In 1922, director F.W. Murnau hires a real vampire, Max Schreck, to play the lead in Nosferatu, his unauthorised adaptation of Dracula. During location shooting in a spooky castle and on an isolated island, Murnau seems willing to sacrifice any number of co-workers, and indeed leading lady Greta Schroeder, to the monster in order to make his masterpiece.
This ingenious fantasy is set during the shooting of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s enduring classic vampire movie Nosferatu, eine Symphonie das Grauens (1922), teaming John Malkovich’s autocratic director with Willem Dafoe’s crumbling vampire, semi-fictional characters with real names, in an odd horror comedy that boils down to a study of the sacrifices some are willing to make, or force others to make, for art. Murnau’s admirers may find themselves conflicted about Shadow of the Vampire (the archetypal title comes from one of Nosferatu’s intertitles) in that it is at once a reverent recreation of the look and feel of the silent masterpiece and a sustained exercise in slander that imagines Murnau as a pretentious snuff filmmaker, and denies the power of makeup and acting in the real Schreck’s performance.
The film features many historical characters, casting Udo Kier as producer/art director Albin Grau, John Aden Gillett as scenarist Henrik Galeen, Cary Elwes as innovative cinematographer (and, here, drug dealer) Fritz Arno Wagner, Eddie Izzard as vain matinee idol Gustav von Wangenheim (posturing hero of Nosferatu) and Catherine McCormick as melting heroine Greta Schroeder. The idea is creepy, but Steven Katz’s script plays for laughs as often as shudders, with Izzard doing a pastiche of exaggerated silent movie acting style and Dafoe copping as many mannerisms from Wilfred Brambell’s Albert Steptoe as ‘rat-bastard’ vampire Schreck. Everyone speaks with cartoonish German accents which adds to the skit-like feel, and some sequences built around the ancient, disgusting vampire’s mingling with the blasé film crew are very funny, copping the Nurse Betty routine of a maniac mistaken for a method actor (Schreck is said to have studied with Stanislavsky).
Though the film uses snippets of the original and meticulously recreated images, this breaks with strict historical accuracy by having Nosferatu shot at night for the convenience of the sun-shunning vampire — Murnau actually had to film day-for-night because techniques for night-filming hadn’t been perfected in the early 20s. E. Elias Merhige successfully evokes the period and the chills, especially in an unsettling credits sequence as the abstract patterns of art deco wallpaper are revealed by heavy shadow as a riot of bat, vampire and Dracula symbols. Slightly obscured by the broad comic touch is an attempt to make the vampire a pathetic loner akin to Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake. As Schreck muses on his aloneness and stares into a projector lens in the hope of reminding himself of a sunrise that would be fatal to him, Malkovich’s obsessive, abusive Murnau emerges as the real monster.
Broader and wilder than Gods and Monsters, this in-reference festival for frightfilm fans has enough chuckles and shudders for a general audience who’ve never heard of Nosferatu.
First published in Empire.