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Shadow of the Vampire°

Shadow of the Vampire starts from an amusing premise: namely, that the German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (John Malkovich) has employed a "real" vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play Count Orlok in his great silent adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nosferatu (1922). But the distance from that hypothesis to the finished product, a piece of postmodernist schlock trying to pass itself off as a sophisticated reflection on the ever delicate relation between movie art and "real" life, would have to be calculated in parsecs. Although the film, directed by E. Elias Merhige from an original script by Steven Katz, laboriously tries to recreate the spirit of the period, it owes less to the work of Murnau or any other creator of the classic German cinema than it does to such kitschy Ken Russell extravaganzas as The Music Lovers or Mahler and to the 1960s psychedelia in which those films are rooted.

Practically, speaking I have no quarrel with using "real" persons as subjects of theatrical motion pictures. Nor do I necessarily object to to the use of poetic license in depicting them on the screen. I thought the liberties Philip Kaufman and Doug Wright took with the known facts of the life of the Marquis de Sade in Quills showed inventiveness for the most part, by treating the biographemes as a stimulus to their own imaginative efforts. Under the circumstances, however, fictionalizing their material might have afforded the makers of Shadow of the Vampire more artistic latitude than they would have enjoyed  by basing their production upon the supposed "real" story.

Merhige and Katz want to have their posthumously modernist confection and eat it too. They want to narcissistically play with the characters in the same way they alternate back and forth between black and white scenes recreated from Nosferatu with clips from the original movie.  However, since Murnau is no obscure figure from the backwoods of the Enlightenment and Nosferatu is by now one of the most famous horror films ever made, Shadow of the Vampire quickly turns into a conjuring trick by dangling givens like these in front of the audience. Who is the "real" Friedrich Murnau? Is there a "real" Max Schreck? Only the Shadow knows.

Before progressing further, it is worth taking note of the "Schreck" affair. Since the noun Schreck means "terror" in German, it seems almost too good to be true to have an actor bearing that name playing a vampire--and it may be too good. There was indeed a "real" Max Schreck, an actor who worked under Max Reinhardt and appeared in some German silent films. However,  the French authors of an imposing monograph on Nosferatu, Bouvier and Leutrat, flatly deny that he played Count Orlok and offer the intriguing hypothesis that Murnau himself enacted the role. From everything I have read, Murnau doesn't seem to have been the kind of person to go in for practical jokes, but no one is likely to ever get to the bottom of this story, particularly not the lady who wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about Steven Katz and the "real" background of Shadow of the Vampire in which she announced that "Schreck" means "shriek." (I pointed this out in an e-mail to the paper, but film scholarship is not one of the Times's priorities.)

Shadow of the Vampire demonizes Weimar Germany--almost as if Nosferatu had been a documentary of contemporary life rather than a work of fantasy--with a recklessness next to which Hollywood misrepresentations of exotic locales in old movies like W.S. Van Dyke's Trader Horn (1931) or Josef Von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932) pale in comparison. Nearly every character in the movie is into kinky sex and does drugs as if they were going out of style. The only thing the movie lacks in this regard is a shot of the Count puffing away on an opium pipe made out of human bones. Who would ever guess that this was the land where Arnold Schönberg, Paul Klee, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Rainer Maria Rilke--to cite only a few names--were flourishing at the same time?

Not that authenticity can have been one of the filmmakers' goals. While the film adds in a heavily arty touch like naming the locomotive that is going to carry the Nosferatu company to Czechoslovakia "Charon," it nevertheless abounds in solecisms such as having the crew use present day lighting equipment when shooting on location--although it seems unlikely that a German crew in 1922 would have lugged along lights with them to do location shooting. A director like Jean-Luc Godard would have had the courage to go all the way with a conceit like this and shown a crew dressed in contemporary costume shooting the movie with a Panavision®  Panaflex camera.  

Merhige and Katz seem to have confused audacity with pretension--or perhaps with mere carelessness, as they do when Albin Grau (Udo Kier), the producer of Nosferatu, is interviewed by a reporter before the company departs for the Tatra Mountains, and compares Murnau to Griffith and Eisenstein. But the latter director only made his first film, Strike, two years after the filming of Nosferatu, in 1924, and only gained international recognition after Potemkin (1925) was shown outside the USSR.

But the number Shadow of the Vampire does on 1920s Germany and the production of Nosferatu is nothing in comparison to the one it does on Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau himself. "You and I are not so different," Orlok declares to the director at one point, and the movie seems to endorse this idea, depicting him as a mad genius in full bloom who wants to create A Great Work of Art dripping with blood, no matter at what price. Even more damning, in a subsequent encounter, the future creator of Faust, suffering from an overdose of morphine, admits to one of his colleagues that he has made a diabolical bargain of his own with Orlok. 

The director has contracted to hand over the star of Nosferatu, Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack), to the vampire as a compensation for appearing in the picture. When the horrified associate asks why, Murnau replies, "I did it for science." In this way, however, Murnau--who is constantly addressed as "Herr Doktor" by the crew--  is virtually transformed by the movie into an avatar of one of the real monsters of the Third Reich, Josef Mengele.

For reasons which are certainly not clear to me, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe have received rave reviews for their performances in Shadow of the Vampire, more so than the movie  itself. Malkovich does a reasonably competent job as Murnau, considering the ludicrous "Expressionist" nonsense about Life, Death and the Cinema he is forced to declaim. But Dafoe carries on like a third-rate ham playing Shylock to a provincial audience, chewing up scenery right and left. In the original film, whoever played the Count did so with a certain kind of balefully icy dignity--after all, he is an aristocrat--and Klaus Kinski, who could hold his own when it came to overplaying, remained faithful to that image in Werner Herzog's  adaptation of Murnau's film, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). 

Now Dafoe has reaped the appropriate reward for his labors, receiving a Academy nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role--an honor he shares with Joaquin Phoenix, nominated for an equally contemptible performance as Commodus in GladiatorAt that rate, perhaps the Academy should consider instituting a new category:  Most Wretched Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.

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