The film is set primarily in 19th-century Wismar, Germany and Transylvania, and was conceived as a stylistic remake of the 1922 German Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. It stars Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula, Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker, Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, and French artist-writer Roland Topor as Renfield.
Herzog's production of Nosferatu was very well received by critics and enjoyed a comfortable degree of commercial success. The film also marks the second of five collaborations between director Herzog and actor Kinski, immediately followed by 1979's Woyzeck.
While Nosferatu the Vampyre's basic story is derived from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, director Werner Herzog made the 1979 film primarily as an homage remake of F. W. Murnau's seminal silent film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), which differs somewhat from Stoker's original work. The makers of the earlier film could not obtain the rights for a film adaptation of Dracula, so they changed a number of minor details and character names in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid copyright infringement on the intellectual property owned (at the time) by Stoker's widow. A lawsuit was filed, resulting in an order for the destruction of all prints of the film. Some prints survived, and were restored after Florence Stoker had died and the copyright had expired. By the 1960s and early 1970s, the original silent returned and was enjoyed by a new generation of movie goers.
Herzog considered Murnau's Nosferatu to be the greatest film ever to come out of Germany, and was keen to make his own version of the film, with Klaus Kinski in the leading role. In 1979, by which time the copyright for Dracula had entered the public domain, Herzog proceeded with his updated version of the classic German film, which could now include the original character names. Strangely, however, Jonathan Harker's wife was named "Lucy Harker", even though her name was Mina in the original novel, and a woman named "Lucy" was a friend of Mina's. Herzog's production reverses these roles.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Jonathan Harker is an estate agent in Wismar, Germany. His boss, Renfield, informs him that a nobleman named Count Dracula wishes to buy a property in Wismar, and assigns Harker to visit the count and complete the lucrative deal. Leaving his young wife Lucy behind in Wismar, Harker travels for four weeks to Transylvania, to the castle of Count Dracula. He carries with him the deeds and documents needed to sell the house to the Count. On his journey, Jonathan stops at a village, where locals plead for him to stay clear of the accursed castle, providing him with details of Dracula's vampirism. Harker ignores the villagers' pleas as superstition, and continues his journey unassisted. Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, where he meets the Count, a strange, ancient, almost rodent-like man, with large ears, pale skin, sharp teeth, and long fingernails.
The lonely Count is enchanted by a small portrait of Lucy and immediately agrees to purchase the Wismar property, especially with the knowledge that he and Lucy would become neighbors. As Jonathan's visit progresses, he is haunted at night by a number of dream-like encounters with the vampiric Count. Simultaneously, in Wismar, Lucy is tormented by night terrors, plagued by images of impending doom. Additionally, Renfield is committed to an asylum after biting a cow, apparently having gone completely insane. To Harker's horror, he finds the Count asleep in a coffin, confirming for him that Dracula is indeed a vampire. At night, Dracula leaves for Wismar, taking with him a number of coffins, filled with the cursed earth that he needs for his vampiric rest. Harker finds that he is locked in the castle, and attempts to escape through a window with a makeshift rope. The rope, fashioned from bed sheets, is not long enough, and Jonathan falls, severely injuring himself. He awakes on the ground the next morning, stirred by the sound of a young gypsy boy playing a violin. He is eventually sent to a hospital and raves about "black coffins" to doctors, who then assume that the sickness is affecting his mind.
Meanwhile, Dracula and his coffins travel to Wismar by boat, via the Black Sea port of Varna, thence through the Bosphorus and Gibraltar straits and around the entire west European Atlantic coast to the Baltic Sea. He systematically kills the entire crew, making it appear as if they were afflicted with plague. The ghost ship arrives, with its cargo, at Wismar, where doctors — including Abraham Van Helsing — investigate the strange fate of the ship. They discover a log that mentions their perceived affliction with plague. In turn, Wismar is flooded with rats from the ship. Dracula arrives in Wismar with his coffins, and death spreads rapidly throughout the town. When Jonathan is finally transported home, he is desperately ill, and does not appear to recognize his wife. Lucy later has an encounter with Count Dracula; weary and unable to die, he demands some of the love that she gave so freely to Jonathan, but she refuses, much to Dracula's dismay. Now aware that something other than plague is responsible for the death that has beset her once-peaceful town, Lucy desperately tries to convince the townspeople, but they are skeptical and uninterested. She finds that she can vanquish Dracula's evil by distracting him at dawn, but at the expense of her own life. She lures the Count to her bedroom, where he proceeds to drink her blood.
Lucy's beauty and purity distract Dracula from the call of the rooster, and at the first light of day, he collapses to the floor. Van Helsing arrives to discover Lucy, dead but victorious. He then drives a stake through the heart of the Count to make sure Lucy's sacrifice was not in vain. In a final, chilling twist, Jonathan Harker awakes from his sickness, now a vampire, and arranges for Van Helsing's arrest. He is last seen traveling away on horseback, stating enigmatically that he has much to do.
The film was released as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht in German and Nosferatu the Vampyre in English. It was entered into the 29th Berlin International Film Festival, where production designer Henning von Gierke won the Silver Bear for an outstanding single achievement. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes indicates that the film is highly regarded today, having a rating of 94%. Reviewer John J. Puccio of MovieMet considers it a faithful homage to Murnau's original film, significantly updating the original material, and avoiding the danger of being overly derivative.
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