The first and arguably the greatest vampire film, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu,” is the subject of a much-belated, and stimulatingly warped, “making of” in “Shadow of the Vampire.” Wholly absorbing and inspired in parts, this carefully crafted curio dares to suggest that Murnau made a Faustian pact with an actual vampire to play the title role in exchange for the neck of the film’s leading lady at production’s end. Anchored by an astounding performance by Willem Dafoe as the tormented actor Max Schreck, atmospheric Lions Gate release looks to ride the intriguing premise and supportive reviews to reasonable grosses in discerning markets theatrically, followed by a long afterlife on video.
Director E. Elias Merhige’s first professional feature is not nearly as weird as his strikingly original student thesis film, “Begotten,” a fest and cult hit in 1991. But pic skirts the edge of the wild side nonetheless in its examination of the “anything for art” mentality taken to the limit. The highly aestheticized approach to filmmaking espoused by Murnau, the “difficult actor” syndrome seen in the extreme and the injection of vampirism into a historical undertaking involving prominent figures all provide intriguing grist for the mill. Add to that one of the more successful representations of the making of a classic film — a considerable feat in itself — and Merhige & Co. can be said to have mostly pulled off a daunting exercise.
For a great director who is nonetheless far from being a household name (he died in 1931), Murnau has been the subject of an unusual number of projects of late: a splendid “fictional” biography (with considerable material about the shooting of “Nosferatu”) by Jim Shepard, a docu about the production of his final film, “Tabu,” and an alleged upcoming theatrical musical. In its focus on a distinguished gay filmmaker seen through the prism of a legendary horror film, “Shadow of the Vampire” will be compared with “Gods and Monsters,” even though the new film doesn’t deal at all with Murnau’s sexuality.
Steven Katz’s audacious script hits the ground running, as Murnau (John Malkovich) is viewed directing a scene from his vampire tale at Berlin’s Jofa Films Studios in 1921. “Thank God, an end to this artifice!” Murnau joyfully exclaims upon wrapping studio work, happy now with the prospect of heading for Czechoslovakia, where the bulk of the picture will be shot on location in a land supposedly once inhabited by the undead.
The production’s inner circle consists of Murnau, an elegant disciple of the great Max Reinhardt who is frequently called Herr Doktor by his collaborators; producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier), who doubles as the film’s art director; screenwriter Henrick Galeen (John Aden Gillet), who has had the task of crafting an illicit adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” when the rights proved unobtainable; cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert); and actors Gustav von Wangerheim (Eddie Izzard) and Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack).
Everyone is understandably curious about the man Murnau has selected to play Count Orloff, whom they will meet only once they arrive on location. The director warns his crew that, such is the dedication of Max Schreck, the unknown actor in question, to the Stanislovsky method of total immersion in his role, that he has been steeping himself in vampirism for ages and will appear only in full costume and makeup; under no circumstances are they to engage him in trivial actors’ conversation.
After the crew checks in to their dark, creepy lodgings, which will also be used for shooting, buildup to Schreck’s entrance is teasingly handled; when he finally does show himself, it’s in an actual scene from the movie, and his horrible looks startle all concerned. Dafoe has been skillfully made up to look amazingly like Schreck in the role — bald, pointy-eared and skeletal, with frighteningly prominent teeth and enormously long fingernails, which he sometimes clicks together in moments of nervous distress. From this point on, Dafoe’s uncanny impersonation becomes the film’s primary source of fascination, as Schreck/Nosferatu insidiously takes over the production by pushing Murnau over the edge and threatening the very lives of the crew members.
Because no one but Murnau knows that Schreck is truly dangerous, the cast and crew react to him warily rather than with outright fear. For a while, the director is able to get the “actor” to do as he’s told, playing Wagner on the set to create the right mood and guiding his players through scenes with a constant flow of verbal instructions. Merhige is notably successful in reproducing scenes from Murnau’s masterpiece; when a film-within-the-film sequence is being shot, it’s appropriately shown in black-and-white, but as soon as Murnau concludes a take, the image bleeds into color. At other moments, actual shots from “Nosferatu” are included, and it’s to the credit of Merhige, lenser Lou Bogue and production designer Assheton Gorton that there is no serious sense of disjunction.
First crisis hits when Schreck can’t control himself and attacks cinematographer Muller, who quickly becomes ill and dies. Murnau flies into a fury, accusing Schreck of breaking their agreement to leave the crew alone. This merely makes Schreck bolder: Scouting around for another meal, he tells Murnau, “I don’t think we need the writer any longer,” to which the director grudgingly replies, “I am loath to admit it, but the writer is important.”
Murnau’s absence in Berlin to find a new cinematographer sets the stage for one of the film’s best scenes. As Grau and Galeen sit around one evening, they are joined by Schreck and engage him in a discussion of the merits of Stoker’s “Dracula” and a recapitulation of his own life, a chat interrupted when Schreck abruptly snatches a flying bat from midair and begins chewing on it. The tension only increases after Murnau returns, having recruited the flamboyant Fritz Wagner (a rollicking Cary Elwes), the real cinematographer of “Nosferatu,” to take over behind the camera.
With Schreck increasingly uncontrollable, Murnau takes to his bed with injections of laudanum, but somehow the film continues toward the filming of its critical final scene, in which Nosferatu is meant finally to sink his teeth into the neck of his object of desire; little does anyone know that the vampire Schreck has been promised Greta’s blood for the sake of Murnau’s art.
With the mood shifting between mild dread and appalled amusement, “Shadow of the Vampire” is not entirely consistent; it might sound better than it sometimes plays, and it’s never genuinely scary or emotionally implicating. After starting off strong, Murnau recedes as a full-blown character, and while Malkovich does a reasonable job, the actor is not ideally cast as a director known for his aristocratic fastidiousness and enormous height.
Coming in at just over 90 minutes, pic knows not to overstay its welcome, and is enhanced by good locations found in Luxembourg. Dan Jones’ serious orchestral score lends a strong boost, Caroline de Vivaise’s costumes are just right and the makeup work is exemplary.
Decision to have all the thesps speak with pronounced German accents seems curious for a moment but ends up working well. Along with the career-highlight turn by Dafoe and the energizing one from Elwes, Izzard does a fine job in the tricky task of playing a “bad” actor, Kier and Gillet make a fine team as the sophisticated producer and writer, respectively, who must continually find ways to cope with their eccentric director, and Catherine McCormack is all temperamental diva as a stage actress upset over lowering herself to appear in a mere motion picture.