Vampire Diaries

Ara H. Merjian on Nosferatu at Film Forum

Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes.

“NOSFERATU. Does this word not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight?” The rhetorical question of this introductory title card in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu would seem a heavy-handed addendum to Bram Stoker’s classic. And yet, few films of the silent era can lay claim to a more nuanced treatment of gothic gloom than Murnau’s. Film Forum offers up this hymn to the night just in time for Halloween, along with a 1979 homage by Werner Herzog. With outsized ears, rat-like teeth, and two sets of hideously long nails, Herzog’s eponymous count—played by the controversial Klaus Kinski—rivals Max Schreck’s famously creepy incarnation in his longstanding monopoly on the School of Dracula. The terror of Schreck’s performance was abetted by the film’s compulsory silence, made as it was on the far side of the talkie era. Murnau made haunting use of the actor’s hunched form and fearsome face, setting it into sets no less uncanny which—along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)—have long stood as touchstones of Expressionist cinema.

Still, Kinski exploits gesture and movement as nimbly as his slithering dialogue, making the most of his turns on screen. “The children of the night make their music,” he remarks, as wolves howl at the Carpathian moon. The chill of Kinski’s glower and shadowy castle are duly offset by the charisma of a dashing young Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, and Isabelle Adjani in her wide-eyed guise as his vulnerable wife. Herzog maintains a striking fidelity not only to his cinematic predecessor, but also the literary original. Some of the narrative unfurls through Harker’s anxious letters home, maintaining something of the novel’s intimate, epistolary format. So, too, does Herzog turn to painting—like Murnau before him—in conjuring up a particularly gothic stimmung. A shot of Adjani from behind, seated in a cemetery by the sea, brings one of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic scenes to melancholy life. But the director also uses the power of his own medium to full effect, as when he cuts between shots of Lucy Harker in bed plagued by nightmares and Nosferatu hovering over a terrified Bruno Ganz.

Nosferatu and Nosferatu the Vampyre are now playing through Thursday, November 7 at Film Forum in New York.