Unexpectedly perhaps, we begin this film in a crypt of mummies. These are not the stoic regents of Ancient Egypt who know they will rule in the afterlife as they have on earth. No, these relics seem to have suffered horrible and painful deaths before their unwilled preservation. They are filmed in ascending age to show that death does not distinguish between old and young. Indeed, apart from their physical size the only differences among these cadavers is the unique agony shrieking across each face. Even the most ignorant moviegoer knows what type of beast has borne the moniker of nosferatu for more than a century, but we are not dealing with vampires. That is to say, we do not believe our mummies the victims of those bloodsucking fiends whose sleekness, pallor, and hunger have catapulted to new heights within the last ten years of young adult fiction (vampirism being an apt cautionary allegory for sexual desire). We will learn, however, that they are and they aren't Dracula's victims. The ageless Romanian Count has become synonymous with a far greater scourge: that of the Black Plague itself.
One amendment: we do not know whether this Dracula (an iconic Klaus Kinski) is actually Romanian or even a proper nobleman. True, he resides in a gloom-laden Transylvanian castle, surrounded and perhaps somewhat abetted by another set of outcasts, the Roma. Yet he is more the shiftless ghost than the dashing Byronic predator who has dominated the innumerable variations since Stoker's novel, imbuing them with sex appeal and courtliness untenable in Herzog's version. As with all first-rate works, Nosferatu's aim becomes clearer in retrospect. Multiple viewings enrich the film because there is so much to notice apart from what actually propels the thin dinghy of a plot forward (a first viewing will also inevitably distract those who have seen the original). So is it with the struggle between Dracula and our ostensible hero, Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz). Harker may have an English name, but he is German in speech, manner, and residence, his home Wismar closely akin to the Wisborg of Murnau's production, complete with canals and Hanseatic primness. Dreams of a giant bat plague his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), who is visibly upset when her spouse announces a business trip to Transylvania that, he snickers, will be teeming with "wolves, bandits, and ghosts." Right before he leaves, they go to the beach where they first met and Lucy confesses that she is overcome by "a nameless, deadly fear." This would all be perfectly acceptable dialogue in any lesser film about impending atrocities, and Ganz and Adjani are, as always, excellent and subtle actors – but this is quite beside the point. What awaits the Harkers is evil, fathomable but unstoppable evil, although not tinged with glamour or seductiveness like so many modern-day children of the night. Herzog has no abiding interest in Gothic romance. His monster simply possesses irresistible power, most evident when Dracula approaches his victims, who can only stare back in horror like snake-bait rodents. There will be no enticement to collaborate with these dark forces, nor will anyone wonder long about the residue of humanity in the Count's soul. That he still assumes the general contours of a human will be understood as more of a convenience than a true reflection of his essence.
Does that mean that Harker is our knight, brazenly determined to thwart a thousand-year-old dragon (Dracul's meaning in his alleged native tongue)? Not quite, or, I should say, not at all. As opposed to other portrayals of Harker, Ganz's law clerk has nothing in the way of charm or elegance in his manners; in fact, all of him screams petit bourgeois (he longs "to buy Lucy a bigger house" even though they have no children and plenty of space). Like his adversary, Harker has only traces of humankind: his role is plain, simple, and terrifyingly banal. He will represent 'life' as understood by a mindless Philistine who has never really lived; Dracula will represent death as someone not allowed to die. He observes that Renfield (Roland Topor), the solicitor who dispatches him to Transylvania and the one person who appears to have been in contact with the Count, is at best mischievous and scheming, and at worst homicidally deranged, but accepts the task anyway for the money involved. Critics have commonly emphasized the loneliness – not so much the humanity as the pathos – of Kinski's vampire, a marvelous deception of directorial genius amplified by Harker's development. This contrast, coupled with the shift from vampiric infection as a means of enlisting an army of monsters to its allegorizing the Black Death, has fooled reviewer after reviewer into believing Herzog wished to portray a more human Dracula "who could not die." It gives nothing away to reveal that, towards the end of the film, Wisborg has been ravaged by the plague, and many of those afflicted decide to banquet publicly with friends and family, living out their last few days in full as an accelerated version of life itself. It also gives nothing away to mention that what Harker experiences in Castle Dracula has nothing of the Gothic nightmare and far more greatly resembles modern horror. Harker's steps become bold because the castle's inside is awake, white, and fully lit, like a gleaming skeleton. Vast cobwebs strangle chairs, recalling the Count's dagger-like fingers clutching at a hapless victim. As it becomes more obvious that he will never escape unharmed, Harker begins a journal to Lucy, whom he cannot reach by normal post. His confessions are tempered by a thick tome he receives in the inn at the foot of the castle's mountains that will also be passed down to her, a text about the whole legend that has become reality. And what is his reality? One identical to what screaming young victims encounter in contemporary slasher films: being trapped in a hideous maze with a madman whose only wish is to make you suffer for as long as your soul and body can endure.
In a very artistic way, Herzog ranks among the most political of directors (witness his turn in the last twenty-five years towards 'real life' documentaries) but his politics do not adhere to any ballot or banner. His champions are neither underdogs nor the gods of genius. What he enjoys is oddity, difference, and originality, even if, as in many of his duller non-fictional pieces, the fine line between originality and triviality is blurred. No one had ever bothered to make the Dracula legend into a severe indictment of life's randomness and meaninglessness, because that is not how the figure lives on in the popular imagination, a realm that Herzog openly despises. Herzog's accomplishment is to take the material completely seriously, without the slightest indication of kitsch (apart from the goofy silence of the gypsies in the inn, although that may be imputed to his fondness for non-professional actors). The fundamental problem of the Dracula legend, however, remains unsolved. No one, as it were, not even Stoker, has ever satisfactorily clarified why Dracula wishes to leave his ghastly ancestral home in the first place. Coppola's gorgeous version suggests the move is Dracula's destiny so as to reunite him with the love he lost hundreds of years before, the love that led him to forsake his faith. But all we find in Nosferatu is death. From the magnificent coffin gathering in the town square, to Dracula's appearance in Lucy's bathroom, to the oddest of scenes, that of a ghost ship sloshing into the canals of Wismar, we have no hope for redemption. Is that why, at one crucial point, we cannot but notice a stone high-relief frieze (a Romanesque carving of what appears to be a Barbary ape) by the fireplace precisely between man from vampire? A very odd form of evolution indeed.