starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard
screenplay by Steven Katz
directed by E. Elias Merhige
by Bill Chambers They certainly dressed the part in those days. As the pre-eminent German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, John Malkovich declares: "We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory." On set, before the lamps are fired up and action is called, Murnau and his crew don tinted aviator goggles, looking as if they're about to launch an atomic bomb. This was standard practice during cinema's formative years, when it took an intense amount of light to satisfactorily expose an image. (It was not uncommon for those who didn't take precautions to go blind later in life.) But Malkovich/Murnau is not describing costumes; he's probably, in fact, speaking for the makers of the gothic comedy in which he appears as the catalyst, Shadow of the Vampire. Director E. Elias Merhige, working from a screenplay by Steven Katz, forges a new memoir of Nosferatu, Murnau's unauthorized, silent-film-era take on Bram Stoker's Dracula that was rumoured to star a real vampire.
Said quote defends the existence of Shadow of the Vampire with mock pretentiousness, and it recognizes the outlandish notion that someone might accept Merhige's movie at face value, just as Gladiator has inspired some moviegoers to type "Maximus" into their favourite search engines. And for the duration that Merhige and Katz have tongues planted firmly in cheek, their efforts are generously funny, even if some of the humour seems anachronistically hip. (There are big laughs at the expense of writers and students of the Stanislavsky Method, both of which can be found in any contemporary send-up of La La Land.) Take the great Willem Dafoe, unrecognizable beneath thick latex as Max Schreck, the bloodsucking lead in Murnau's production. A character actor forever on the cusp of leading-man status, Dafoe isn't only asked to deliver jokes in a Transylvania 6-5000 accent: His Schreck upends the archetypal tragic vampyr, with Dafoe playing a mostly cranky, forgetful old man whose major affliction is an empty stomach.
Merhige is a dedicated iconoclast when it comes to Murnau's clan. Shadow of the Vampire depicts Murnau--somewhat indefensibly--as an egotistical helmer who doles out information to his peers on a need-to-know basis, possibly because he doesn't know ahead of time. As there are plenty of directors who deserve to have the pedestal kicked out from under them before Murnau, it's a shame that he becomes a token of Hollywood narcissism, with less weight given to his command of the medium than to his powers of persuasion. Leading lady Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) is portrayed as a diva starlet who sees cinema as the disreputable cousin to theatre, while Cary Elwes plays DP Fritz Arno Wagner as an alcoholic, Aryan flyboy with a bizarre touch of Klaus Kinski (who would, of course, inherit the role of Nosferatu in Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu). There is the implication that Schreck is the most harmless vampire of them all, but to what satirical end is somewhat indecipherable. Thank goodness for the unvaryingly fine and cohesive ensemble.
I'd love to join the critical community in its seemingly unanimous adoration of this film, but it occurs to me that Shadow of the Vampire's premise has one note and strikes it half-heartedly. Although Merhige nails the nuances of a fascinating period in twentieth-century history (save a passage of dialogue that equates Murnau's greatness with that of Sergei Eisenstein, who hadn't yet made a single film at the time of Nosferatu's release in 1922)--the painstaking recreation of Murnau's hand-cranked footage is particularly arresting, if expected of the director who came to fame with the expressionistic throwback Begotten--I found myself sympathizing a bit too much with Schreck, whose desire for sustenance echoed my yearning for something more fleshed-out than this freakshow sitcom. Additionally, Shadow of the Vampire is faced with the dilemma of having to end, and this is where the faux self-importance gives way to something nasty and moralistic-feeling, with Murnau becoming a pure exploitation filmmaker under cinema's own vampiric sway. Originally published: January 26, 2001.