“I don’t think we need the writer any longer.”
Well, that was interesting. Fun, I expected. Clever, I hoped for. But interesting? That’s a surprise. Not that I had low expectations for the final Killtoberfest 3 film in my Nosferatu sounder, 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. But I didn’t realize it would have real things to say about the nature and history of cinema, the terrible drive of genius, and the mythologizing of the vampire itself.
I confess I know little about F.W. Murnau himself, or the actual circumstances behind the production of Nosferatu. (In fact, it wasn’t until this film that I learned that his initials stand for Friedrich Wilhelm.) This meant I could float pleasantly in a delicious ignorance during Shadow of the Vampire, not knowing whether the details and characterizations portrayed were true or false. Even if some of them were invented, Shadow is a remarkable work of alternate history; like any good fictionalized account of a film production, it adheres strictly to the details of the original work–all while positing that Max Schreck played Count Orlok so well because he was not an actor at all.
Shadow begins with production already underway on Nosferatu, the movie that would become Murnau’s most celebrated masterpiece. Having been denied the rights to the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker’s widow, Murnau (John Malkovich) changes all the character names and presses on anyway. It appears no obstacle can stop him, including the reluctance of his female lead (Catherine McCormack playing Greta Schröder playing Ellen), rumblings from his Berlin financiers (“They hate your script,” he tells writer Henrik Galeen [Aden Gillett]), or pressure from his producer (Albin Grau, played by Udo Kier, who is utterly incapable of not appearing sinister). The very first scene establishes Murnau’s dedication to his art (dressed in white coats, he and his crew are sometimes more like scientists than filmmakers), his forceful personality, and especially his propensity for secrets–he will tell no one any details about the actor he has hired to play the vampire. As his producer Grau points out, neither Murnau’s actors, financiers, or crew know the details of the movie he is making. It’s all in Murnau’s head, his singular vision. Even the actors don’t get scripts or rehearsals, apparently; because he’s making a silent film, Murnau can talk them through every action and emotion while the cameras are rolling, enforcing his will on them the way a vampire hypnotizes.
Although the production is not entirely shot in sequence, Shadow roughly accords its structure with Nosferatu, starting with Ellen’s character at home, following its lead (Eddie Izzard playing Gustav von Wangenhein playing Hutter) to the peasant village and the ruined castle where the cast and crew is introduced to Schreck just as Hutter is introduced to Orlok. The monster emerges from the dark tunnel with odd, stiff steps, his face pale and distended, his nails like horrible claws. The look of apprehension on Gustav’s face is real–and having captured it on film, Murnau is pleased. The rest of them, less so. Off-put by Schreck’s odd appearance and insistence on remaining in character throughout the production, they’re only slightly mollified by Murnau telling them Schreck hails from the Eisenstein school of acting–the 1920s equivalent of being “method”.
The film has a lot of sly humor peeking around the corners of its boldly absurd premise. Perhaps its best irony is that, having found and contracted a real vampire for his film in place of an actor, Murnau is annoyed to discover that “Schreck” is more demanding and temperamental than any actor. After all, they usually just want a bigger trailer; Max wants the leading lady. Her neck, in particular. Not to mention the script changes! “I don’t think we need the ship,” the vampire deadpans. Murnau is apoplectic. This is his picture, he must be in control. In his willingness to sacrifice the well-being of those around him in order to achieve his artistic vision, F.W. turns out to be the film’s true monster.
But that’s not to overlook the vampire himself. In a very layered performance, Willem Dafoe plays a vampire playing Max Schreck playing Count Orlak, and between these roles finds a surprisingly wide range of emotional effect. He’s oddly funny, in that his Schreck is not just a vampire but a very old vampire, with an old man’s problems taking food and remembering things, and an old man’s cantankerousness. He’s certainly creepy, moving with the twitchiness of a bat, staring wide-eyed, or clicking his long nails together thoughtfully. (I don’t want to pick on Herzog’s Nosferatu, but this last is such a genius way to add meaningful sound to a silent movie character.) And yet we find some sympathy for him, too. In the movie’s most fascinating scene, the vampire drinks and talks with the writer and producer about Dracula, the novel he has read. He says he felt sorry for Dracula, who has had no servants for hundreds of years, who must cook and clean and wait on his guest Harker himself, a process that (Schrek says) must have been both humbling and a reminder of his earlier days of glory. The moment is not only insightful but reaches back across the centuries and the long lineage of Stoker’s creation to touch something fresh there, a stone still bleeding. Like Dracula, Schreck, or whatever his real name is, is also an ancient creature long past his time, now confronted and used by the modern world as entertainment. At one point he plays, childlike, with a film projector, fascinated by the technology. As most would, he puts his hand in front of the light, as if to feel it; and falling behind him in the screen is the shadow of that thin hand and its long nails, just as the shadow of that hand crept towards its victims in the real Murnau’s real movie. And when he dies, Schreck does not vanish in a puff of smoke and flame; his film simply breaks and dissolves.
It’s moments like this, the film’s meta level, its layers of analysis and self-analysis, that truly makes it a remarkable and engaging experience. You have Malkovich as Murnau insightfully analyzing and narrating his own film (ie, Shadow commenting on Nosferatu); you have Malkovich as Murnau describing and dissecting his own actions and situations (ie., Shadow commenting on Shadow); and you have all the connections that are drawn between the two films. Shadow even “explains” some minor aspects of Nosferatu. For instance, remember the low angle shots on the ship I commented on in my review of the 1922 film? Here they’re explained as necessity–because the vampire refuses to sail, a replica set of the ship must be constructed at the castle, and his shots filmed at an upward angle against the sky to hide the missing ocean. Here is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing and what it means. In an extraordinary exchange, the new cameraman (replacing the old one who “fell ill”) talks to a coffin-bound Schreck about the artifice of cinema, comparing the “grease paint and mortician’s wax” he presumes Schreck is using to the unreality of the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. (“Read him?” brags Schreck of the philosopher. “Knew him.”) What is cinema, after all, but the capture and projection of light in the form of an illusion?
Vampire or human, the way we behave and present ourselves determines how others perceive us to be. To Murnau, who has the hubris to offer a deathless vampire a chance at eternal life, cinema protects and preserves those perceptions. In real life, Max Schreck was a normal German character actor who played on stage and screen for almost two decades before dying of heart failure in 1936, at the age of 56. But in the cinema he is a vampire forever. Likewise, for the real Murnau, Nosferatu was the key to immortality, his most famous film and an enduring masterpiece of horror. But even cinema is no guarantee of life or memory; F.W. died in 1931 in a car accident, too young at 42, and today 8 of his 21 films are simply lost. Back then, they didn’t preserve most silent films. They didn’t have sound or color. They said “begin” and “end” instead of “action” and “cut”. They worked fast, cut corners, hired monsters when nothing else would do. And they made art. “I think we got it,” says Murnau at the conclusion of the production of his real-life horror film, even as the bodies of cast and crew lie broken and bleeding all around him. Check the gate. That’s a wrap.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.