They are two of the most lauded films from two of the most iconic (and iconoclastic) filmmakers in cinema history. Released in the same year, both share similar themes and are essentially horror films: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now dealt with the madness that resulted from the horrors of war and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre with the isolation and madness arising from the frustrating rigors of immortality.
Herzog has made more films about madness than Coppola. Apocalypse Now was a present-day adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God is similar to the book in spirit. However, it is his Nosferatu that has more in common with Coppola’s film. Both feature an enigmatic central figure with some common traits, aside from the fact that both are bald. If Apocalypse’s Colonel Kurtz and Nosferatu’s Count Dracula met at a party, they might become best buddies instantly.
Kurtz is a rogue U.S military colonel battered and demonized by his intense experiences in Vietnam. He has fashioned himself into a deity of sorts, worshiped by the natives in a secluded outpost in the remote jungles of Vietnam. His barbaric practices have irked his superiors and now they want him dead. For this purpose, they recruit a relatively soft-hearted army man, Captain Willard. This young man’s journey into the dark recesses of the Vietnam jungle (and along with it Kurtz’s troubled mind) mirrors that of Jonathan Harker’s own to meet Dracula at his castle.
Harker’s journey, however, is not as perilous as Willard’s but is as unsettling and marked by a sense of doom and foreboding – the ominous silence suggesting the presence of unseen malicious forces ready to pounce on him from every shadowy nook and cranny. Willard, upon reaching Kurtz’s stronghold, is greeted by haunting iconography (human heads on spikes) nearly identical to the one that adorns Dracula’s castle interiors (skulls). Also, a couple of maniacal characters. A photojournalist (Dennis Hopper’s character) sings praises of Kurtz’s genius and worships the man just as how the lunatic Renfield worships Dracula. The king and his jester.
The photojournalist is nourished by every twisted thought that Kurtz feeds him. Renfield is fed and manipulated by the Count for his own needs. Both Kurtz and Dracula desperately seek salvation from the endless misery they’ve been cursed with and subconsciously yearn for someone who can put them out of it. The larger-than-life status that they are currently enjoying is actually a burden. In Willard, Kurtz sees a man who may finally reward him with a true gift – his death. And perhaps Dracula felt the same way about Harker too – someone who can finally free him from his nightmarish immortality.
Both Kurtz and the photojournalist treat Willard to few philosophical and poetic lectures. Dracula sits down for dinner with Harker and talks poetically about the wolves that prowl the hills outside his castle at night. After his encounter with Kurtz, Willard has transformed into a savage beast himself. He murders Kurtz in a ghastly fashion. Although Harker doesn’t kill Dracula, he indirectly causes his death by letting him know of his beautiful wife Lucy, who lures Dracula into her chambers and leads him to his doom. Like Willard, Harker undergoes a terrifying transformation too – the poison in his veins turns him into another pale-looking vampire.