For two months the British Film Institute is running a series of Gothic horror movies, ranging from FW Murnau’s Nosferatu of 1922 up to the most modern Gothic thrillers like The Shining, The Mummy series, The Woman in Black and so on. The marvellous thing about this series is that is all inclusive, so one can see FWM’s version of Nosferatu and a week later see Werner Herzog’s masterly re-working of the same story, nearer still to the original novel by Bram Stoker: Dracula.
To put them in context, Friedrich Murnau is regarded as one of the finest German film-makers of the early twentieth century, his stature in the silent era of German film making is without parallel, since he was making films very different from the early comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. German Expressionist films of that era, although highly stylised and using very imaginative and mystical scripts, have come to represent some of the finest work of the period. Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Golem: How He Came into the World right through to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and M. All of them use shadow and mirror to great effect. Probably the most famous image from Nosferatu is Count Dracula’s shadow creeping across a wall, claw-like hands spread out towards his victim.
The story of Dracula is now pretty well known and in fact was still in copyright when Murnau made his film, for which he was sued by the Stoker family estate and lost, thereby bankrupting the film studio, who never made another film. So even though FWM had altered the story somewhat, changing names and situations, it was still recognisably the same story. The fact that Bram Stoker himself was using fragments of folklore and binding them into a single narrative was to not let FWM off.
By the time Werner Herzog made his film, homage, remake, refresh or call it what you will in 1979, he was able to return to the original story, so although his film owes much to FWM, it follows more exactly the novel from which the ideas came. But with some significant differences. In the Herzog version, Jonathan Harker (played by Bruno Ganz) is a strong, strapping German mensch; unfazed by dire warnings from good burghers and gypsies alike, he looks as though he could cross the Carpathian mountains on foot, which cannot be said of the same character in the original who is a bit of a wimp.
The imagery and the music are tremendously important, parts of Wagner’s Rheingold music fill your ears as Jonathan Harker sits in the fading light, under the very ramparts of the ruined castle, before climbing the last steps towards his doom. Count Dracula’s carriage which collects him on the other side, the dark side you might say, is to all intents and purposes a glass hearse drawn by four black horses, lacking only the feather plumes for full effect.
Popul Vuh wrote much of the music, as he had done for Aguirre, Wrath of God, another Werner Herzog film about the corruption of power, also with Klaus Kinski, who plays Count Dracula. While Jonathan Harker is a full-blooded mensch, his wife Lucy is played by Isabelle Adjani, almost bloodless even before she has met Dracula.
The performances are universally brilliant, the make-up superb, a blue-black Count Dracula with his extended teeth and fingernails seems the very embodiment of the Undead: tortured, blood-hungry – there is a marvellous scene (in both films) when Jonathan cuts his thumb on a knife, and Count Dracula swoops on it to suck the blood. The truly terrifying enactment of Lucy’s sacrifice gives Klaus Kinski a moment of sheer brilliance, the slurping, sucking sound of his feast at Lucy’s neck manages to be both electrifyingly horrid and deeply erotic at the same time.
The story winds its wounding way from Transylvania to Germany in both films, the principle differences are camera angles, and of course colour. In black and white the rats look black, in colour they are lab rats, white-ish and pink eyed, and thousands of them. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is not CGI, there are literally thousands of rats in every shot once they have escaped from the ship…a miraculous piece of filming.
The final close-up shot of Bruno Ganz, after Count Dracula’s death, and once he has assumed the dreaded mantle is an amazing transformation, for the make-up has created another Dracula much like the first, and all unknowingly has also created Hitler, in the much later film Downfall, also played by Bruno Ganz nearly 30 years later.
The film ends with Jonathan Harker’s Dracula galloping across the sands to the sounds of that most glorious of all Sanctus, the swooping Sanctus of Gounod’s Messe Solomnelle.