- …a historical revisionist re-telling of the filming of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, with John Malkovich playing “Herr Doktor” Murnau; Eddie Izzard playing Gustav von Wangenheim who plays Thomas Hutter; and Willem Dafoe playing a vampire who takes on the role of Max Schreck to play Count Orlok. You’ve probably spotted the obvious piece of historical revisionism – Schreck was, from all accounts, not actually a vampire – but director E. Elias Merhige isn’t otherwise interested in authenticity, reimagining Murnau as an intuitive artist who apparently improvises many key scenes while filming.
- That plays well with the film as a remake of Nosferatu. In many respects this is a technical exercise much like van Sant’s (almost) shot-for-shot remake of Psycho – let’s see how well we can reproduce a bona fide classic eighty years later! – but it’s hardly an accident that Murnau’s film is shot in a linear fashion and that the broad strokes of Shadow of the Vampire’s plot – man makes pact with vampire, unleashes vampire on unsuspecting populace, consequences are about as horrible as you’d expect – hew closely to its source material. It’s a twist on a story that’s been told many, many times.
- It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Shadow of the Vampire is also a droll black comedy. Older silent films can play as overly goofy to audiences unfamiliar with the exaggerated theatricality of the medium, particularly when watching clips out of context. Merhige plays up that unintentional (and, often, inappropriate) humour, with Dafoe’s Schreck mugging and snarling wildly as crew members (including Udo Kier!) try and fail to engage him in polite conversation. It repurposes shots from the original – like Orlok’s gnarled shadow ascending the stairs – into jokes. Disrespectful? Maybe. But funny.
- The film also serves as an allegory for studio filmmaking. Roger Ebert’s review of the film points out that Schreck’s appetite for blood of the crew is a metaphor for the way stars dominate film sets. “This would not be the first time a star has eaten a writer alive,” he muses. The obsessive bond between Schreck and Murnau could double for any number of troubled-but-productive director/star relationships (on the subject, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dafoe’s make-up more closely resembles Klaus Kinski’s Orlok that Schreck’s).Neither is it a coincidence that the film’s only major female role – Catherine McCormack as Greta Schröder – is a drug-addicted actress given up to Schreck as a sacrifice (the jury’s open as to whether McCormack’s nude scene is exploitative or a comment on unnecessary sexualisation …or both).
These genres all pretty much work – within the space of 90 minutes – which is an achievement in of itself! The film is handsomely shot, somewhere on the continuum between the slick Hollywood film-making of the time and the conscious artifice of German Expressionism. My only real complaint is that the thematic density of the film, by necessity, warps the film away from any kind of substantial storyline – it might be a twist on the classic Bram Stoker tale, but it still follows the fundamentals. Still, I tend to agree with Malkovich’s closing line: I think they have it.