Dafoe as Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire
Malkovich in Shadow of the Vampire
by Jean-Paul Kieffer
Courtesy of Lions
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NEW YORK, 31 January
2001 - Trailers may thrive on premise alone, but no premise,
however good, can sustain an entire feature without decent execution.
Shadow of the Vampire has a brilliant premise - one original
enough to leave writer Stephen Katz's rivals gnashing their teeth in
envy, and film buffs twitching in anticipation: it fictionalizes the
making of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors. Nosferatu,
the first vampire movie ever made, was a masterpiece of silent
Expressionist cinema which, though made in 1922, continues to terrify
viewers today. What would happen, the film asks, if the director, in
his total commitment to artistic perfection, hired a real vampire to
play the monster's role?
Nosferatu is the perfect
subject for this kind of fantastic interpolation; relatively little is
known about the making of the film or about its cast and crew. Even
the life of Murnau, one of the first greats of the seventh art, is
poorly recorded. History also offers up the tantalizing figure of Max
Schreck, the actor whose indelibly creepy performance as the
loathsome, pathetic vampire most likely saved him from oblivion.
Schreck is conveniently unencumbered by biographical data, and his name
(which translates as "Max Terror") is perhaps the most apt
In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau secretly
passes off a real vampire for the little-known stage actor Max Schreck
. (He covers for the monster's bizarre behavior by claiming that "Schreck"
is an adherent of the "method acting", a new-fangled acting
approach invented by a controversial theater figure named
Stanislavsky.) To convince the vampire to restrain his appetites and
accept direction, Murnau promises him immortality via celluloid - and
the lifeblood of sexy leading lady Grete Schröder. Unfortunately,
managing "Schreck" turns out to be harder than anticipated.
Not only does he give into his appetites and begin feeding on the
crew, but he also turns prima donna, making unreasonable demands that
pose financial and logistical nightmares. By the time the crew
discovers Murnau's deception, they are trapped in a real fight to the
death - which, at Murnau's insistence, plays out with cameras rolling.
history's cooperation and the flash of brilliance that inspired Katz,
all the elements are present for a great, entertaining tale about the
extremes, the dangers that artists are willing to risk in the creative
process. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never develop the plot or the
characters enough to engage the viewer. And what plot there is, bogs
down in pedantic dialogue about the art of cinema and by symbolism so
heavy-handed as to practically sock the viewer in the eye. Grete Schröder's
declares early on that a theater audience gives her life, while a
camera gives her death. And as if that weren't bad enough, the train
that takes the crew to its location shoot in Czechoslovakia has the
name "CHARON" emblazoned on its locomotive.
minutes into the movie, the audience is already well aware that it is
supposed to see the cinema director as a vampiric figure,
parasitically draining the life force from his cast and crew in order
to produce a perfect and immortal work of art. Even if this idea were
fresh and interesting, the rest of the movie wears it out, repeatedly
bludgeoning the audience with parallels of the director and the method
actor as vampire. It's too bad that these ideas were
treated as ends in themselves, instead of as launching points for an
exploration of related themes.
The historical backdrop of
the film could have been better developed. The audience does get a
good feel for the excitement of film as a new medium, but the
disillusionment and decadence of Weimar Germany, the climate that gave
birth to a generation of great filmmakers, is barely explored. And
trying to give the dialogue a more German "feeling" -
faux-German accents all around, German phrases sprinkled through the
script - was both unnecessary and unwise.
Cage and Jeff Levine show that they can sniff out gold but have
trouble refining it. The script needed more reworking, and relatively
unknown director E. Elias Merhige fails to pull the cast together, so
that every major character seems to be playing in a different movie.
Malkovich, one of the laziest actors in the business, simply drops his
awful accent halfway through the picture, and delivers all of his
lines in a loud monotone that is supposed to pass for intensity.
are a few terrific moments in Shadow - recreations of the
filming of scenes from Nosferatu, and especially "Schreck"
offering his take on Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. And Dafoe, at least,
gives a valiant performance as the vampire but at times seems to have
some difficulty in finding the right emotional notes. At his best, he
acts from behind the superb makeup as though he were doing mask work
for the stage he prefers, achieving the eerie, Expressionistic quality
of silent movie acting.
As a subject for a work of art, the
creative process requires a degree of restraint and objectivity in its
treatment. As an exploration of the roots of modern cinema, Shadow
of the Vampire is too self-referential and self-congratulatory,
too enraptured by its own cleverness, to produce any real insights
into the art and its pioneers. Had it not had such hackneyed "points"
to make, the film might have become an engrossing, organic work. The
filmmakers would have done better to drop their pretensions and turn
their movie into the damn fine yarn that it almost becomes in its
better moments, when it serves up laughs and straightforward
Two and a half stars.
Park is a writer and designer living in New York.