Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

Klaus Kinski plays Dracula in Werner Herzog's fantastic and atmospheric version of the classic story. Anchor Bay UK R2 boxset + DVD.

The Film

German art, has a large gap in its history between 1933 and the early 1950s - the cinema industry in particular had taken a long time to recover from the effects of World War 2. Many of the best pre-war German film makers, including Fritz Lang and Karl Freund, had fled to America, never to return. Through the 1950s and 1960s, most German film production was aimed at the domestic markets only and it was not until the early 1970s that the 'New German Cinema' emerged, headlined by the films of Rainer Fassbiner, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog himself. However, Herzog felt that this new cinema was divorced from the classic German films of the 1920s, and set out to create a film that would pay homage and tribute to this era, and hopefully connect the two periods together.

Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is an estate agent, sent by his boss Renfield to the distant Transylvania to sell a house to a certain Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). After the long journey into Eastern Europe, Harker is left to walk to the castle when none of the peasants will take him. Arriving at the castle, he makes the deal with the Count, but finds himself trapped and forced to watch as the Count packs a cart and heads for Virna. Harker tries to escape the castle and save his wife Lucy but is striken with fever. As Dracula arrives in Virna, the plauge follows him...

For most of the run-time, Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) uses the basic story structure and characters from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). While the earlier film was driven by copyright expediency into changing names and characters, Herzog is able to change the character's names back to their original Dracula names, but retains many of the curious character changes; most notably the character of Renfield who is given a background, rather than his unexplained appearence in the novel: here he is Harker's boss who sends him out to Transylvania and gradually becomes madder as the Count approaches until he has to be locked in an asylum. Similarly, Van Helsing is a very minor character, a local professor who studies the effects of the vampire from a detatched stand-point and plays no role in his demise. The Murnau film also made several key storyline changes which are retained here, beginning with the film's prologue opening. While the source novel, and hence most films open with Harker on his way to Castle Dracula, here we get an short sequence in Varnia where Harker is dispatched to Translyvania by his agent and has to bid a tearful farewell to Lucy. For budgetary reasons, and to avoid copyright infringment, Murnau replaced the novel's English locations with German cities and pushed the film's setting back to the early 1800s, something that Herzog has faithfully reproduced here.

Murnau conveyed many interesting themes in his film that Herzog retains here. Although married, Harker and his wife do not share a bed - the curious implication being that she is still virginal. Accordingly, Herzog changes the name of the character from Mina (who is Harker's wife in the novel) to Lucy (who in the novel is the virginal young woman who, despite her three suitors, is only penetrated for the first time by Dracula himself). After Harker's arrival in the castle there is, in most versions of the film, a distinction between the daytime when Harker is free to roam the castle by himself, and the nighttime when Dracula emerges - the 1922 film makes this distinction very well, with the castle curiously seeming to 'come alive' at night and ironically become more inviting that the shell it appears to be during the day. Most importantly is the theme of Dracula as a pestilence - his almost insect-like appearance is combined with a plauge that follows him onto the Demeter, through the ports where they land and into Varnia itself. Herzog shows this with the swarms of rats that invade the city once the boat lands there.

That is not to say that Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) is a pure remake, and Herzog's screenplay makes a number of alterations of its own. The most important of these is the change to Count Dracula himself; while Murnau's Count Orlok was similarly animalistic and hideous, he was an evil creature who seemed to enjoy his position - meanwhile Herzog's Dracula is a tragic, almost pathetic creature who mourns his inability to be part of human society and his inability to die. The sequences after Dracula's arrival in Varnia take on an almost apocalyptic feel as the town becomes wreaked with plague, and the film's climax is quite unexpected. Like many of Herzog's best works, the entire film has a dream-like, nightmarish quality to it, helped by some rather surreal scenes that increase in intensity towards the end, particularly after Dracula's arrival in Varnia. In keeping with this atmosphere, the film's pacing is suitably sedate, but it never drags and the 100 plus minute run-time feels more like 90.

It is clear from the opening shots of mummified corpses, with a powerfully haunting score, that Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) is going to be a very different experience to most Dracula films. Filmed entirely on location, with many scenes shot in Eastern Europe, the landscapes are as much a part of the film as the actors. Harker's journey to Castle Dracula becomes a real journey into darkness and shadow. The film is geniunely scary in a way that few other Dracula pictures have achieved, every shot of the Count carries a powerful atmosphere and brings a real sense of dread. The interior of the castle is no comfort, it is certainly not the well lit, inhabitable abode of Hammer's Dracula (1958), rather the paint is old and peeling and the walls are dirty in a way that studio work rarely captures - the use of real locations obviously has the advantage of allowing much longer single-take camera runs as the camera 'walks' down long and labyrinth corridors with Harker and you can see the massive forests outside the windows. There are a number of nice 'reference shots', reproducing classic scenes from the 1922 film, including the Demeter's silent, drifting arrival into Varnia and the vampire's late night visit to Jonathan's castle bedroom. The film's atmosphere is boosted by a very strong soundtrack from Florian Fricke, who also wrote the similarly haunting scores to Herzog's Aguirre (1972) and Heart of Glass (1976). The use of the 'choir organ' stop in particular helps to creates the incredibly strong atmosphere, and there is some interesting use of the opening from Wagner's Das Rheingold - a piece that seems to be continually building up to to climax that never comes.

Klaus Kinski again takes the lead role, and although he has much less screen-time than in his other unions with Herzog, when he is onscreen he completely steals the show with a wonderfully haunted performance. Bruno Ganz has the most screen time and gives a very strong performance as the terrified Harker. Isabelle Adjani looks very beautiful as Lucy.

Werner Herzog's tribute to German cinema history is a very well made film, and if not an improvement on the original, it is a worthwhile accompaniment. As a Dracula film, it takes many liberties with the plot, but does sucessfully capture an otherworldly atmosphere that is missing in many interpretations. Herzog/Kinski fans will certainly want to see this production, it is highly recommended to classic horror fans and comes recommended to all cinema fans.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Klaus Kinski - One of the biggest names in Euro-cult cinema, most famous for his 5 films with Herzog.
Bruno Ganz - A respected German actor who recently played Hitler in the powerful Downfall (2004).
Directed by anyone interesting? Werner Herzog - one of European cinema's best directors with a powerful artistic vision in all his films.
Any violence/gore? A lot of death, but almost no blood and no violence.
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Eerie and geniunely scary, this film is highly recommended to all, especially horror fans.
Good soundtrackA powerful and haunting score from Florian Fricke that really builds the atmosphere.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is of a good quality, with minimal damage and some grain, but a general softness to the image. 
Audio German 5.1 and 2.0, both sound fine.
Subtitles English - translates the German track.
Run-timeFeature: 1hr 42m 25s (PAL)
AvailabilityThe single disc version is included in the Herzog Kinski collection boxset. Also available on a 2 disc edition released seperately.
Extras Both sets include:
  • Audio Commentary with Herzog and moderator Norman Hill. Detailed and interesting.
  • Documentary shot during filming, including interviews with Herzog and Kinski plus lots of behind-the-scenes footage. Very interesting. English. 1.33:1, pillarboxed in anamorphic frame. (13m 02s)
  • Original cinema trailers, 2 x American and 1 Spanish. (6m 44s)
  • The boxset release includes talent bios for Kinski and Herzog.
  • The 2-disc set also includes the English language version of the film which is slighly longer and includes some alternate takes, but no actual extra scenes. English audio, no subtitles. (1hr 46m 29s)
Region Boxset release is Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL  
Two-disc edition is Region 0 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? Anchor Bay R1 DVD - sharper print.
Cuts? None known. German language print.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 17th August 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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