It’s probably the most famous case of cinematic plagiarism in history. A group of German filmmakers in the early 1920s set about to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula but could not secure the rights to the novel. To get around the copyright laws, they changed the characters’ names, but they got sued anyway. Despite these controversial beginnings, Nosferatu became revered as a foundational text for the horror genre and a lodestone of German Expressionism. The vampire in the film, so very different in appearance from the familiar Dracula look, became an icon in his own right. Then, in 1979, with the source material now safely in the public domain, Nosferatu was remade with the original character names restored.
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) follow each other very closely both in plot and production design. This is the first time in my “Double Feature” series that I’ve looked at a direct remake (the two Beauty and the Beast films are quite different from each other, and films like A Fistful of Dollars and You’ve Got Mail make transpositions in place and time, respectively). Stoker’s tale of a Transylvanian phantom terrorizing England in the 1890s becomes a tale of a slightly different Transylvanian phantom terrorizing Germany in the 1830s. Nosferatu pares Dracula down to its essentials, leaving the characters of Renfield and Van Helsing with nothing substantial to do. The struggle is between the Harkers and Dracula alone.
The epistolary novel and the silent film were a perfect match, but director F.W. Murnau, to say the least, didn’t need the crutch of the written word to tell his story. (Two years later, he made The Last Laugh without employing traditional intertitles at all.) The story is framed as the remembrance of an unnamed resident of the city in which Jonathan Harker (“Thomas Hutter” in 1922) lives. While doing business with the dapper shut-in from the faraway castle, Harker pens a reassuring letter to his wife. His obliviousness ends up costing him some blood, at which point it becomes apparent that Mina Harker (“Ellen” in 1922, “Lucy” in 1979) can sense what’s going on with or without a letter. Two other pieces of writing are relevant. First, there’s the captain’s log of the ship that carries Count Dracula (“Orlok” in 1922) into town, which posits the plague as the cause of the crew’s slow decimation. Second, there’s the book on the occult that a stranger handed to Harker before he reached the castle, the contents of which he foolishly dismissed. Later, Mina will follow its simple instructions and destroy the vampire, sacrificing herself in the process. For the 1979 film, director Werner Herzog retained all of these details except for the framing device.
Many of the creative decisions in these films flow from the central idea of giving the vampire a monstrous appearance. As played by Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski, Dracula is bald and white as a sheet, with two rat-like fangs protruding from his mouth and long, sharp nails extending from bony fingers. Schreck’s visage, specifically, is still repellent and frightening after nearly a hundred years, outdoing even the great Lon Chaney for iconic transformation. Such a figure can only keep up the pretense of wanting to get into the real estate business for so long. His voyage to Germany is entirely secret, and the 1922 film established a new piece of vampire lore by making him incapable of leaving his coffin during the day. He makes himself so scarce that it’s easy to see why the townsfolk all suspect an epidemic rather than a supernatural attack.
By directly translating this rendition of the story from silent to sound film, Herzog gave himself an unusual challenge. Silent cinema, particularly of the expressionistic variety, is a direct vein to the subconscious. Everything feels otherworldly, so when something truly strange is introduced, like a slender goblin playing host to a fresh-faced clerk, it isn’t all that disruptive. Murnau is free to engage in telepathic cross-cutting, stop-motion photography and other camera tricks without needing to explain much of anything. For the ostensibly more realistic world of speech, Herzog and Kinski chose to alter the character. In the 1979 film, Dracula is, well, a lot like Lon Chaney might have played him. He’s genteel and tragic in a way that I’ve never seen from this character anywhere else. A single moment illustrates the difference perfectly. When Harker accidentally cuts his thumb while slicing into a loaf of bread, Max Schreck’s vampire immediately moves to suck up the blood without hiding his appetite. Kinski’s vampire offers to protect Harker from blood poisoning, explaining that the knife may have been old and rusted. Later, Dracula is given more than one opportunity to reach out for sympathy, explaining the torment of wanting to die while being immortal. Schreck’s character is a figure of fear, full stop, but Kinski gets to play a more well-rounded character. The fact that Kinski and Bruno Ganz, who plays Harker, resemble each other adds another dimension to the story, as well.
Between the droll skepticism of Ganz and the ferocity of a supremely pale Isabelle Adjani as “Lucy,” the 1979 film has a definite advantage in the casting of the Harkers. Gustav von Wangenheim and Greta Schröder are a bit more generic in their approach. The script for the later film, admittedly, takes a little more time to make these characters interesting. Schröder’s sacrifice is essentially passive, while Adjani, even after being bitten, takes pains to keep Dracula with her until the sun comes up. Mr. Harker, meanwhile, simply remains feckless in the silent film, while the remake has darker things on its mind. Having been bitten but not killed, Harker slowly (very slowly) turns into a vampire himself. By the end he’s escaped, poised to take Dracula’s place.
These renditions of the vampire myth certainly fit the definition of “horror.” They follow the simplest template of the genre: a creepy guy goes around killing people. At the same time, they’re not as caught up in the jolt of danger as many other horror films are. By the time Dracula carries his coffin into town, both films shift gears, becoming meditations on the nature of death itself. Most of the deaths are offscreen. People are, and then they are not. They’re snuffed out like the candles that govern the tinting in the silent film. The despair is unremitting. Vampirism is shown to permeate the natural world, plants and animals alike. There’s room for madness in such a broken world, whether that world has just been shattered by the Great War or pinioned by the Iron Curtain. Pared to the essentials, I said, and indeed the final movement is elemental. The creeping shadow can only be vanquished by a flood of light.