Film Review: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Also known as: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (original German title), Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (alternative title)
Release Date: January 17th, 1979 (France)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens by F. W. Murnau
Music by: Popol Vuh
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Isabella Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Gaumont, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, 107 Minutes, 96 Minutes (theatrical cut)

Review:

“[subtitled version] Time is an abyss… profound as a thousand nights… Centuries come and go… To be unable to grow old is terrible… Death is not the worst… Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities…” – Count Dracula

Back in the 1970s, I probably would’ve been vehemently opposed to a remake of the 1922 classic F. W. Murnau film, Nosferatu. However, I would’ve been very wrong, as Werner Herzog, who was still a very young director back then, made an update that fit the time while also being very true and respectful to the source material it used as its blueprint.

This incarnation of one of the greatest examples of the German Expressionist style did its damnedest to try and recreate the original. It employed great art design in how it recreated the look of the characters, the locations and the overall tone.

This also had to be a big challenge, as far as the location shooting went, as they couldn’t return to the same spots as the original due to the Berlin Wall and communism being in the way. They did, however, find great spots that replicated some of the original film’s most iconic visual moments.

The biggest difference with this picture is that it is presented in color and with sound. Other than that, it feels as true as a nearly sixty year-old remake can.

What also makes this so great is the cast. There wasn’t a more perfect actor at the time to play the title role. Klaus Kinski had already made a name for himself as an extremely versatile character actor in Europe and his most memorable roles were the ones where he was creepy or villainous.

In this, Kinski is absolute perfection. He owns the role, gives it life (even though he’s undead) and has this unsettling presence and an aura of death every time he is present on the screen. Plus, he had incredible chemistry with both Isabella Adjani and Bruno Ganz.

The cinematography is excellent and even though this film had a pretty iconic visual roadmap to try and emulate, it was done so to perfection and with great care. Herzog and his cinematographer, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, created a dark, gritty yet very lived in world that is full of atmosphere and nuance to the point that the scenery feels like a character in the movie.

My only real complaint about the film is that I didn’t like how they switched the character’s names to those in the Bram Stoker Dracula novel, as I always felt that the original Nosferatu really did a superb job in taking that story and reworking it into its own unique thing. I feel that to truly do an homage to the Murnau film, they should referred to the vampire as Count Orlok and not Count Dracula. I know it’s nitpicky but it’s just one of those things that is kind of jarring and takes me out of the movie. This could also be due to the fact that I’ve seen the original more than a dozen times.

Overall, this is how a remake should be done: just like a cover song. It should only exist if it can take the source material and build off of it and legitimately try to improve upon it. While this isn’t as good as the original, it is still a damn fine attempt and one of the best vampire movies ever made. Plus, seeing Kinski play an Orlock-like vampire is incredible because it feels like it was his destiny to do so. 

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: the original 1922 film, as well as other film’s featuring Nosferatu-like vampires like Salem’s Lot and Shadow of the Vampire.