Perhaps one of the most neglected of the early cinema's masters
is F.W. Murnau, whose transcended German Expressionism and worked
in such a variety of genres that he cannot be pigeonholed easily. While
The Last Laugh and Sunrise are arguably his masterpieces, the director
remained known, if at all, for his equally memorable 1922 horror film
Nosferatu. Now Lions Gate, the company that was behind
Gods and Monsters (another look at partially forgotten filmmaker,
James Whale), has released Shadow of the Vampire, a highly
fictionalized, but quite entertaining, behind-the-scenes look at the
filming of Nosferatu.
With a witty script by Steven Katz (making his debut) and fine
direction by E Elias Merhige, Shadow of the Vampire riffs on the ideas
of Method acting, film acting versus stage acting, the power of the
director, and the legend of the Undead. Granted, in the hands of lesser
talents, this material could easily have devolved into parody at best or
a bad comedy sketch at worst. Instead, with the aid of a resourceful
cast, some intriguing camerawork, and the power of imagination, the
film emerges as one of the year's nicest surprises.
From its opening credit sequence that calls to mind Art Deco
design and the lost art of silent film title cards, Shadow of the Vampire
establishes its tone. It is both a witty send-up and an affectionate
homage to the pioneers of filmmaking. Murnau, as embodied by John
Malkovich in one of his now patented effete performances, is both
despot and prophet. The script paints Murnau as something of a
martinet, who is all consumed by his art -- even to the point that he
is willing to sacrifice innocent victims to realize his vision. Yet, that
same inspired vision is one that pushes the envelope. Reportedly
Murnau wished to turn Bram Stoker's popular novel Dracula into a
motion picture but Stoker's widow would not grant the rights. Being
resourceful, Murnau and his writer Henrik Galeen (John Aden Gillet)
simply make cosmetic changes to the plot and write their own version
called Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Nosferatu, a
Symphony of Terror. What this movie suggests is that rather than
find an actor to play the title character, Murnau went out and hired
an actual vampire whom he dubbed Max Schreck (portrayed with
gusto in the movie by Willem Dafoe). In reality Schreck was a noted
figure who had trained with Max Reinhardt and went on to appear in
other movies. But in both real life and reel life, Schreck came to be
known for his indelible performance as the rodent-like title character
in Murnau's vampire film.
Merhige nicely captures the chaos of a film shoot in a manner
that rivals the touchstone on that subject, Francois Truffaut's
Day for Night. Here are the petty jealousies, the onset romances,
the temperaments of the talent, all presented in matter-of-fact fashion
and presided over by Murnau. The recreation of period filmmaking is
lovingly accomplished and there are amazing recreations of footage
of Nosferatu. The movie shifts seamlessly from the footage of the
film-within-the-film to that of Shadow of the Vampire and it is both
a visual treat and a technologically fascinating achievement. (Special
mention has to go to cinematographer Lou Bogue.)
As noted, Malkovich captures the spirit of the man, but his
German accent is shaky, coming and going from scene to scene
(perhaps a minor quibble, but as it is noticeable). Dafoe is nothing
short of brilliant as the centuries old vampire who is more
temperamental than any movie star. There are many engaging and
humorous scenes of banter between Schreck and Murnau which
make the tyrannical director begins to realize that he does not have
as much power as he would like.
Other cast members of note are Udo Kier as the producer and
designer Albin Grau who begins to question Murnau's sanity, Cary
Elwes as the dashing cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, Catherine
McCormack as the alluring actress unwittingly used as bait for the
vampire and John Aden Gillet as the screenwriter Henrik Galeen.
Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangerheim has the unenviable task
of playing a bad actor and that he succeeds so well is a tribute to
his own gifts.
My only hesitation in praising Shadow of the Vampire stems
from the power of entertainment. Despite the relative intelligence of
the moviegoing public, many seem to believe what they see is "real."
Witness those who felt that Oliver Stone's version of history in JFK
was true. It's particularly disconcerting when real figures are
portrayed in a fictionalized context: there was even some of that
in Gods and Monsters. The power of the media, particularly film
(which ironically is a theme of the very film I'm criticizing) may lead
some to believe that Shadow of the Vampire is a true story,
particularly as so little is known about many of those involved.
That would be an insult to those talents who participated in the
making of 1922's Nosferatu as well as to those who have crafted
this wonderfully enjoyable pastiche.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, drug content,
violence and language
Running time: 92 mins.