Plague Comes to Town

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

The vampire enters the frame abruptly, in close-up, filling it as the camera racks focus. All at once, he is there. He pauses, straightens, as if he has just become aware of his surroundings. Still we can see the lights, stretching away across the town square, the roofs against the dusk-filled sky in picturesque tableau. Immediately, juxtapositions are created: between the predator and its new hunting grounds; a specter of the past in a modern world; the last vestiges of the light as darkness encroaches. So it is that Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre ends its world—swiftly, and yet by inches.

It feels like happenstance that the camera should have caught him here at all—he is an intruder in his own film, the postcard-perfect image of the square at dusk suddenly eclipsed by his great pallid visage, like a pre-set camera serendipitously capturing the natural behavior of an animal that has wandered into the shot.

We can see simultaneously the roving eye of a predator tracking a scent, as well as the look of a man alone in a strange new place, lost and unsure. What is this world he has come to, with its strange lights and fine buildings? He seems to sway, in hesitation perhaps. We can pluck out a single moment of the creature’s repose as his gaze wanders. 

That is the power of a single frame, to capture one confluence of the face in isolation, the twitch and movement of the eye, there and gone again. A moment where the shadow follows the lines of the face in just such a way that the withered soul of the creature that fills the screen seems to writhe against the placidity of the background. Against the well-ordered framing of the square, the vampire cuts an asymmetrical figure. The right eye, swathed in shadow by actor Klaus Kinski’s heavy brow, appears as a gaping socket, the whole right half of his face rendered into one of those wretched mummies from the film’s opening. 

Kinski’s Dracula seems without free will. He is, in many ways, a miserable creature: habitual rather than active, with no more choice than an animal, just as his rats cannot help but spread their diseases. There is a dullness to the way he casts his gaze about—the wearisome lack of surprise that real immortality imparts. 

Herzog said of the moment he first saw Kinski in the courtyard of the Munich boarding house they shared: “I knew at that moment that my destiny was to direct films, and that he would be the actor.” Kinski was, by all accounts, an abusive tyrant to everyone around him, but both actor and director felt as if he was born to play the role. Kinski’s Count seems to be let loose on-screen. This is his natural environment. 

He is a parasitic presence, dwelling in the dark, alone. He is utterly isolated even in the middle of the city. The leading lines of the square and the lamps stretch away to emphasize its size and emptiness—not another soul stirs. The Count is a shadow, a revenant only half-there but still terrifyingly present. 

This is the shot that places him firmly in the modern world of 19th-century Wismar (filmed in the Netherlands’ Delft): apart, but very much active within it. We have seen him terrorize the ship Contamana which bore him here. We have seen his harbingers, his legions, the horde of pestilential rats, weave their way into the city. We have seen him hoisting coffins through darkened streets and darting through the ruined, abandoned spaces where he makes his sanctuaries. Now his affairs have been attended to, the rituals of his peculiarly tormented existence observed, and he is free to stalk the night in pursuit of his true goal. He has begun early this evening—though the sun has set, the sky still holds the last vestiges of daylight. The devil is about his business, and the plague has come to town. 

The vast main square in Delft is well-suited to the film’s mood: there’s the stately, historic town hall at one end and a towering, dark, gothic church on the other. This is the first we see of the locale, placid and pristine, and its deterioration will mirror the destruction of civic life as the Count’s plague takes hold. Within days, the mayor will be dead, the town council dissolved, serpentine processions of pallbearers and coffins will fill the square. The bodies of livestock litter the streets alongside broken carriages and shattered furniture. Not long after, it will be filled with revelers, dancing away their last days among frivolity and feasting. 

Herzog refers to the plague the Count brings not just as a physical sickness, but a spiritual one as well. “Nosferatu is not a monster, but an ambivalent, masterful force of change,” he says. “When the plague threatens, people throw their property into the streets, they discard their bourgeois trappings. A re‐evaluation of life and its meaning takes place.” Indeed, Jonathan Harker’s priorities reflect this: he undertakes the long and arduous journey to the Count’s domain for economic reasons—the commission will allow him to buy a bigger house for Lucy and himself, while Lucy’s fears and pleas for him to remain with her are ignored, or only momentarily indulged. Absurdities abound even in the devastating wake of the plague. When Dr. Van Helsing is ordered to be apprehended after his “murder” of the Count, a perplexed official objects that there are no police officers left to make arrests. He is forced to do it himself, unarmed, taking Van Helsing to the prison to await trial, even though there are no guards to hold him. 

The boundaries have broken down, the rats are flooding through the cracks. The vampire is a figure which conventional barriers cannot deny. The structures of society give way before him, just as the locked door of a house cannot bar him entry. Time, too, does not bind him to its course, but is a haze through which he wanders. An abyss he describes as “profound as a thousand nights.” The vampire is a figure out of his own time, cast starkly against the comfortable modernism of Wismar. Just as Dr. Van Helsing disregards Lucy’s supernatural explanation for the epidemic seizing their town, Dracula goes unglimpsed except by those to whom he chooses to show himself. Only the verminous effects of his presence are apparent to all, as they dismantle the complacent bourgeois world.

The story itself is an attempt to reach back through time—Herzog envisioned it as a link between the new German cinema movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the pre-Nazi world of such directors as the original Nosferatu’s F.W. Murnau. “We are a generation without fathers,” he says, “and we must therefore reach back to the true German cultural heritage.” Here, he is reaching into the past to fetch back one of its greatest symbols, an archetype of horror that has ever been on the vanguard of change. And all at once, it is upon us.