How do you take a silent film, that’s one of the most iconic works of German Expressionist cinema alongside the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, remake it in late ’70s and in color, and have it work just as well? You have Werner Herzog do it, apparently.
A quick note on the version of the film I watched. For purposes of this review, I watched the English language release, as opposed to the German subtitled release, as that version was unavailable to me.
Narratively, the film works a lot like the silent film version – Johnathan Harker, real-estate agent, is sent by his boss, Renfield, on a rushed mission to Transylvania to close a property deal with the mysterious Count Dracula. Harker has some difficulty going to Dracula’s house due to the townsfolk refusing to take him there, forcing Harker to travel to the estate on foot.
Upon his arrival, Harker spends several days on the isolated, confining estate before the Count agrees to close the deal, after seeing a picture of Harker’s wife in his watch, and upon learning they would be effectively neighbors. During the evenings of this time, Harker is fed on by the Count, incidents which Harker’s wife Lucy witnesses in her dreams.
From here, the film (both the silent version and Herzog’s remake) has its most dramatic shift from the novel, one which changes the allegory of the vampire completely. The ship which Dracula takes from Transylvania to Germany carries not only the Count, but also rats carrying the plague, rats which are controlled by the Count (something Renfield’s dialog in this version calls out). Thus, in the this film, the Vampire is changed from an allegory for predatory sexuality (possibly by newly rich Eastern European nobles in Stoker’s case), to an allegory for plague – one which was very topical and no doubt struck home when the original film was released (1922 – 4 years after the great Flu pandemic), and which also seems fitting considering this film was released in the early years of the US introduction of the AIDS pandemic, and after HIV had been introduced to Europe.
From there we see the social order in Harker’s hometown disintegrate as the town succumbs to the plague. With members of the town quarantining themselves from their community, Dracula can feed with impunity, and as the death toll rises, the populace succumbs to mass despair – including an wonderfully surreal scene where the some of the townsfolk have a public “mass supper” in the center of town.
Finally, from a book that Harker (who has since returned to town, pale, ill, and driven to the brink of madness) possesses about vampirism, Lucy learns that this is the work of the Vampire, and shortly later, Dracula confronts her – explaining his torment, that he lives forever, undying, but also alone, without love, and asking if she could love someone like him like she loves Harker. Having seen the destruction that the Count has wrought on her town, her response is absolutely not. However, once she determines that no one in the town will hear her out, she places holy wafer in the Count’s coffins, breaking his hold on the rats, and then tricks Dracula into feeding on her until daybreak. This costs her her life, but also kills Dracula as well – and Van Helsing (who is just a doctor, not a vampire expert as he is in most adaptations) – finishes him off with a stake to the heart.
However, all is not well – Harker has become a vampire. He turns on Van Helsing, forcing what exists of the town’s guard to arrest Van Helsing (for what it’s worth – the “guard” is the town clerk, and he has no arms and he can’t exactly guard Van Helsing since he also has to do his job) – and bearing the fangs of the vampire, he rides out, cursed with immortal life, and to live alone.
So, aside from the ending, which is original to this version, what makes this color version of the film works is some absolutely fantastic cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, who has worked heavily with Herzog in the past. We get some really impressive shots of the town and Dracula’s castle. The shots of Dracula’s castle in particular really get across it’s isolated, confining nature. But what takes this to the next step is that all the walls are white – this is not a dark castle, it’s bright – belying the true darkness that lies beneath the surface.
It is not superior to the original F. W. Murnau film, but I would say that Werner Herzog has created a film that is the equal of the original, and when the original is one of the most iconic horror films, and most iconic depictions of the vampire in the history of cinema, that is no small feat.