2001, Lion’s Gate. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Catherine MacKinnock.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Violence and deadly assault; sexual references and partial, semi-sexual nudity; drug use; fleeting rough language and profanity.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Shadow of the Vampire is a bizarre little curiosity, high-concept, ultra-hip, post-ironic, and self-aware — all qualities that it shares with two other recent paranormal-themed films: The Blair Witch Project, and Being John Malkovich (with which Shadow also happens to share Malkovich himself).
The parallels don’t stop there. All three of these movies, in a way, are about moviemaking, or at least about moviemakers; and all three use real names of real filmmakers. The earlier two films actually feature the real filmmakers themselves (a familiar Hollywood actor on the one hand, and three then-unknown film-school students on the other) using their real names while playing fictionalized versions of themselves; but Shadow of the Vampire is about the making of the landmark 1922 classic silent film Nosferatu, and so the makers of that film were no longer available. (Or am I begging the question?)
The making of Nosferatu — the first (if unauthorized) film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and one of the 45 films on the Vatican film list — has passed into legend. Denied rights to Dracula by Stoker’s widow, German director F. W. Murnau simply had an adapted screenplay written with alternate character names: Count Dracula became "Count Orlock," Jonathan Harker became "Thomas Hutter," and so on. (Substantial changes were so minimal that at least one English-language edition actually restores Stoker’s original names in the title cards.)
After the film was completed, Stoker’s widow sued and won for copyright infringement, and a judge ordered all prints of Nosferatu destroyed. But a few prints obviously survived, and, despite its underground status and the generally poor condition of the remaining prints, Nosferatu became one of the most celebrated and influential films of German Expressionism, with actor Max Schreck’s haunting vampire remaining unique among movie monsters.
In paying homage to Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire has two enormous assets: (1) an uncanny Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), and (2) a central conceit so outrageous that, for the sake of a few readers who may have somehow managed to avoid learning what it is, I will refrain from mentioning it, until after the next paragraph.
Because the film’s conceit is its main selling point, it’s been bandied about from the rooftops; but I can’t help thinking how much more rewarding Shadow would be if seen cold. So: If you haven’t seen the original Nosferatu — and if you have any interest in doing so — see it now. (It’s available in many video stores and libraries, but don’t confuse the 1922 original with the ’79 remake by Werner Herzog with Klaus Kinski — also noteworthy in its own right, but not the original, and not what Shadow is about.) If you don’t have any interest in seeing a silent German Expressionist vampire movie, chances are you can set your mind at rest that you aren’t the target audience for Shadow of the Vampire either. If you already have seen Nosferatu, chances are you will at least appreciate Shadow. More than that I don’t want to say, except to those who already know the movie’s premise, or who don’t care. Other readers are advised to stop reading now.
Being Max Schreck
Max Schreck’s singular performance in Nosferatu is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he had previously been an unknown and afterwards did hardly anything of note. Little is known about him; even his name may be a pseudonym, "Schreck" being German for "dread" (thus the name of the eponymous ogre in DreamWorks’ Shrek). Who was Schreck? What inspired his frightful performance?
Shadow of the Vampire offers an account that is novel to say the least: Schrek wasn’t acting. He really was a vampire. After all, didn’t Murnau crave authenticity? Didn’t he go shooting on location in the Carpathians (a rare extravagance in those early days of film)? If you were scouting locations looking for likely vampire territory, who knows what you might run into? And if you were a filmmaker who encountered a real vampire, and if you could choose between getting an actor in makeup to play a vampire and shooting a real vampire… well, what would you do?
As these rhetorical questions suggest, Shadow is actually less about Schreck the vampire than about Murnau the director. Played by John Malkovich with enjoyably over-the-top aplomb (and an absurd Colonel-Klink accent), Murnau has been reinvented as a flamboyant theoretician-auteur who strides about obsessively in a flapping white coat and goggles uttering such things as "We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory that will neither blur nor fade" and "Our poetry, our music will have a context as certain as the grave."
Like many self-absorbed artists, Murnau’s devotion to his art drives him not only to make sacrifices himself but also to be willing to sacrifice the interests of others; and, if there are certain obvious drawbacks to working with a vampire, well, it’s hardly unusual for stars to have outrageous demands — or for directors to go to great lengths to satisfy them.
The movie toys with the notion that the director and the vampire are "not so different," as Schreck himself sniffs. The precise nature of the connection is unwittingly suggested by Murnau’s leading lady, Greta Schroeder (Catherine MacKinnock), who prefers stage acting to making movies: "The audience gives me life — this thing [the movie camera] only takes it from me." In a later scene we get repeated close-ups on the camera’s large, dark eye "feeding" on its subjects as the vampire does its victim.
But all this is facile. The film doesn’t have anything meaningful to say really about film, filmmaking, or filmmakers. Beneath the hip inside-showbiz jokes ("I do not think we need… the writer, any longer," Schreck muses), Shadow has no hidden message or deeper meaning. It is, essentially, a goof. A meticulously crafted and exuberantly acted goof, but in the end no more than that.
Director E. Merhige, and his set designers and costumers, bring magnificent authenticity to their depiction of Nosferatu in the making; and Dafoe, like Schreck himself, hardly seems to be acting at all beneath astonishing makeup. The homage is so flawless that when Merhige deploys real footage from the ’22 original, you hardly notice.
Against these pluses must be weighed certain minuses, including an unpleasant and superfluous scene with a semi-nude MacKinnock in a drugged-out stupor squealing and writhing on her bed — a scene that detracts from the equally disturbing but far less gratuitous metaphorical sexuality of the vampire’s bite. Vampires represent the dark power of illicit carnality — an image that is in itself neutral, and, depending on context, can either illustrate the horror of wantonness (Dracula) or celebrate it (Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat). Shadow is of course far too post-modern to take sides or make value judgments; but there’s an important later scene with MacKinnock lying fully clothed on a bed that loses some impact because of the earlier scene.
Shadow also miscalculates during scenes of Murnau shooting: On the screen we get a black-and-white camera’s-eye view of the proceedings, but on the soundtrack Murnau’s shouted instructions to his actors become scratchy and tinny, like an old-fashioned recording — a jarringly inappropriate attempt to simulate antiquity during the making of a silent film. Merhige should have decided whether the soundtrack at that point should reflect his own technology, or Murnau’s: If his own, then Malkovich’s voice should have been as clear as in other scenes; if Murnau’s, then we should have heard old-fashioned music.
The film’s most nagging weakness, perhaps, is that, having gone to the trouble to bring back Max Schreck before our eyes, it doesn’t have better ideas about what to do with him. As noted above, while Dafoe’s performance is the main reason to see the film, Shadow is really more about Malkovich and Murnau — and Malkovich’s performance, while entertaining enough, is hardly unique.
The vampire does have two scenes that go beyond the mere novelty of Dafoe as Max Schreck: one in which he offers a unique, expert critical perspective on the real tragedy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which he has recently read; and the other, a touching, wordless scene, in which he explores the magical power of film to show him something he could not possibly see any other way. Whatever else may be said about it, Shadow of the Vampire has this same magic.