go happy ever after, Herzog’s Lucy breathes her last.
Additionally, in Herzog’s version, van Helsing is a rationalistic man of science who says, “We are too late,” when he discovers Lucy dead and realizes he should have believed her. He then makes sure the vampire is dead, but is arrested for the murder of Count Dracula. Here we realize that this is a different story, because it is at Jonathon’s command that van Helsing is arrested.
Stoker’s van Helsing is the vampire expert and plays the central role in telling the Harkers and the how to defeat Dracula. He is hardly present in Murnau’s film, and in Herzog’s it is Lucy who is left alone to discover the means by which she can defeat Dracula.
Herzog’s film gives the vampire the upper hand. In most modern vampire films, when someone is bitten, that person inevitably becomes a vampire as well. There is no healing or restoration possible, so the only thing to do is to prevent yourself from being bitten in the first place. Stoker makes it possible for someone to be healed by blood transfusions and religious means and Murnau has Lucy break the spell for both her and Jonathon by her outwitting of Nosferatu.
Herzog, however, subverts the conclusion of both Stoker and Murnau by making Jonathon himself the one who continues Dracula’s evil designs. What appears to be defeat for the vampire is actually his victory. In Herzog’s telling, Dracula is a spirit—maybe even a Zeitgeist—rather than Nosferatu himself. The religious symbols become both more powerful and less than in Murnau’s, because they are temporary, and good does not triumph over evil, as Stoker seems to assume that it will, if only good people stay the course courageously.
While Stoker and Murnau draw a clean line between good and evil, life and death, Herzog lets death infect everything, and there are no clear lines anymore. Good and evil, like life and death, become (at least in this world) false constructs that cannot hold. The dream sequence with Lucy walking through the city square highlights the Ecclesiastean world of Herzog’s film, where people are dancing, feasting, and drinking among the casketed victims of the plague. Join us, they say to Lucy, because we’ve all been infected and we might as well enjoy what time we have left! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!
Though Stoker and Murnau give us a neatly defined world, where good and evil are clear and obvious, Herzog smudges and blurs those lines and shows us a world that we do not like as much, but is perhaps much closer to the reality of this creation. And perhaps he also shows us (unwittingly?) that his world is a closed system. There may be temporary and tentative victories over evil, but final victories are going to have to come from somewhere else, somewhere outside of the world in which the undead plague the living.