Any critic could make the argument that Nosferatu is the greatest German film of all time. I know several who have. I would not be among that crowd, but I would be foolish to admit that the film does not still have the same power to fill viewers with dread that it did at its premiere. Murnau’s film is among the greatest vampire films of all time, as it tries to imagine a world in which the undead exist. Count Orlock was not a figure of passion but was someone who was barely human. He looked like a creature that feasts on blood.
Shadow of the Vampire is a fictional recount of the making of that film, with one minor twist. Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the man who played Count Orlock, actually is a vampire that F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) found and cast in his film. Schreck agreed to do this based on Murnau’s promise that Schreck could have the actress for himself.
The film’s center is based around the performances of Malkovich and Dafoe. Had they not been able to capture the roles properly, the film would have crashed and burned. But the two men are perfect at capturing the attitude of an immortal being who is finally in a position of power and a fool who believes that the ends will always justify the means.
Dafoe, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, disguises himself as a method actor wearing make up at all times in order to properly perform the role. It’s an interesting concept, even if it does not make much sense as the film goes on. What do the people start to think when he kills crew members? Or when he snatches a bat out of the air to drink its blood in the middle of a monologue about how sad a book Dracula was? They say he needs to come to Germany to do theater work. But part of the reason these moments becomes so bizarre is because Dafoe is quite convincing as a vampire pretending to be a man. It also makes sense why this vampire would want to be a movie star. Not only does it give him the opportunity to see a (filmed) sunrise (the scene simultaneously mirrors Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview with a Vampire and Murnau’s later Sunrise) but it allows him to revel on his power trip. As the star, he is able to take complete power and finally get a partner he can lord over. Schreck is frequently abusive to the crew (he refuses to travel unless specific conditions are met and threatens to kill the screenwriter) turning him into the typical Hollywood star. Dafoe captures every aspect of the character perfectly, turning Schreck into a parody of the modern day Hollywood method actor.
If Schreck is the perfect caricature of the serious actor, then Murnau is the perfect caricature of the serious director. He is maniacal dictator who believes that everything he does will be perfect and realistic. His films are not films, but experiments in realism. Malkovich coaches his actors throughout the entire scenes, using them as a painter would use paint. While this was necessary for silent films – actors have to over-emote – the process comes across as rather disturbing. By the end, Murnau is not able to see anything but his film, completely ignoring the havoc he has created and insisting that the camera keeps rolling. Murnau is even the one who wakens the beast, forcing an actor to cut his thumb in order to get his desired reaction. The ending does come across as rather bizarre and excessive. Surely Shadow of the Vampire should end in a similar matter as Nosferatu. But even if it goes on about a minute too long, it still works to bring Murnau’s obsession to light.
This is definitely an actor’s movie. The rest of the film is decidedly low scale, featuring intimate close ups and restrained sets. This is in sticking with the original Nosferatu, where Murnau’s obsession was on the faces and the actors rather than the location. Murnau’s introduction of Orlock’s castle, for example, was a shot of the top steeple as opposed to a wide of the entire edifice. Merhige usually teases us in the same way, promising action just off screen, such as in Fritz Wagner’s introduction, where he looks to be filming a battle sequence that is not fully shown. The film also recreates moments from the original silent. Although you can hear dialogue, the most important parts are from the actor’s expressions and the numerous artifacts on the film that help recreate that sense of dread. It shows that director E. Elias Merhige has closely studied the original film, even more closely than Herzog when he was crafting the remake to the film. Those little moments are a real treat to people who understand what the film is trying to accomplish. Hopefully, people will see it and want to check out Murnau’s classic.
Shadow of the Vampire is a great horror film, one that features strong performances and mines a great connection to vampire lore. Like Hugo, it is also an important discussion of film history that connects to modern audiences. It deserves to be more well known and respected than it is.