An Analysis of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979)
by Joseph Suglia
Was aus Liebe getan wird, geschieht immer jenseits von Gut und Böse.
“Whatever is done out of love always occurs beyond Good and Evil.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft / Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) is less a film about the struggle between Good and Evil than it is a film about the triumph of all-consuming Eros over theology. Each of the film’s personages–Count Dracula, Lucy, Jonathan Harker–are seized by a destructively violent passion. Their desires are one. They are victims of a violent desire that exists on the other side of mortality, on the other side of Good and Evil.
All three characters mirror each other at certain crucial points.
Kinski’s Nosferatu is He-Who-Desires: an incarnation which is curiously effeminate but also strangely virile, virtually androgynous, neither man nor woman. His vampire is leech-like, parasitical, much frailer and sicklier than other, more robust screen vampires (Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, etc.). When Jonathan eats his dinner, Nosferatu stares at his quarry’s neck like a hound in rut. He has no existence outside of the living beings upon whom he feeds. So intensely enamored of Lucy’s neck is Nosferatu that he is willing to leave his castle in Transylvania just to be near her. And when Nosferatu comes to Bremen, he brings the plague with him. His untrammeled desire for Lucy is pestilential, a cloud of rats. His all-enveloping love, his polymorphic attraction, is what brings the pestilence. Sexual desire is the plague. In this film, desire is figured as disease. A plague that ends in the “festive” destruction of Western civilization, a round dance in which animals and humans mingle, a joyful plague of “perverse” sexuality.
Jonathan Harker is Nosferatu’s double–willing to give up everything, willing to risk death, to go any extreme for the sake of his beloved, Lucy. And at the eerily open-ended conclusion of the film (and this is Herzog’s most drastic departure from the original), Jonathan assumes the vampire’s role completely. He effectively becomes his nemesis. There are no end credits; the film continues infinitely. The final image is of a spreading desolation, the reign of negativity and the annihilation of civilization (which, as usual in Herzog, is affirmed as a joyous event—from what we see of civilization in this film, it doesn’t appear worth saving; the annihilation of all social laws is here seen as something positive). Nosferatu nowhere dies in the space of the film. Indeed, Nosferatu’s tragedy is not death but the impossibility of death.
In her conversation with Nosferatu, Lucy makes a startling proclamation: She is willing to refuse to God the love that she gives to Jonathan. Her unreserved, unholy desire for Jonathan surmounts her piety, her faith in God. Does this not bind her intimately with Nosferatu, the force of entropic negativity? By refusing God the love she gives to her man, she migrates to the country of darkness. With her spectral pallor, she is uncannily resemblant of Nosferatu. When he visits her in the bedroom, she embraces him, her dark lover, pulling him to her neck. Is this nothing more than a self-sacrifice for the sake of the people of Bremen? For Jonathan’s sake? Perhaps. But after Nosferatu is vanquished, why does the blood rush to her cheeks? And why, after Nosferatu has sapped her blood, why does she bask in what seems to be a post-coital glow?
Each of these characters is a victim of the suicidal character of all sexual desire.
There are so many details in this film that will haunt your mind. Kinski’s ghastly rat-like features, the murine parasite. The way in which the camera makes you his victim, fresh for vampirization. The way in which all relations are inverted. Sickness surmounts health. Survival surmounts both death and life.
Unlike F.W. Murnau’s 1922 original, the images in Herzog’s film are not symbolic–that is, they do not subserve character or language. The images are restored to their purity and form a pre-conceptual, pre-rational, pre-critical visual language all their own.
Ultimately, Nosferatu‘s (1979) greatest virtue is that it includes an acting performance by one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, someone who is never acknowledged as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. His name is Roland Topor.