Nosferatu - The Vampyre
video review by Gary Johnson

"Murnau, I consider to be the greatest German director, and Nosferatu the greatest German film."
--Werner Herzog

The first screen version of Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of the most unique and memorable movies ever made. With actor Max Schreck starring as a rat-faced vampire with beady eyes and claw-like hands, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922, directed by F.W. Murnau) provides a crescendo of rich and startling images.

It's no wonder that German director Werner Herzog was so affected by Nosferatu that he decided to create his own version of the story. Herzog has always been drawn to mad, tragic, dangerous characters, such as Aguirre (a Spanish conquistador who conducts an ill-fated journey down a river) in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Brian Fitzgerald (an opera lover who strives to bring opera to the Amazon jungle) in Fitzcarraldo. With bat-like ears and protruding incisors (not canines, like other screen vampires), Herzog's Count Dracula comfortably fits in with Herzog's previous creations. He's an horrific but mournful creature who conducts an ill-fated journey of his own when he leaves Transylvania.

Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) arranges for Dracula (Klaus Kinski) to purchase a home in Harker's hometown of Wismar, Germany, and soon afterwards Dracula's coffins are loaded on a cargo ship. The ship's crew mysteriously dies during the voyage, but the ghost ship continues the trip, silently drifting into Wismar harbor. As thousands of rats pour off the ship and into the city streets, the Plague soon begins to decimate the town's population. Among such turmoil, Dracula's neck-biting largely goes unnoticed. Even Professor Van Helsing, the hero of virtually all other versions of Dracula, refuses to acknowledge that a vampire is to blame. But Harker's wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), realizes what is happening, and she knows what must be done, even if she must act alone.

Originally released to theaters in 1979, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre has never been available on video. However, Anchor Bay Entertainment has recently corrected that oversight by releasing the movie in both an English language version and a German language version (with English subtitles). The movie was originally released by 20th Century Fox, but their home video department remained deaf as fans of the movie pleaded for its release over the past two decades. Thankfully, however, rights to the movie reverted to filmmaker Herzog at the end of 1998, and now Anchor Bay has acquired the video rights. (The Roan Group has acquired the laserdisc rights.)

The English language version, Nosferatu the Vampire, and the German language version, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, were filmed by Herzog simultaneously. Common knowledge has always held that the German version is superior (not surprising because both director Herzog and leading actor Klaus Kinski are German). A shortened English version (shorn of 11 minutes) may also be to blame for this perception. But fans of the movie need not worry: Anchor Bay's English language release is the complete version.

I wanted to see for myself the differences in the two versions, so I set the tapes going on two VCRs side-by-side. I discovered the two versions are very similar; however, vigilant observers will notice many small differences. Because Herzog shot the English and German dialog scenes separately, the actors aren't always positioned the same in both versions. Sometimes, an actor might move slightly differently in one version, as when Harker gives a door at Castle Dracula an extra kick in the German version, and at other times, the actors might hold themselves differently, as when Herzog's camera gives us a close-up of Dracula and Kinski holds his head at a slightly more severe angle in the English version. These differences are noticeable but they are also relatively insignificant.

The editing differences, however, are more substantial. For example, in the movie's first scene, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) wakes from a nightmare and stares directly into the camera; in the German version the camera holds on her face for only a couple seconds, while in the English version the camera holds on her face for over ten seconds. Several other similar instances occur in the movie's first hour. As a result, while introducing us to Jonathan Harker, Lucy, and Count Dracula, the English version acquires a more languorous atmosphere. The difference is relatively slight but it's definitely perceptible. (Critics have frequently complained that the movie moves a little too slowly for its own good, so the English language version may actually be to blame for exacerbating this perception.)

Dracula's ship drifts into Wismar, Germany at 1h 3m 37s in the English language version. His ship drifts into Wismar at 1h 2m 32s in the German version. None of the extra 65 seconds in the English version comes from extra scenes. Instead, it simply comes from accumulated seconds at the beginning and end of several scenes--an extra line of dialogue here, a longer camera shot there.

This pattern becomes reversed once Dracula reaches Wismar. Now the longer camera shots belong to the German version. Once again, the difference is relatively slight. During the final 44 minutes of the movie, the German version slows down slightly, allowing the movies to almost get back in sync, almost. The English language version remains slightly longer at 1h 46m 42s vs. 1h 46m 13s for the German version. It's tempting to suggest that the continuity differences may have been the result of Herzog tailoring the film for two different audiences--that Herzog thought American audiences preferred to linger over introductory scenes (as represented by Jonathan Harker's visit to Dracula's castle), while German audiences would prefer to speed through the introductory scenes and linger over the more chaotic developments once Dracula reaches the city.

When Nosferatu was first released, some critics accused Herzog of simply reshooting Murnau's version scene-by-scene. While Herzog does indeed retain much of the original movie's structure, as well as occasional compositions, Herzog also elaborates extensively on Murnau's Nosferatu. For example, whereas Murnau wasted little time getting Jonathan Harker into Castle Dracula, Herzog spends much more time on Harker's travels. In the process, he creates a thicker, more palpable, other-worldly atmosphere. Likewise, when Dracula unloads his coffins at the end of his sea journey, Herzog lingers as Dracula lumbers through the town square and the music builds to operatic intensity (thanks to the soundtrack's use of Richard Wagner). In Murnau's version, Dracula (called Graf Orlak because Bram Stoker's widow threatened legal action) moves in fast motion when he carries the coffins. Murnau doesn't linger: his Nosferatu moves at a staggering pace.

Herzog's Nosferatu isn't a particularly horrifying movie. Instead of creating tension through judicious editing, Herzog puts all the emphasis upon the images themselves. "I'm a firm believer that you can never establish the rhythm of a film in the editing room," Herzog said. "I believe all the rhythm is in the shooting, in the way you use the camera." By taking this approach, Herzog created a horror movie filled with startling images, such as Dracula moving stiffly as he closes in upon Jonathan Harker's bed; swarms of rats pouring off the cargo ship and into the streets of Wismar; Dracula lapping blood at Lucy's neck; Lucy struggling to make her away across the town square as Wismar's infected citizens block her path; Dracula stalking the deck of the cargo ship; and many other images. However, the movie moves at such a leisurely pace (some people might say it's lethargic) that many horror genre fans will undoubtedly find the movie to be annoyingly picturesque--a horror movie for people who don't really like horror movies. But regardless of your point of view, Nosferatu is a stunning movie. It contains images you'll never be able to shake for the rest of your life.


Nosferatu is now available on VHS from Anchor Bay Entertainment in an English language version and a German language (with English subtitles) version. Both versions are presented in widescreen format and both versions have been digitally mastered. Suggested retail price: $14.95 each.

A limited edition version is also available that contains both versions of the movie in an individually numbered box designed as a vampire's casket. The limited edition version contains two U.S. theatrical trailers, a Spanish theatrical trailer, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. Suggested retail price: $29.98.