Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Bram Stoker’s widow Florence would spin in her grave if she knew about “Shadow of the Vampire.” “Begotten” director Edmund Elias Merhige's second film qualifies as an artsy fartsy account of the making of groundbreaking German filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s silent chiller "Nosferatu” back in 1921. No sooner had "Nosferatu" been released to the the public than Florence Stoker sued Murnau and company for copyright infringement. She won the case, and the court ordered the destruction of all film prints and negatives. Happily, some copies escaped annihilation, and the Murnau’s artistic legacy as well as the film’s contribution to vampire cinema survived Florence’s wrath. Not only did “Nosferatu” emerge as Murnau’s greatest film, but it also exerted a considerable influence on vampire films. Sunlight is the mortal enemy of a vampire in “Nosferatu.” Although Stoker’s Dracula could cavort during the day, Murnau and company changed it so the daylight proved to be the vampire’s greatest enemy. Merhige helmed his first film, a silent opus entitled “Begotten,” about 10 years before he embarked on this witty but wry epic that appropriates an urban legend about the actor who incarnated Count Orlock. The first forty-five minutes are flawless. Unfortunately, complications occur in the denouement, and cynicism undercuts what could have been a masterpiece of self-parody. Basically, the uneven “Shadow of a Vampire” (*** out of ****) concludes with an unhappy ending while it celebrates the monster that the film conjured up. An important question that you may find yourself asking is: who is the real monster in “Shadow of the Vampire?” Is it the vampire Count Orlock? Or is the real monster none other than Murnau himself?

"Shadow of the Vampire" opens with Murnau in his Berlin studio shooting a window scene with his beautiful leading lady, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack of “Braveheart”), who is playing with her pet cat. Later, the studio technicians chuckle that they were able to keep the cat restrained in its scene because they had fed it laudanum. Essentially, Murnau abhors working within the confines of his Berlin studio. Restlessly, he decides to take advantage of lensing on-location in both Czechoslovakia and Poland despite the protests of his producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier of “Andy Warhol's Dracula”) about the mounting costs. Initially, Greta is reluctant to accompany Murnau out of Berlin because the new theater season is forthcoming and producers have been making her lucrative offers. Nevertheless, she decides to follow Murnau. Before Murnau and company depart, the filmmakers provide us with a glimpse of pre-World War II Berlin when decadence ruled the land. The following day the film company leaves on a train. The name on the cab of the locomotive—Charon--strikes an ominous note. In Greek mythology, Charon ran the ferry that separated the land of the living from the land of the dead. Gustav von Wangerhein (Eddie Izzard of “The Avengers”) plays the role of Hutter; Hutter travels by coach to visit Count Orlock. Gustav is visibly impressed and repelled by the appearance of Count Orlock (Willem Dafoe) who resembles a Catholic bishop. Everybody praises Orlock’s entrance. Murnau warns the cast and crew not to bother Orlock. “For the remainder of the shoot, he will be Count Orlock to himself and to all of us.” Murnau adds: “Just leave the man alone. He will be completely authentic. He’s not interested in our questions or our praise or our conversations. He’s chasing an altogether different ghost.” Of course, what Murnau deliberately refuses to tell everybody is that Orlock is a genuine vampire.

Murnau is shocked, surprised, and angry when he learns that Orlock has bitten his cinematographer, Wolfgang ‘Wolf’ Muller (Ronan Vibert of “Tristan + Isolde”), and the man dies. “You agreed not to hurt my people,” thunders an irate Murnau to Orlock. After the argument about Wolf, Schreck suggests that his next victim should be the writer. Again, Murnau glowers at Orlock and points out that he still needs the writer. Orlock sees through Murnau’s rage. He knows that the director doesn’t really care about the welfare of his people, particularly the photographer. Eventually, Murnau and Orlock reach an agreement about who he may feed on during the shoot. Murnau flies back to Germany to get another photographer, Fritz Wagner (Cary Elwes of “Saw”), and he is gone about a week.

The neat conceit of “Shadow of a Vampire” is that Murnau makes a Faustian deal with a genuine vampire to act in his film on the condition that he gets to drain film’s leading lady. Ironically, Katz received the 2000 Bram Stoker Award as Best Screenwriter for “Shadow of the Vampire” for his script. Remember, this is a film about the very film that Florence Stoker sought to destroy entirely because the filmmakers had plagiarized it. There are really only two important characters in Merhige’s film. The mercurial John Malkovich inhabits the role of the eccentric Teutonic helmer who attained greater fame and fortune in Hollywood before an automobile crash claimed his life in 1931. Malkovich commands your attention throughout the story. Although he cannot stand to work within the controlled conditions of a studio, Murnau takes the film company on location because this is the only way that he can employ Court Orlock as an actor. As a film director, Murnau behaves like a tyrant. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe of “Platoon” impersonates one of the world’s most mysterious and repugnant looking real-life actors, Max Schreck. Little is known about Schreck and the role challenged Dafoe who settled on using the film as a means to guide his creation of Schreck. According to Dafoe, "The most important research tool was the footage. The only thing I could find out about Max was that a biographer of Murnau said he was 'an actor of no distinction.' But the script was very strong, and we had the actual “Nosferatu” film as a kind of touchstone and base. So much had to wait until I got into the prosthetic (the makeup). I didn't just have extreme makeup, but also a costume that was restricting. The shoes made me walk a particular way. The padding in the clothes also made me walk a particular way. It was great because it's a huge mask which frees you up so much."

Ultimately, Dafoe received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Schreck. He spent three hours getting into make-up for the role and he wore platform shoes. Dafoe was so persuasive as Orlock that the producers of “Spider-man 2” hired him on the basis of his performance as Max Schreck. Indeed, “Shadow of a Vampire” went on to win several cinematic awards. Watching “Shadow of a Vampire” as a companion piece to “Nosferatu” will furnish viewers with some insights not only into the silent original but also the nature of the working conditions in the early film industry. Merhige supplies a commentary track with the DVD release that reveals certain things that occurred during the production of silent films that will enlighten moviegoers. Nevertheless, the actual Max Schreck was not a vampire and worked in 33 other films after he made “Nosferatu.” Indeed, Schreck had played in four films before he played the world’s most infamous vampire.

Indeed, “Shadow of the Vampire” doesn’t qualify as a strictly objective casework about either “Nosferatu” or Murnau. Ostensibly, Merhige’s clever premise for the picture suffers for being shallow. The story takes on an uneven quality about 45 minutes into the action with forgettable line-up cardboard characters. Admirably, Merhige and scenarist Steve Katz never stoop to lowest common denominator stunts in this somewhat amusing, sometimes pretentious, but rarely scary, 93-minute escapade. Merhige plays everything rather straight-up until Count Orlock kills his first victim. Orlock differs from most vampires because he doesn’t create other vampires. He kills and his victims die. Mind you, Dafoe’s acting as well as Malkovich’s performance, Lou Bogue’s atmospheric photography, and the real-life settings distinguish what really constitutes a one-note ‘what if’ gimmick film. Nevertheless, Merhige’s concise direction, Dafoe’s engrossing performance as the vampire coupled with Malkovich’s monomaniac behavior make “Shadow of the Vampire” worth watching despite its obvious shortcomings. While he admires Murnau’s films, Merhige presents the master filmmaker in an unsympathetic light as a cold-blooded man who treats everybody collectively as pawns.