Jonathan Harker is an estate agent in Wismar, Germany. His boss, Renfield, informs him that a nobleman named Count Dracula wishes to buy a property in Wismar, and assigns Harker to visit the count and complete the lucrative deal. Leaving his young wife Lucy behind in Wismar, Harker travels for four weeks to Transylvania, to the castle of Count Dracula. He carries with him the deeds and documents needed to sell the house to the Count. On his journey, Jonathan stops at a village, where locals plead for him to stay clear of the accursed castle, providing him with details of Dracula's vampirism. Harker ignores the villagers' pleas as superstition, and continues his journey unassisted ascending the Borgo Pass. Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, where he meets the Count, a strange, almost rodent-like man, with large ears, pale skin, sharp teeth, and long fingernails.
The lonely Count is enchanted by a small portrait of Lucy and immediately agrees to purchase the Wismar property, especially with the knowledge that he and Lucy would become neighbors. As Jonathan's visit progresses, he is haunted at night by a number of dream-like encounters with the vampiric Count. Simultaneously, in Wismar, Lucy is tormented by night terrors, plagued by images of impending doom. Additionally, Renfield is committed to an asylum after biting a cow, apparently having gone completely insane. To Harker's horror, he finds the Count asleep in a coffin, confirming for him that Dracula is indeed a vampire. At night, Dracula leaves for Wismar, taking with him a number of coffins, filled with the cursed earth that he needs for his vampiric rest. Harker finds that he is locked in the castle, and attempts to escape through a window with a makeshift rope. The rope, fashioned from bedsheets, is not long enough, and Jonathan falls, severely injuring himself. He awakes on the ground the next morning, stirred by the sound of a young gypsy boy playing a violin. He is eventually sent to a hospital and raves about 'black coffins' to doctors, who then assume that the sickness is affecting his mind.
Meanwhile, Dracula and his coffins travel to Wismar by boat, via the Black Sea port of Varna, thence through the Bosphorus and Gibraltar straits and around the entire west European Atlantic coast to the Baltic Sea. He systematically kills the entire crew, making it appear as if they were afflicted with plague. The ghost ship arrives, with its cargo, at Wismar, where doctors – including Abraham Van Helsing – investigate the strange fate of the ship. They discover a log that mentions their perceived affliction with plague. In turn, Wismar is flooded with rats from the ship. Dracula arrives in Wismar with his coffins, and death spreads rapidly throughout the town. When Jonathan is finally transported home, he is desperately ill, and does not appear to recognize his wife. Lucy later has an encounter with Count Dracula; weary and unable to die, he demands some of the love that she gave so freely to Jonathan, but she refuses, much to Dracula's dismay. Now aware that something other than plague is responsible for the death that has beset her once-peaceful town, Lucy desperately tries to convince the townspeople, but they are skeptical and uninterested. She finds that she can vanquish Dracula's evil by distracting him at dawn, but at the expense of her own life. She lures the Count to her bedroom, where he proceeds to drink her blood.
Lucy's beauty and purity distract Dracula from the call of the rooster, and at the first light of day, he collapses to the floor, dead. Van Helsing arrives to discover Lucy, dead but victorious. He then drives a stake through the heart of the Count to make sure Lucy's sacrifice was not in vain. In a final twist, Jonathan Harker awakens from his sickness, now a vampire, and arranges for Van Helsing's arrest for the murder of Count Dracula. He is last seen traveling away on horseback, garbed in the same fluttering black as Dracula, stating enigmatically that he has much to do.Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula
Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker
Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker
Roland Topor as Renfield
Walter Ladengast as Dr Abraham Van Helsing
Dan van Husen as Warden
Jan Groth as Harbormaster
Carsten Bodinus as Schrader
Martje Grohmann as Mina
Rijk de Gooyer as Town official
Clemens Scheitz as Clerk
John Leddy as Coachman
Tim Beekman as Coffin bearer
Lo van Hensbergen
Margiet van Hartingsveld
While the basic story is derived from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, director Herzog made the 1979 film primarily as an homage remake of F. W. Murnau's seminal silent film Nosferatu (1922), which differs somewhat from Stoker's original work. The makers of the earlier film could not obtain the rights for a film adaptation of Dracula, so they changed a number of minor details and character names in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid copyright infringement on the intellectual property owned (at the time) by Stoker's widow. A lawsuit was filed, resulting in an order for the destruction of all prints of the film. Some prints survived, and were restored after Florence Stoker had died and the copyright had expired. By the 1960s and early 1970s, the original silent returned and was enjoyed by a new generation of movie goers.
Herzog considered Murnau's Nosferatu to be the greatest film ever to come out of Germany, and was eager to make his own version of the film, with Klaus Kinski in the leading role. In 1979, by which time the copyright for Dracula had entered the public domain, Herzog proceeded with his updated version of the classic German film, which could now include the original character names.
Nosferatu the Vampyre was co-produced by Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, French film company Gaumont, and West German public-service television station ZDF. As was common for West German films during the 1970s, Nosferatu the Vampyre was filmed on a minimal budget, and with a crew of just 16 people. Herzog could not film in Wismar, where the original Murnau film was shot, so he relocated production to Delft, Netherlands. Parts of the film were shot in nearby Schiedam, after Delft authorities refused to allow Herzog to release 11,000 rats for a scene in the film. Dracula's home is represented by locations in Czechoslovakia.
At the request of distributor 20th Century Fox, Herzog produced two versions of the film simultaneously, to appeal to English-speaking audiences. Scenes with dialogue were filmed twice, in German and in English, meaning that the actor's own voices (as opposed to dubbed dialogue by voice actors) could be included in the English version of the film. Herzog himself said in 2014 that the German version was more "authentic."
The opening sequence was filmed by Herzog himself at the Mummies of Guanajuato museum, Guanajuato, Mexico, where a large number of naturally mummified bodies of the victims of an 1833 cholera epidemic are on public display. Herzog had first seen the Guanajuato mummies while visiting in the 1960s. On his return in the '70s he took the corpses out of the glass cases in which they are normally stored. To film them, he propped them against a wall, arranging them in a sequence running roughly from childhood to old age.
Kinski's Dracula make-up, with black costume, bald head, rat-like teeth and long fingernails, is an imitation of Max Schreck's makeup in the 1922 original. The makeup artist who worked on Kinski was Japanese artist Reiko Kruk. Although he fought with Herzog and others during the making of other films, Kinski got along with Kruk and the four-hour makeup sessions went on with no outbursts from Kinski himself. A number of shots in the film are faithful recreations of iconic shots from Murnau's original film, some almost perfectly identical to their counterparts, intended as an homage to Murnau.
The film score to Nosferatu the Vampyre was composed by the West German group Popol Vuh, who have collaborated with Herzog on numerous projects. Music for the film comprises material from the group's album Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts. Additionally, the film features Richard Wagner's prelude to Das Rheingold, Charles Gounod's "Sanctus" from Messe solennelle à Sainte Cécile and traditional Georgian folk song Tsintskaro, sung by Vocal Ensemble Gordela.
Dutch behavioral biologist Maarten 't Hart, hired by Herzog for his expertise of laboratory rats, revealed that, after witnessing the inhumane way in which the rats were treated, he no longer wished to cooperate. Apart from travelling conditions that were so poor that the rats, imported from Hungary, had started to eat each other upon arrival in the Netherlands, Herzog insisted the plain white rats be dyed gray. In order to do so, according to Hart, the cages containing the rats needed to be submerged in boiling water for several seconds, causing another half of them to die. The surviving rats proceeded to lick themselves clean of the dye immediately, as Hart had predicted they would. Hart also implies sheep and horses that appear in the movie were treated very poorly, but does not specify this any further.
Released as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht in German and Nosferatu the Vampyre in English, the film was entered into the 29th Berlin International Film Festival, where production designer Henning von Gierke won the Silver Bear for an outstanding single achievement.
Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a 94% approval critic response based on 50 reviews, with a "Certified Fresh" and an average score of 8.1/10. The site's consensus states: "Stunning visuals from Werner Herzog and an intense portrayal of the famed bloodsucker from Klaus Kinski make this remake of Nosferatu a horror classic in its own right."
In contemporary reviews, the film is noted for maintaining an element of horror, with numerous deaths and a grim atmosphere, but it features a more expanded plot than many Dracula productions, with a greater emphasis on the vampire's tragic loneliness. Dracula is still a ghastly figure, but with a greater sense of pathos; weary, unloved, and doomed to immortality. Reviewer John J. Puccio of MovieMet considers it a faithful homage to Murnau's original film, significantly updating the original material, and avoiding the danger of being overly derivative.
In 2011, Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies Collection". Concluding his four star review, Ebert said:
One striking quality of the film is its beauty. Herzog's pictorial eye is not often enough credited. His films always upstage it with their themes. We are focused on what happens, and there are few 'beauty shots'. Look here at his control of the color palette, his off-center compositions, of the dramatic counterpoint of light and dark. Here is a film that does honor to the seriousness of vampires. No, I don't believe in them. But if they were real, here is how they must look.