Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E Elias Merhige)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Germany and Czechoslovakia, from around July 1921.

Faithful to the novel? Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalised account of the production of Nosferatu. (Now a classic of silent cinema, Nosferatu was an unauthorised film adaptation of Dracula. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere on this site.) In 1921, German director Friedrich Murnau casts Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok in his new film. Schreck insists on staying in character and grotesque make-up at all times, but this is not method acting: he is *actually a vampire*. In return for Schreck’s gruesome performance, Murnau will allow him to turn the movie’s leading lady once filming is complete… In reality, Max Schreck (1879-1936) was a character actor who was known as a bit of a loner with a strange sense of humour. FW Murnau (1888-1931) made many well-regarded German and American films in the 1920s, some of which are now lost.

Best performance: It’s a strong leading cast. John Malkovich and Willem Defoe are really terrific as Murnau and Schreck respectively. And Catherine McCormack is great value as the feisty, decadent diva Greta Schroeder, who’s playing the Mina equivalent in Nosferatu. In reality, Schroeder (1892-1967) was far from a big star in 1921 but Shadow repurposes her as a successful actress with bags of self-confidence. She repeatedly mentions the theatre and rehearsals: ie, she represents the old order. Murnau, dressed in his scientific white coat and steampunk goggles, represents the future – and that’s why he feels able to sacrifice her for his art. Also worth mentioning is Cary Elwes, who shows up halfway through as Fritz Arno Wagner. Here he’s a Lord Flashheart-like cameraman-cum-dilettante, but in real life Wagner (1889-1958) was a master cinematographer who shot many German Expressionist films as well as Fritz Lang’s classic M (1931). It’s Elwes’s second ‘Dracula’ role: he’d been in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.

Best bit: There are some moments of genuine creepiness. When the crew is filming Count Orlok’s first appearance in Nosferatu, he emerges from a darkened tunnel. Not only is it our first sighting of the character but his co-star Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) has never clapped eyes on him before and looks genuinely terrified. Von Wangenheim then has to go with the Count into the tunnel. Crucially, *we* never follow them inside it, which makes the shadowy space all the more threatening.

Review: This very interesting and very enjoyable movie is built on layers of subtext. There’s an enormous amount of *stuff* going on. For a start, there’s a parallel being drawn between the fiction of Nosferatu and the events going on behind the scenes. Unlike their real-life counterparts, the crew in Shadow of the Vampire shoot Nosferatu in narrative order. This allows us to follow both stories at the same time: the two strands run alongside each other; events and motivations are mirrored. (Orlok wants the girl in both, for example.) Also evident are similarities between the vampire myth and the moviemaking process. Film can bestow immortality, like a vampire; and at one point, Schreck stares down the lens of a projector, transfixed by its power to contain/recreate ‘life’. Shadow of the Vampire was made in the year 2000 but occasionally mixes in clips from the 1921 shoot for the actual Nosferatu, and this weaving together of footage from a eight-decade stretch again highlights the power of cinema. It can manipulate reality, twist time, control people’s actions – like a vampire. Munrau, meanwhile, is presented as an all-powerful director, browbeating his colleagues and imposing his will. At one point he says, “If it’s not in the frame it doesn’t exist.” This is the director as a dictator or god – a powerful ‘higher being’ with a singular vision. Like a vampire. A more obvious correlation is a visual rhyme going on with drugs and vampirism (ie, needles standing in for teeth), while there’s a nice comment on the text of Dracula when Schreck laments that the saddest part of the novel is when Dracula’s seen preparing his own dinner table. All fascinating stuff. It must be said that the film has blemishes – the *five-minute* title sequence really tests your patience; there’s some heavy-handed dialogue early on; and occasionally the editing can be a bit jarring – but the positives far outweigh the negatives. For example, there’s great fun in the general behind-the-curtain-ness. We get to see Murnau directing actors during takes (a common silent-era technique), men turning hand-cranked cameras, special-effects tricks being revealed, and shots from Nosferatu being carefully restaged. Period-apt intertitles are also used to speed the plot along when necessary. Add a dry line in comedy, brilliant performances, a nicely understated score and some lovely visual storytelling – the compositions, framings and blockings are often fantastic – and you have a fun little film that deserves to be more acclaimed.

Nine scientists engaged in the creation of memory out of 10

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