by NIR SHALEV
A great method for testing one’s love for cinema is to watch and suitably comprehend what makes Shadow of the Vampire a great film.
We begin with an ingenious premise: in the year 1921, director F. W. Murnau sets out to make the most realistic vampire movie ever made. He wants to adapt Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula into a film, but having been denied the copyrights from the Stoker estate he changes the name of Count Dracula to Count Orlock and the title to Nosferatu, which in Romanian loosely translated to “vampire.” After shooting a few scenes in Berlin, Murnau and the entire cast and crew set off to a remote village somewhere in Czechoslovakia to shoot most of the remainder of the film in a large, creepy castle and in a small, dirty inn. But Murnau keeps a grave secret from everyone else: that the actor portraying the Count is not an actor but an actual vampire that he’d found living in a nearby cave.
Step one is complete; we have a great premise and a completed screenplay. Step two is the brilliant casting. The wonderfully enigmatic, master of diction John Malkovich plays the equally enigmatic Murnau, playfully referred to by everyone as Herr Doctor. Sporting a scientist’s white overcoat and goggles, to protect his eyes and clothes from dangerous chemicals Murnau looks like a mad scientist when behind the camera and when directing his actors. He has every man’s respect but audiences can tell that others are a little skeptical of his ways as a true director; whether he cares for great performances for the sake of art or whether it’s for personal gratification.
When shooting a scene in the dirty inn, Murnau mentions to his crew that the “natives” and proprietors of the inn are the main actors in the scenes next to the film’s male protagonist. His crew retorts that they aren’t actors and then Murnau says, “They don’t need to act, they need to be.” Murnau, in real life and in this film was a true master of words and a very early auteur, way ahead of the curve.
Count Orlock is played by Max Schreck and Max Schreck is played by Willem Dafoe, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the creepy, blood-sucking thespian. Murnau informs the cast and crew that Schreck always comes out in full costume and only at night. He is a truly dedicated method actor who takes his job seriously. The crew is immediately creeped out and remains so throughout the production and so is the male protagonist, Gustav von Wangerhein (Eddie Izzard). Izzard plays the actor perfectly like a silent film actor but not like a star, because the real Gustav was a lousy actor. On Gustav’s first encounter with Schreck, he is flabbergasted. Shooting their first scene together, Gustav stares at Schreck with scared eyes and fears following him into the castle; the actor is scared stiff and the intimidation never wanes. Also, Udo Kier plays the producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes plays the second cameraman, who is promoted after the first cameraman was drained of all of his blood during several nights’ shootings.
Periodically throughout the film we see Murnau sneaking off at times to provide Schreck with vials of blood, or caged rodents and we wonder why this is all going on; why is Schreck really acting in Murnau’s film? But what is most intriguing is how far Murnau goes in allowing Schreck to “eat” members his crew. The final plot twist I will leave for everyone to discover on their own.
Director E. Elias Merhige paints a comically dark, fake making-of drama that pokes fun at a classic, groundbreaking horror film and is also a good representation of filmmaking at some of its earliest stages. This is good movie about making movies as much as it is a great spoof.
The most groundbreaking aspects of the film are any scenes that involve Max Schreck. There are scenes where Schreck is an actor: a vampire pretending to be an actor that is portraying a vampire. And in other scenes we have Schreck conversing with the crew, slightly drunk he is being himself but the crew believes him to be method acting off the camera. There are many moments to marvel at. Also, this film features a few shots from the original film, strategically spliced in and that seem to blend perfectly. Unless one had watched the original film several times, those key shots are truly seamless.
Shadow of the Vampire weighs heavy with historical merit. We see the German cinema in the early 1920s, superimposing shadows on sinister castle walls, and a hint of the great German Expressionist style to come. We go behind the scenes of actual filmmaking and then we get to laugh with the audacious nature of Max Schreck being an actual vampire, one that finds the tale of Dracula depressing. We have a great cast performing with surprising realism and one of Willem Dafoe’s greatest creations and performances. His long fingers and nails don’t appear to be makeup and his stiff walk looks to be hundreds of years old; he carries his age with his looks and his walk. Like the coat on Schreck’s back, he wears all of Schreck and is entirely convincing.
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