Released by BFI on May 19th 2014.
Director – Werner Herzog
Starring – Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz.
The story of Dracula has been told a thousand times before on the silver screen, the characters lasting appeal is evident in the luscious and romanticised interpretations presented across generations; it is F W Murnau’s 1922 expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu which is an undoubted influence on German director Werner Herzog’s reinterpretation of this classic story, his love song to the pinnacle of German cinema’s expressionist era.
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, Downfall), a real estate agent from Wismar, Germany is tasked with an ill fated journey through the Carpathian Mountains to close a deal with the mysterious Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, Wrath of God). Despite several bad omens on his arduous journey Harker makes the trip only to discovers all is not as it seems with the count and his mansion.
The Pallid Count, his sickly pale skin, almost transparent exudes an aura in every scene he appears in. Kinski, the driving force here not once feels as though he needs to tread into camp overacting; a feat which is both refreshing and necessary to the story.
Herzog’s Dracula isn’t your atypical portrayal but this isn’t a typical horror picture, he masterfully creates tension with wonderfully crafted framing and painterly, expressionist imagery. Combined with an evocative and emotive score from Popul Vuh offers a deliberately paced cinematic experience filled with passion and homage – the aforementioned German expressionism movement a driving force in Herzog’s opus – in equal measure.
This film will undoubtedly alienate a large section of the current generation of vampire flick fandom, this is a staggeringly slow paced, character driven and distinctly human tale, the desperate nature of the count and his struggle with immortality a beautifully rich study of the lust and subsequent burden of everlasting life. Herzog presents this as a hindrance to the count rather than a power to be exploited, the usual vampire trope in modern cinema. This is a curious addition to the psyche of the count bringing a moving and thoughtful dimension to the vampire mythos.
Kinski plays the role much like the masters of silent cinema contorting his figure to evolve into the backgrounds strikingly fierce and terrifying at the same time, much like Max Schreck did with Count Orlock in the Murnau production from 1922. The magnetism of the vampire is evident in his scenes with Lucy Harker, upon watching her in her bedchamber wistfully lusting after the love she shares with her husband offers a wisp of longing and is presented here as something that the count is missing, love.
His acting is both meticulously paced and captivating, from the moment he firsts meets Harker to the desperate longing on display when a cut raises the counts primal urges Kinski uses his posture, eye contact and a tremendous intensity to bring the count to life.
Jonathan Harker is an interesting study into the depths that humanity will go to discover the unknown, starting his journey to the castle his motive, the purchase of a new home for his beloved wife Lucy quickly spirals into a quest to discover the truth behind the counts “ghost Castle” and the occupant, the count an elusive and supernatural fairy tale to the locals.
The supporting cast all work marvellously particularly Roland Topor’s portrayal of Renfield, his menacing and completely insane, mistimed cackling is wonderfully creepy and later in the film he is enamoured with the count his obedience and longing showcase his acting ability. The gorgeous Isabelle Adjani plays Lucy Harker wistfully, appearing almost dreamlike in some sequences, a rich ethereal presence heightened by the surreal and fantastical camerawork makes her a pivotal and seductive character and it is easy to see why Dracula lusts after her.
Opening with an harsh, unrelenting pan of mummified corpses- victims of a cholera epidemic- is jarred with haunting choral music setting the proceedings nicely, this is again coupled with the idyllic surroundings in which Harker journeys, again the accompanying music is hauntingly beautiful as it is throughout.
The film’s set design and lighting are both outstanding with the expressionist era encapsulated in the counts castle design, high angled shots showcase the intricate pattern and designs which were synonymous with the Murnau production and the blu ray showcases these perfectly shadows elicit the dark and expansive emptiness of the surroundings and bring the viewer closer to the feelings of Harker himself.
The muted colours express the desolation of the journey and an overuse of white reflects the undead nature of the count, everything from the craggy mountainsides with their dark grey and shadowy depths are alienating to the damp, wet countryside and dull, dank landscape shots all add to the feel of the film not guiding or smothering the viewer with a sense of security.
BFI have included both the German and English language versions of the film on the disc; the German language version the superior of the two presentations Kinski’s acting benefits more form this production,his delivery and emotion resonate more in his native tongue than they do in the English version. Both versions are of merit and it is down to personal preference as to which you view.
BFI have included a wonderful new essay from Laurie Johnson that thoroughly dissects the film and touches upon a controversial scene involving a plague of rats, Herzog received a lot of negative press about the mistreatment of animals during both the making of this and throughout his career, she offers a brilliant study of the film and is a highlight of this release. Sight and Sounds review from Tom Milne is included in the booklet as well and offers a fascinating look at the film from the time of its release in 1979, essential stuff.
An on set promotional film from 1979 is included and features extensive candid interviews with Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski about the shooting of Nosferatu to see them both talking about the film, film history and continuity.
Watching Herzog direct is a thing of beauty, the working relationship between the two as it has been historically documented and one filled with turmoil. Herzog is a passionate film maker and he comes across as a determined and focussed director with a rich passion for the embodiment of cinema itself, his passion unfolds across the screen a distinct, driven persona.
This package from the BFI is both an essential and important release. Hopefully BFI will offer a whole new generation of cinephiles a chance to see a master at work, evocative seductive and intense this is the epitome of vampire films.
• Limited Edition SteelBook
• Newly remastered presentations of the English and German versions
• Original mono audio (German and English)
• Alternative 5.1 Surround audio (German)
• Feature-length audio commentary with Werner Herzog
• On-set documentary (1979, 13 mins): promotional film featuring candid interviews with Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski
• Original theatrical trailer
• Stills gallery
• Fully illustrated booklet with a new essay by Laurie Johnson, full film credits and on-set photographs