Twilight aside, the most ubiquitous images of the vampire hail from the black and white era: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, he of the endlessly parodied accent, and the elaborately gothic sets and shadows of F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu. Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Murnau’s 1922 film is an odd beast, though. As Dracula, Klaus Kinski is buried under enough makeup to look the part of a monster, but he refrains from histrionics or funny voices; it is not his sharp teeth that we remember, but his sad eyes. Herzog, meanwhile, seems to have given little thought to lighting or mise-en-scène, so that his Nosferatu the Vampyre looks more like a documentary or travelogue than a horror movie. Though it gradually enfolds the viewer in an ambiguously unsettled atmosphere, the film does not seem especially interested in being scary; then again, it is not easy to discern what it is interested in. As Herzog tells the story, Dracula is less an object of terror and more an object of pity, albeit not a pity that enlists our sympathies.
The plot unfolds with languid simplicity. Upon learning that Count Dracula wants to buy a house in town, estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) troops off to Transylvania to close the deal, ignoring the misgivings of his wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). Upon seeing Lucy’s portrait, the smitten Count signs the deed and travels to the Harkers’ German hamlet, pursued by Jonathan. Predictably, Dracula racks up a sizable body count along the way, although part of the enigma of Herzog’s film is that very little action occurs onscreen; we don’t even see anyone get their blood sucked until the closing scenes. Perhaps the most startling moment comes when Kinski abruptly rises from a chair at the dinner table and advances on Ganz across the length of a room; nothing violent transpires, yet the film is pervaded by such intense stillness that the sudden movement jars and frightens.
Herzog’s unhurried approach runs counter to the restlessness of his characters, highlighting the futility of their actions. Jonathan spends the first act forging ahead implacably toward Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, roundly dismissing Lucy’s pleas and the warnings of the villagers he encounters. His only stated motive is that he wants to buy his wife a nicer house – an idea which she has evinced no enthusiasm for, and which seems insufficient to underwrite his dogged determination. All we really learn about Jonathan is that he scorns “superstition” and gets impatient when it comes to food: he routinely rushes through his breakfast to get to work and, at the village inn, slaps the table while demanding his supper. None of Jonathan’s flaws really register strongly on a first viewing, however, for Ganz plays him as hapless, mild, passive. It is not until he becomes a vampire in the film’s final moments that the mind races backwards to fill in the gaps.
Jonathan is not a monstrously evil man, merely a petty and small-minded one. His vices are easy to excuse because they are mundane, commonplace; the disorder of his soul coincides neatly with the disorder of the society in which he lives. Many of Christ’s parables trade on the unknowability of the hour of death – your soul may be required of you tomorrow, so you had better repent today – but in the modern era, man is better equipped to ignore the reality of death than ever before. When Dracula comes to town, his presence goes unnoticed by all but Lucy, whose warnings fall on deaf ears. (“This is an enlightened century,” blusters the local doctor, echoing Jonathan’s casual dismissal.) Dracula’s arrival is accompanied by the plague, though this does not quite put the fear of God in people either: by the end, they are surreally cavorting around the town square amidst coffins and rats.
In How To Be Unlucky, Joshua Gibbs writes, “The body may continue to experience pleasure at the expense of the soul; the soul is a kind of fuel source from which the body may draw. If the body is willing to burn a bit of the soul, a little more pleasure can be gained.” Imminent death should prompt us to turn our attention away from the body, which we must soon depart, and towards the soul, but the townspeople double down on pleasure instead. “We’ve all contracted the plague. Let’s enjoy whatever time we have to live,” they tell Lucy, inviting her to join their sad, ersatz Last Supper with a goblet of red wine. The opulent dinner table in the rat-infested town square recalls the full table that welcomes Jonathan to Dracula’s castle and the red wine recalls the blood that Dracula drinks. The more one dwells on the film, the less surprising it is that Jonathan ultimately transforms into a vampire, for both the materialistic consumer and the vampire endlessly pursue pleasure without ever achieving true satisfaction.
The vampire perverts the Eucharist by stealing blood, rather than receiving it with thanksgiving, and by neglecting the corresponding breaking and giving of the body. “Blood is life,” Nosferatu tells us, and vampirism is a kind of enslavement to life. Kinski’s Dracula, almost certainly the glummest vampire ever to grace the silver screen, knows this well: “Death is not the worst,” he tells Jonathan. “There are things more horrible than death. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futile things?” Though Dracula is unable to die himself, he ought to act as a memento mori for others, reminding them that unending life under the sun is merely a grotesque parody of the immortality that Christ offers.
Jonathan fails to take the knowledge that he must die to heart, but Lucy and Dracula, who are visually linked in several scenes by their flowing black cloaks, are also linked by their shared awareness of mortality. The film opens with a dream of mummified corpses, from which Lucy awakes, screaming. “You’re just having another nightmare,” Jonathan soothes, but Lucy knows better. In contrast to Dracula, who longs for death, and her husband, who tries to downplay it, Lucy faces and overcomes her terror of death. “Death is cruelty against the unsuspecting,” says Dracula – cruelty, that is, against those who have not prepared themselves for it. But, as the inscription over the gate of the Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos tells us, “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”
Lucy is defined by the crucifix that she always wears around her neck, for the cross is the ultimate symbol of a death that gives life. The cross is an icon of death as a purposeful sacrifice, not a mere throwing away of one’s life or a futile grasping for it. While Jonathan traipses over the mountains and Dracula travels across the sea, Lucy sits alone in the cemetery, surrounded by crosses, meditating on the certainty of death. While Jonathan and Dracula are characterized by vain and restless action, is it precisely through stillness and purposeful inaction that Lucy defeats Dracula.
Lucy takes up her cross and dies well; the vampire throws the cross away and condemns himself to a futile existence. The film ends with Jonathan racing away from the camera, into the desert, while Charles Gounod’s heavenly “Sanctus” plays on the soundtrack. It is as if the holy music is banishing the vampire to the sea of shifting sand – recalling Christ’s description, in Matthew 12, of demons as roaming through dry places, seeking rest and finding none. By all earthly appearances, Jonathan “gets away with it,” but justice is not cheated, for Herzog has realigned our priorities so that a good death is preferable to a bad life. His fate is far worse than Lucy’s.