by Steve Habrat
What an idea it was to produce a film about the making of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu while infusing it with a fictional, supernatural side. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a refined vampire drama that miraculously pulls off this incredibly wild and inspired idea. F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece is a film that has carried with it rumors of the occult, largely stemming from Murnau’s producer and production designer Albin Grau, who was also an artist, architect, and occultist. Merhige takes these dark aspects of history and uses them to ask us, “What if Nosferatu was made with a REAL vampire?” But Merhige doesn’t stop here; he then transforms his vampire, Max Schreck, into a difficult and greedy star who pushes Murnau to the brink of madness, madness for perfection in his art. Infinitely better than his visually striking but infuriatingly cryptic debut Begotten, Shadow of the Vampire has all its major components (acting, writing, and direction) in synch, creating a clear, concise vision that we can actually wrap our heads around. It seems that maybe Merhige learned that accessible core meanings have just as big of an impression as petrifying images.
Shadow of the Vampire takes us right onto the set of F.W. Murnau’s (Played by John Malkovich) Nosferatu, an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau and his crew have tweaked Stoker’s story ever so slightly, altering names and places so they can still make the film. He drags his crew to places like Slovakia and Poland for on-location shooting, snapping at any crewmember that dares try to make any suggestions or attempt at slightly altering his vision. As filming in Czechoslovakia commences, Murnau’s loyal producer Albin Grau (Played by Udo Kier) and his photographer Wolfgang Mueller (Played by Ronan Vibert) have to consistently keep the eccentric Murnau grounded in reality. Soon, his “method actor” Max Schreck (Played by Willem DaFoe), who is portraying the vampire Count Orlok in the film, arrives to the shoot in full make-up and consistently in character. Murnau tells his impressed crew that Schreck will only mingle with the crew when filming and that he will always appear in character. It turns out that Schreck is actually a real vampire, one who Murnau has made a sinister deal with. Muranu promises Schreck he can feed on their vampy leading actress Greta Schroder (Played by Catherine McCormack) when they are done filming only if Schreck completes his work on the film. As the shoot unfolds, Schreck becomes increasingly difficult, threatening the entire crew and the outcome of the project.
While Shadow of the Vampire sounds like a horror film, it is actually more of a character drama and is often times surprisingly humorous. There are a few chilling moments, mostly a handful of exchanges between Dafoe’s Schreck and Malkovich’s Murnau and the final fifteen minutes. In fact, I would classify the film as more of a drama rather than a full-blown horror film. Shadow of the Vampire is chock full of must-see performances, particularly Dafoe’s transforming turn as Schreck. Much like Klaus Kinski’s unglamorous turn as Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s faultless 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dafoe makes his vampire a grotesque oddity that is so old he can’t quite recall how he was turned into a vampire. You will be bowled over every time he enters the screen, the highlight moment coming when he snatches a bat out of the air, bites its head off, and then sucks the blood out of it while his eye roll around his skull in ecstasy. Dafoe successfully mutates his character into more of a creature than a man and disappears behind bulging eyes, understated fangs, pasty fake skin, and pointing ears. He really does take on a life of his own.
It may be Dafoe’s show but Malkovich makes damn sure he is remembered long after the credits have rolled. You may emerge talking about Schreck but your conversation will turn to Malkovich’s Murnau. Malkovich makes his determined director out to be pompous and pretentious, demanding but bursting with vision that he can’t quite convey unless he points a camera at something. He is as much a method director as his “star” is a “method actor”, willing to stop at nothing to capture an unmatched realism within his film. He will sacrifice any and all of his crew to achieve this and make something that is remembered for years to come, even running himself into the ground for greatness. Was the real Murnau like this? That is anyone’s guess but it could be said that Murnau did make something that is still popular today, still frightening, and contains one of the greatest performances (Max Schreck’s Count Orlok) ever filmed. Malkovich also gets the film’s best line, coming at the last second of the film.
Compliments should also go to the way Merhige approached the overall look of the film. He mixes German Expressionism, surrealism, black and white, and silent film techniques together to create a consistently alluring piece of cinema. After seeing Begotten, we know that Merhige is a stylish artist, at times getting carried away with the visuals over the story. Here he applies each technique to drive the work forward. He even goes so far to add some footage from the original Nosferatu into Shadow of the Vampire, blending his actors into that specific film. The film could almost double as a film history lesson the way he applies little qualities (gothic atmospheres, use of shadow, intertitles, kaleidoscope images, and even behind-the-scenes Easter eggs) of the genres listed above and it becomes a real treat for cinema fans, allowing them to spot and identify the traits.
All the supporting actors do fine work in Shadow of the Vampire. The best behind Dafoe and Malkovich are Udo Kier’s occultist and producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Over the years, much has been made over the minor occult touches in Murnau’s Nosferatu, specifically the way he used shadows, which were supposed to symbolize the dark side of reality and occult symbols that were stamped on a document that Count Orlok reads. Well, in shadows lie demons, NOSFERATU, the undead, and what if the undead were really used in the making of the 1922 classic? Shadow of the Vampire is a dramatic and entertaining “what if” that is also a great exploration of method acting and dedication to one’s own art. At least Shadow of the Vampire can spark clear conversation over the bewildered head shaking that Begotten lured out of its viewers. There is nothing to fear in Shadow of the Vampire, only much beauty to drink in and delectable performances to savor.
Shadow of the Vampire is now available on DVD.