I am on such a run of great films that it’s in danger of getting a little tiresome to record my thoughts on here. Another wonderful film, how predictable!
But this IS a wonderful film. Being a retelling of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, this film has to be special simply to avoid being a failure and is. Herzog brings to the film a visual intelligence and a mastery of atmosphere which never wavers. From the bright and airy opening in the Harkers’ home to the run down, austere isolation of Dracula’s castle, Herzog controls the viewer experience down to the nearest detail. These are not images which are obvious or border upon self-parody, they are real and ground the viewing experience. For stretches of the film, there is an almost dreamy mysticism about what we are seeing (at one point Harker states that he feels as though he was in a nightmare from which he cannot awake) but this is never achieved through simplistic, surreal imagery. The film is built upon the atmosphere which Herzog creates through simple visual storytelling, with minimal but timely support from the soundtrack. The meeting between Renfield and Harker is unsettling visually and disturbs all the more as a result, the scenes within the castle are claustrophobic and oppressive, the handheld footage of Harker’s journey takes us with him through breathtaking but ominous scenery and when finally we arrive at the castle the introduction of the vampire is sudden when film-watching conditioning prepares us for a tension-building, drawn-out wait.
When Harker (Bruno Ganz, a fine actor) first encounters Dracula (Klaus Kinski) the viewer is thus taken aback. Suddenly, from trepidation we are confronted with the stark, cold presence of Count Dracula. There is a chilliness which emanates from the screen and- though he looks very similar to Max Schreck in the original- Kinski’s appearance at the door retains the power to shock.
A word about Kinski at this point. Having recently seen his seething, unhinged portrayal Aguirre it would not have been a stretch to imagine his Dracula being equally malevolent in tone. It is not. Neither does he settle for Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi’s more urbane and charming depiction of the vampire. Kinski’s Dracula is racked with remorse at his condition, he is soft-voiced and almost effeminate but racked with self-loathing- his stealthy movements and bat-like countenance are at odds with his awkward stance and almost pitiful reluctance to act like the monster that he is. His inner torment is present in every anguished movement, every syllable is tormented- when he is rejected by Lucy Harker (an impressive, and almost vampiric-looking Isabelle Adjani) he responds not with fury or force but with the anguished whimper of a whipped cur and a sorrowful retreat into the night. To portray a grotesque fantasy figure of such widespread fame as real and believable, is both courageous and unexpected. Kinski, again, proves himself to be a preconception-shattering actor of depth and resourcefulness.
Every scene here is shot through with a thorough attention to detail, the work that has been done to achieve this has been painstaking, there are scenes which would today be achieved through CGI and would look impotent but here are authentic and hard-hitting (most notably the rat-infested feast of the plagued). Every aspect of the film has been tightly controlled, it is shot through with a purposefulness and an intent of supporting the whole which is monumental. Herzog intended every second of footage to have precisely the effect that it does. This is masterful scrupulous direction.
And it is in this way that Herzog is able to frame his film as a faithful but nevertheless non-derivative retelling of Murnau’s tale. Kinski’s almost feral movements allow the key scenes featuring him to work in near-silence, his ghostly pallor allows the footage to become almost monochrome. A tremendous achievement – 9/10.