Remaking an iconic silent film 55 years after its release (and subsequent near-destruction) takes a certain level of madness. Thankfully, any project pairing Werner Herzog and the late Klaus Kinski brimmed with just that. When the two first worked together on 1972’s classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the notoriously deranged Kinski angrily blasted three gunshots through a hut filled with cast and crew, blowing off an extra’s finger. Herzog confiscated the rifle, but was Kinski thrown off the rainforest-entrenched set? Of course not—as Herzog has routinely pointed out, his film was more important than any individual (and certainly more important than a lost finger). In fact, when Kinski threatened to leave the production because of the way a crew member smiled at him, Herzog threatened to put eight bullets in Kinski’s skull if that happened, and also one in his own.

Their volatile history did nothing to deter Herzog from tapping Kinski twice in 1979—for the unhinged revenge of Woyzeck and, most notably, for Nosferatu the Vampyre. Even 35 years ago, the world wasn’t facing a dearth of new vampire movies; five Dracula-based films were released worldwide that year, with two other unrelated vampire pictures joining an international market clotted with bloodsuckers. Given Kinski’s legendarily short fuse, sticking him in a makeup chair for four hours each day probably seems like a recipe for disaster. Instead, Kinski was by all accounts entirely pleasant as his already-imposing visage was transformed into both a loyal re-creation of and improvement upon F.W. Murnau’s pale, bald-pated Count Orlok.

Murnau had been unsuccessful in dodging copyright infringement with his simple ploy of renaming the principal characters in his seminal silent film. Bram Stoker’s widow sued and succeeded in getting every known print and negative of Nosferatu destroyed, before it resurfaced and was ultimately pieced back together decades later. Herzog has called it the greatest German film of all time. Despite many scenes being recreated almost shot-for-shot, Herzog would also take many liberties with his film, most notably in its ominous ending. He would also use far more rats.

Herzog’s loyalty to the source material didn’t prevent him from injecting his many usual motifs. Like many of his early films, avant-garde group Popul Vuh provided a score that shifted from majestic to haunting almost as sharply as Herzog’s many contrasts of light and dark—which both pay homage to its German Expressionist forebear and enhance it. His film opens with haunting images of mummies in grotesque postures. Herzog routinely broke the rules to get the shot he needed. Here, he took the Mummies of Guanajuato out of their protective glass cases and arranged them as he saw fit. These naturally-preserved mummies date back to an 1833 cholera epidemic, with many mistakenly buried alive (accounting for their horrified expressions), and they serve as a thematic link between the film’s crypt-dweller and the obvious Plague metaphor he’s meant to represent.

A few scenes later, Herzog contrasts those grisly opening images (along with a bat flying in extreme slow-motion) with fluffy kittens playing in a Jonathan Harker’s (Bruno Ganz) cheerful home. But Harker’s soon off to Transylvania at the behest of Renfield (Roland Topor), who insists Count Dracula wishes to purchase a nearby abandoned home. While Renfield’s cryptic remarks about the difficult journey over the Carpathians costing Harker “a lot of sweat, and perhaps a bit of blood” are pulled straight from the source material, Herzog stretches out the traveling sequences to highlight landscape both pastoral and grim. Clouds swirl over mountains with great portent. A dark river rushes by. Backlit images of Harker traversing midnight terrain stretch his shadows long.

While Kinski cuts a terrifying image adorned in his knife-like claws and cadaverous makeup, the intensity of his presence makes Dracula the most skin-crawling. When Harker accidentally slices his finger while cutting his bread, Dracula’s lust for blood is both pathetic and dominating. As the Count throws back a chair and stalks a backpedaling Harker toward the fireplace, Herzog keeps the camera squarely on Kinski’s twisted face, his eyes boring into poor Harker. Though capturing the same sequence of events, Herzog wisely improves upon the original scene by turning the camera onto the fierceness of his vampire’s demonic sneer, whereas Murnau kept his camera trained on the terror-stricken face of the visitor.

Herzog also stays away from spending as much time as Murnau does in the hull of the doomed ship that carries the clandestine Count, and he expounds upon the desperate horror of a captain tying himself to the ship’s wheel. The addition of sound also allows Renfield to be far more unsettling as he sits in his cell, laughing maniacally while he collects his soon-to-be-consumed flies. And Herzog isn’t willing to end his film on the original Nosferatu’s positive note. Instead, Harker gradually turns into a vampire himself as he’s reunited with his Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). Though she lures Dracula into the distraction of her jugular until he’s killed by the sun, Harker ends the film blazing across the twilit flats on his horse, having his own new-found vampiric terror to inflict.

A remake of this kind would’ve given Herzog an excuse to divert from his unyielding pursuit of “ecstatic truth.” Instead, he uses the heightened stylization inherent to a gothic vampire story to expose the deeper truths that he so vehemently declares cinema verité lacks. Herzog’s Dracula makes for an accursed creature not only in his predatory bloodlust, but in his tortured immortality. Death is a luxury verboten to him by his unnatural existence. If the human condition—as Herzog’s films insist—requires peering into the abyss of the soul, then Dracula is deprived even of that abyss. He’s given the freedom from death, but that freedom ultimately only compounds the futility of sentience. Perhaps he’d be better off as one of the defecating barnyard animals (a Herzog staple) in the coffin-strewn town square. Or the roosters decoratively splayed out on the castle’s dinner table. Or one of the 11,000 dyed rats Herzog reportedly underfed to the point that they began eating each other. In the end, don’t we all eat each other?

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