Shadow of the Vampire is a 2000 comedic horror feature film directed by E. Elias Merhige (Begotten) from a screenplay written by Steven Katz. The movie stars John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe and Udo Kier.
The film is a fictionalized account of the making of the classic vampire film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror, directed by F. W. Murnau in 1921, in which the film crew begin to have disturbing suspicions about their lead actor. The film borrows the techniques of silent films, including the use of intertitles to explain elided action and iris lenses.
If they gave away Oscars for Best Idea for a Motion Picture, the absolute frontrunner for the year 2000 would have to be Shadow of the Vampire. As for execution, well it’s a case of chacun à son goût.
The year is 1921, and brilliant, eccentric German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is determined to bring maximum verisimilitude to his latest work, the first silver-screen adaptation of Dracula.
Frederich Wilhelm Murnau is hailed as the answer to the genius of D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein (an error in Steve Katz’ script; Eisenstein would have been barely known at the time), and the movie company indulges letting Murnau taking his cast and crew to the Slovakian peasant hinterlands, where Murnau informs his crew that Max Schreck, the actor he found to play the vampiric “Count Orlock” is a disciple of Stanislavsky and “Method” acting. Thus Schreck (Willem Dafoe) will only appear on the set for Murnau’s camera after the sun goes down. And Schreck will already be in full makeup, and will not socialize with other actors.
The delirious conceit is that ‘Schreck’ is no pretentious thespian but the real thing; Murnau has found a real vampire and struck a pact with the creature to star in Nosferatu. Hence, a secret scheme to use a vampire pretending to be an actor pretending to be a vampire.
Sounds like the comedy plot of Victor/Victoria (or its lesser scene forerunner before Blake Edwards made a musical of it, Viktor und Victoria. Indeed there are moments of great graveyard humour. Schreck’s deal with Murnau requires regular supplies of victims, and the fiend bargains with Murnau over which non-essential movie personnel are non-essential enough to be sacrificed – the scriptwriter being a one likely candidate.
Fortunately, such moments are kept to a tasty minimum, lest this material starts to look like full, post-modern ironic horror burlesque (like Wes Craven’s Scream movies, not in a good way). Admittedly, the casting of Udo Kier, from Blood for Dracula as Murnau’s agent is a clever touch. And sublimely clever was Merhige able to obtain F.W. Murnau’s very own mechanical movie camera, courtesy of a museum archive. Yes, that’s the actual instrument used in the original Nosferatu that Malkovich is cranking away at.
Viewers familiar with the rather small oeuvre of director E. Elias Merhige doubtless know of his sense-stunning 1989 feature debut Begotten, a black-and-white, high-grain, dialogue-free, very nearly plot-free creation-myth-by-way-of Lynchian nightmare hallucination. It has hard-to-forget primal imagery of death/birth, mutilation, body fluids, torment…
Those thinking that Shadow of the Vampire would be an equally glass of strong tea must dial down expectations somewhat. Far tamer, for the most part, Shadow of the Vampire chooses to be less underground/experimental film (or crimson-stained Hammer gothic) and more faithful to the aesthete of early commercial cinema, where things tended to be stagy and lumpen, talky and mannered. Merhige’s pacing is somewhat haphazard, and – while he’s shooting in colour, I could have done with more scenes that didn’t register as underlit murk.
The real Max Schreck, a German actor quite unrecognizable without his ghastly Count Orlock getup, was no vampire (and died in 1936). Other actors (especially Klaus Kinski) have tried to recreate Schreck’s macabre makeup and gestures; my minority opinion is the best was a nonspeaking Reggie Nalder as the hideous master vampire Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s TV-movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. In contrast to suave continental types portrayed by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee (let’s not even go near Twilight, okay?), these rat-faced horrors really look like ghouls condemned to feast in cemeteries for eternity.
In a goblin face and claw-like fingernails, Dafoe strives for the same unearthly, barely-human vibe, and invests the vampire with certain pathos (Merhige applied a barely-perceptible backstory to the character, like a medieval nobleman and perhaps a Templar Knight before his conversion to accursed bloodsucker).
When the plotline comes down to a war of wills between Murnau and Schreck, filmmaker and vampire – who are both by nature selfish, parasitic creatures whose medium is darkness, who are each obsessed with immortality and permanence at all costs – that’s when Shadow of the Vampire is at its best. No gotcha! shocks.
Incidentally, viewers of Begotten may notice a credit listing thanking a certain “Fred Schreck.” That’s no Goon Show-type inside joke, according to Merhige, who told a reporter that Fred Schreck was a colourful old technician who mentored the nascent filmmaker in archaic, hand-processing of celluloid.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES & MANIA
“The problem is that in making Max Schreck a genuine vampire, playing an imaginary vampire in a film, director E. Elias Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz are giving us twice as much vampire as we really need, and making it difficult either to suspend our disbelief for a real vampire yarn or to see it as a culturally and psychologically revealing myth.” The Guardian
“A shockingly funny spellbinder!” Rolling Stone
Cast and characters:
- John Malkovich … Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
- Willem Dafoe … Max Schreck
- Udo Kier … Albin Grau
- Cary Elwes … Fritz Arno Wagner
- Catherine McCormack … Greta Schröder
- Eddie Izzard … Gustav von Wangenheim
- Aden Gillett … Henrik Galeen
- Nicholas Elliott … Paul (as Nicholas Elliot)
- Ronan Vibert … Wolfgang Müller
- Sophie Langevin … Elke
- Myriam Muller … Maria
- Milos Hlavac … Innkeeper (as Milos Hlavak)
- Marja-Leena Junker … Innkeeper’s Wife
- Derek Kueter … First Reporter
- Norman Golightly … Second Reporter
The working title was Burned to Light