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Nosferatu 1922

Film Review: Shadow of the Vampire

By Simma Park

Shadow of the Vampire

Willem Dafoe as Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire

John Malkovich in Shadow of the Vampire

John Malkovich in Shadow of the Vampire

Photos by Jean-Paul Kieffer
Copyright ©2000
Courtesy of Lions Gate Films

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NEW YORK, 31 January 2001 - Trailers may thrive on premise alone, but no premise, however good, can sustain an entire feature without decent execution. Shadow of the Vampire has a brilliant premise - one original enough to leave writer Stephen Katz's rivals gnashing their teeth in envy, and film buffs twitching in anticipation: it fictionalizes the making of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors. Nosferatu, the first vampire movie ever made, was a masterpiece of silent Expressionist cinema which, though made in 1922, continues to terrify viewers today. What would happen, the film asks, if the director, in his total commitment to artistic perfection, hired a real vampire to play the monster's role?

Nosferatu is the perfect subject for this kind of fantastic interpolation; relatively little is known about the making of the film or about its cast and crew. Even the life of Murnau, one of the first greats of the seventh art, is poorly recorded. History also offers up the tantalizing figure of Max Schreck, the actor whose indelibly creepy performance as the loathsome, pathetic vampire most likely saved him from oblivion. Schreck is conveniently unencumbered by biographical data, and his name (which translates as "Max Terror") is perhaps the most apt in cinema.

In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau secretly passes off a real vampire for the little-known stage actor Max Schreck . (He covers for the monster's bizarre behavior by claiming that "Schreck" is an adherent of the "method acting", a new-fangled acting approach invented by a controversial theater figure named Stanislavsky.) To convince the vampire to restrain his appetites and accept direction, Murnau promises him immortality via celluloid - and the lifeblood of sexy leading lady Grete Schröder. Unfortunately, managing "Schreck" turns out to be harder than anticipated. Not only does he give into his appetites and begin feeding on the crew, but he also turns prima donna, making unreasonable demands that pose financial and logistical nightmares. By the time the crew discovers Murnau's deception, they are trapped in a real fight to the death - which, at Murnau's insistence, plays out with cameras rolling.

Given history's cooperation and the flash of brilliance that inspired Katz, all the elements are present for a great, entertaining tale about the extremes, the dangers that artists are willing to risk in the creative process. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never develop the plot or the characters enough to engage the viewer. And what plot there is, bogs down in pedantic dialogue about the art of cinema and by symbolism so heavy-handed as to practically sock the viewer in the eye. Grete Schröder's declares early on that a theater audience gives her life, while a camera gives her death. And as if that weren't bad enough, the train that takes the crew to its location shoot in Czechoslovakia has the name "CHARON" emblazoned on its locomotive.

Twenty minutes into the movie, the audience is already well aware that it is supposed to see the cinema director as a vampiric figure, parasitically draining the life force from his cast and crew in order to produce a perfect and immortal work of art. Even if this idea were fresh and interesting, the rest of the movie wears it out, repeatedly bludgeoning the audience with parallels of the director and the method actor as vampire. It's too bad that these ideas were treated as ends in themselves, instead of as launching points for an exploration of related themes.

The historical backdrop of the film could have been better developed. The audience does get a good feel for the excitement of film as a new medium, but the disillusionment and decadence of Weimar Germany, the climate that gave birth to a generation of great filmmakers, is barely explored. And trying to give the dialogue a more German "feeling" - faux-German accents all around, German phrases sprinkled through the script - was both unnecessary and unwise.

Producers Nicholas Cage and Jeff Levine show that they can sniff out gold but have trouble refining it. The script needed more reworking, and relatively unknown director E. Elias Merhige fails to pull the cast together, so that every major character seems to be playing in a different movie. Malkovich, one of the laziest actors in the business, simply drops his awful accent halfway through the picture, and delivers all of his lines in a loud monotone that is supposed to pass for intensity.

There are a few terrific moments in Shadow - recreations of the filming of scenes from Nosferatu, and especially "Schreck" offering his take on Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. And Dafoe, at least, gives a valiant performance as the vampire but at times seems to have some difficulty in finding the right emotional notes. At his best, he acts from behind the superb makeup as though he were doing mask work for the stage he prefers, achieving the eerie, Expressionistic quality of silent movie acting.

As a subject for a work of art, the creative process requires a degree of restraint and objectivity in its treatment. As an exploration of the roots of modern cinema, Shadow of the Vampire is too self-referential and self-congratulatory, too enraptured by its own cleverness, to produce any real insights into the art and its pioneers. Had it not had such hackneyed "points" to make, the film might have become an engrossing, organic work. The filmmakers would have done better to drop their pretensions and turn their movie into the damn fine yarn that it almost becomes in its better moments, when it serves up laughs and straightforward entertainment.

Two and a half stars.

Simma Park is a writer and designer living in New York.

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