Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Dracula (1992): Dracula, In Medias Resurrected

Nosferatu the Vampyr (1979)

Written by Werner Herzog based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, and Bruno Ganz

Dracula (1992)

Written by James V. Hart based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Anthony Hopkins



It was perhaps a little unconventional, but I rang in the new year accompanied by the century-spanning, deathless, Count Dracula. As the world was counting down to another year of living, I was reminded by Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola of time as an eternal and endless now. Nosferatu the Vampyre and Dracula represent nearly diametrically opposed interpretations of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name as Coppola’s film, that has sired the seemingly endless stream of vampire-related media since its writing. Appropriate, I suppose, and possibly unavoidable, that the legacy of Dracula has moved to infect all of society through all mediums of media, bleeding out beyond the reach of print culture.

Each film lays claim to its own unique method of interpreting the story in opposing ways. Coppola grafts a prologue onto his story, tying the historical myth of Vlad the Impaler, who inspired Stoker’s fictional count, directly into the origin of the story’s figure. By inserting this historical framework, and Vlad’s relationship with his bride, whose suicide results in Dracula’s rejection of the light, Coppola creates the space in his film to re-interpret the relationship between Dracula and Mina Harker. Given the task of adapting an expansive novel into a form appropriate for film, Coppola complicates his task by generating more content on top of the wealth already provided by the novel itself. Herzog’s approach is contrary to Coppola’s; Herzog takes the approach of editing down Stoker’s story, conflating several characters into a single character – Van Helsing, for example, functions as both himself and Dr. Steward in Nosferatu – and excising the subplot involving Lucy’s suitors entirely from the film. Indeed, Herzog embeds many of Lucy’s qualities from the novel into Mina and re-names Harker’s wife as Lucy; the new supporting character of Mina is greatly reduced as a result. Because of these editorial decisions, Herzog’s film is starkly lean, pared down, skeletal in its construction, feverish in its focus. When contrasted with Coppola’s Dracula, Nosferatu functions as a foil for the Romantic opulence of Dracula’s narrative line.

This relationship does not end with narrative decisions, but extends through production design and costume as well. Dracula is enamoured with the wealth of the aristocracy represented by Dracula’s status as a count; the costumes are intricate, fashioned of expensive fabrics, silks, lace, velvets, its interiors are expansive, its spaces broad. Dracula’s castle stands towering above an unbelievably steep cliff, the road to it narrow and small. Dracula himself is often swathed in red silk, deeply rich sanguine colours that evoke wealth and passion, given the earmarking of a tragic Romantic anti-hero. Herzog’s exteriors and interiors are naturalistic – which is not to say they are not beautiful. Where Coppola paints Transylvania and England with as much exaggerated beauty as Albert Bierstadt’s America, Herzog allows the scenery of the land to speak for itself. Dracula’s castle, in Nosferatu, looms like a ruin on the cliff-side; its hallways are tight, its furnishings rustic and more practical than opulent. Nosferatu is often bathed in blue light, his clothes uniformly black. There is nothing Romantic about Herzog’s interpretation of the figure of Dracula; rather he is cold, sad, and divorced from any emotion other than hunger and a listless fatigue.

These differences in narrative structure and visual conception may be intrinsically linked to each director’s conception of the Dracula character itself. Coppola’s film, as has been stated, conceives of Dracula as a Romantic anti-hero driven into the darkness by a perceived slight against him by God, despite his fervent servitude. Dracula tells Mina, his ersatz soul mate – if a vampire has a soul at all – that he has crossed oceans of time to find her. Coppola borrows a moment from Cocteau’s La belle et la bête where Dracula collects Mina’s tears and fashions them into diamonds; this connection further strengthens Coppola’s idea of Dracula as misunderstood monster pacified only by true love. Conversely, Herzog’s Count has no concept of love, lost or otherwise. Dracula tells Lucy in Nosferatu, that he has never loved and envies the love that she has for Harker, despite its unknowability. For Herzog’s Dracula, time is an abyss yawning before him, its endless days filled with trivial and insignificant minutiae; undeath is not something romantic to be overcome, but rather an interminable misery and stagnancy.

The performances by Gary Oldman and Klaus Kinski as their respective Draculas are given with equal skill, but move through their worlds as dramatically different creatures. Oldman’s Dracula, even in his aged form that first greets Keanu Reeves’ Harker, is filled with bombast, drama, and emotion. This Dracula seethes with the perceived transgression of God against him, even after all these years; he burns with desire for Mina, romantically motivated beyond his thirst for blood, and, in a moment of profound restraint, hesitates in allowing her to drink his blood and become a vampire as well. Kinski’s Dracula is small, quiet; his voice sounds like running your hand through cobwebs. His hands fold in front of him, or stand starkly out to the side, the nails accentuating the odd right angles of his digits. He moves slowly, but intently, in the presence of Bruno Ganz’s Harker, stalking him slowly. His strength is submerged in the sediment of countless days, but available, as he single-handedly removes his caskets of dirt from the ship that brings him to Wismar.

The rats that accompany Dracula to Wismar – relocated to Germany after F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which Herzog’s film pays deep homage to – provide somewhat of a link between the films. In both films, the vampiric curse of Dracula is tied to illness and disease. In Herzog’s film, the black plague follows Dracula’s movement from Transylvania to Germany, the illness and mortality rates obfuscate his presence as he preys on the crew of the ship that brings him and his soil. Coppola has Van Helsing first introduced giving a lecture at a college about diseases of the blood, specifically, venereal diseases, punning on the development of civilization and syphilization moving hand in hand. Unsurprisingly, the diseases that accompany vampirism have connotations specific to the context and contents of their respective films; Coppola’s romantic focus marries the disease allegory to an interpersonal, sexually transmitted, disease, while Herzog’s bleaker vision frames the disease as an agent through which civilization is dismantled, not merely genitally inconvenienced.

These differing focuses – between interpersonal and societal – are reflected in the manner in which each film ends, also. Dracula ends with Mina and Dracula together in his castle, Dracula mortally injured by Van Helsing’s party. The two acknowledge their spiritual – again, if one can suspend the suspicion that a vampire can indeed maintain a spiritual life in undeath – connection and love that transcends time before Mina beheads Dracula, ending his life and granting him a peace that has long eluded him. Nosferatu ends with Lucy tricking Dracula into staying past sunrise, feeding on her, sacrificing herself to ensure his demise. Val Helsing arrives and resolves to finish the count with a stake. Harker, trapped by the Holy host crumbs that Lucy spread at his feet, himself a vampire now, accuses Van Helsing of murdering the Count and calls for help. When city officials arrive they are unable to arrest him, as the police are all dead; they do not know where he will be held, as there is no one left alive to guard the jail.

The entire social order has been upended by the plague brought by Dracula, in Nosferatu. The traditional avenues of law and order that maintain society have disintegrated: sheep and pigs roam the streets of Wismar, meandering between dead horses and caskets; the remaining people revel in the streets and dine, inundated by rats, as they eat their last supper. This is not to say that there are no instances of inversion in Coppola’s Dracula. The inversions of the natural order here, however, are localized to Dracula and his castle: perfume drips upward in the bedroom of Dracula’s wives; Dracula is seen by Harker, climbing down the castle wall face first. Dracula’s, and the other vampires’, movements are choppy and seemingly inhuman in parts where it seems that Coppola has filmed the movements being performed in reverse to make render them halting and subtly strange when played forward for the viewer.

It is the traditional patriarchal social order that is reinforced, rather than deconstructed, by the ending of Coppola’s Dracula. By structuring his film around a romantic connection between Dracula and Mina, and the film’s subsequent alterations to Mina’s role in the film, Coppla inherently subjugates Mina to Dracula; Mina’s agency in the film is contingent on her value to Dracula, and, if not him, than her being married to Harker. What illusory agency she may gain in actively choosing to drink Dracula’s blood, or in beheading him to bring peace, is negated by these activities’ predication on subservience to a good determined by Dracula. Where the novel has Mina, at worst, function as a neutral medium for information – whether through her ability to transcribe via typewriter, or her ability to sense Dracula’s whereabouts for the men – Coppola’s film reduces her to a passive love-object and adulteress. Conversely, Herzog’s Lucy, in Nosferatu, acts against Dracula despite the scientific sluggishness espoused by Van Helsing, who argues that they must wait for science to determine the best course of action. Lucy circumvents this masculine discourse of information and decision-making and acts of her own accord, having already rejected Dracula’s advances once in her home. She informs Dracula that the love she holds for Harker is beyond his, and God’s, understanding, rejecting these patriarchal structures of power. Lucy’s sacrifice functions not as a gesture of subjugation to a male order, but, rather, as a radical act beyond its authoritative reach.

Each film maintains a true connection to Stoker’s original in distinct ways. Coppola’s Dracula maintains many peculiar and particular elements of the original novel in its attempt to encapsulate as much of the book as it can – i.e., the brides of Dracula, Lucy’s post-death excursions in child ingesting, etc. – while its decision to append an invented romance humanizes Dracula in a way that neuters his ability to function as a source of horror, alienated from a sympathetic relationship to the viewer; Herzog’s Nosferatu excises many interesting small elements from the novel, folding other elements into one another, in order to maintain a clearer sense of what it is that makes Dracula a fascinating horror creation. The nihilistic, black abyss of time that Herzog’s Dracula gazes into is something that Herzog himself is quite sensitive to, citing that quotation again in his recent documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. His Nosferatu suggests mutations beyond the peace gestured toward in Coppola’s Dracula; like any good virus or disease, the contagion persists, changes, and spreads out across the desert of time, borne on the wind, the body having “crumbled into dust and passed from our sight”. However, beyond this frame of seeing, the viewer, like the curse, persists, staring into the abyss, loved or loveless, certain of a movement rippling even in the darkest of places.

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