Monday, July 17, 2006

Shadow of the Vampire - review

Director: E. Elias Merhige

Release Date: 2000

Contains spoilers

The premise of this movie was sheer genius. In 1922 F W Murnau (played in this movie by John Malkovich) filmed the seminal vampire movie Nosferatu. The movie concerns itself with the filming of Nosferatu but asks the question, what if Max Shreck (Willem Dafoe) was not an actor, what if he truly was a vampire? More than that, what if Murnau knew?

The film itself is difficult to classify, it is at turns an arthouse film, a black comedy, a horror movie and an expose of the mad genius that can infect the creative process. The film begins in Berlin but quickly movies to Czechoslovakia where Murnau is to film much of his opus. Whilst in Berlin, however, there are some nice scenes. At one point his leading lady, Greta (Catherine McCormack), questions why he is filming at the start of the theatre season. She points to the camera and says, “A theatrical audience gives me life, whilst this thing merely takes it from me.”

This one line sets up the tone of the film for, when we meet Schreck and discover the shambles of a creature living in squalor and following his own instincts we begin to discover that it is not he who is the true monster. It is Murnau and his immutable need for perfect art no matter the cost and the instrument of his art is the camera itself. Murnau also explains that the character Greta plays (Ellen), and therefore Greta herself unwittingly, discovers “the ultimate expression of love in the most exquisite pain imaginable.”

The producer, Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and the cast and crew are told that Shreck is a method actor who has been in Czechoslovakia for some weeks subsuming himself in his role. This is somewhat of an anachronism as the term method actor had not been coined in 1921 (when the film was shooting) but the point is something we, the audience, can understand. Murnau also states that his scenes must be shot at night, again not a possibility as it was impossible to film at night and all night shoots in 1921 were actually shot during the day. These are points however, that whilst making the setting somewhat inaccurate, do not detract from the movie.

The production, unfortunately, hits problems as Shreck cannot control his blood lust. He begins, before the crew even meets him, by preying on the cameraman, Wolf (Ronan Vibert), taking him from him so often that he must be taken to hospital by Murnau. This leads to a wonderful scene with Murnau confronting Schreck and telling him to leave his people alone. The argument becomes a debate as Murnau asks why he attacked someone so important to the film, why not the script girl. Schreck’s answer is simply that he will get to her later and suggests that they do not need the scriptwriter any longer. He also informs Murnau that he does not sail, and many shots are due to be filmed on ship. This causes Murnau to have a mock ship built whilst he is in Berlin, placating investors and getting a new cameraman - Fritz (Cary Elwes). In this scene we also discover the cost of having the vampire in the movie, Murnau has promised him Greta once the final scene has shot.

Schreck also causes problems by both improvising – as he looks at a picture of Greta in one scene and suggests that she has a nice bosom; Murnau comments that it will give the lip-readers a thrill.

Problems occur indirectly. The local peasants are obviously aware of the vampire and therefore refuse to allow filming in the inn to continue whilst the crosses are removed, something the crew have done for framing reasons.

One of the most fascinating scenes occurs when Murnau is away and Schreck comes across Albin and the scriptwriter. They question him, in character, and he tells us much about himself. He cannot remember how old he is, nor where he was born. He was turned by a woman. He is too old to turn another but seems to recall he never could anyway. He thinks Dracula a sad book, due to the plight of the Count and his ultimate loneliness. “Dracula hasn't had servants in 400 years,” Schreck explains, “and then a man comes to his ancestral home, and he must convince him that he... that he is like the man. He has to feed him, when he himself hasn't eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine? And then he remembers the rest of it. How to prepare a meal, how to make a bed. He remembers his first glory, his armies, his retainers, and what he is reduced to. The loneliest part of the book comes... when the man accidentally sees Dracula setting his table.” During this conversation he captures a bat, rips its head away and drains it. The reaction to all this by his audience is that he is a wonderful actor.

Eventually the crew get to Helgoland where the final scenes are to be shot and Albin and Fritz discover the truth when Murnau is sunk into the depths of a laudanum high. There is little they can do but go along with shooting Greta’s scene. Greta is to stake the Count but she realises that Schreck casts no reflection and panics and so Murnau drugs her. They shoot the death scene first and then the feeding scene, during which the studio door is to be opened, killing Schreck. The vampire has discovered this however and disabled the mechanism that controls the heavy door. A fight ensues where he kills Fritz and Albin and the true monstrosity of Murnau is revealed as he continues to film even asking the vampire to move back correctly into frame. Eventually other crew members open the door and the vampire is caught in the sun. As he dies his death is represented by the film burning away.

It is an interesting ending that veers from the original Nosferatu and yet captures its essence. In the original Nosferatu is killed by the sun, it is clear that here it was supposed to be a stake through the heart and the sun was an accident of survival. This is ironic as, earlier, we see Schreck fascinated with a film of the sun, so much so that he crouches before the projector and displays it directly into his own eyes. Obviously the actual movie did not have filmed scenes of a murdered producer and cameraman in the final act.

Both Malkovich and Dafoe give powerhouse performances in the movie and this is to be expected. In fact the film received two Oscar nominations, including best supporting actor for Dafoe. We must also look to the other members of the ensemble cast, however, for there are many great performance. Elwes and Kier are both great and, we must remember, neither are strangers to the genre both having performed in Dracula adaptations. I was also most impressed with Izzard who captured Gustav von Wangenheim’s performance brilliantly.

An interesting trivia fact, from imdb, is that the music played on the phonograph to set the mood for the actors in some of the scenes is the soundtrack of Dracula (1979) written by John Williams.

This movie is one of the most unusual in the genre and I can see that for some it will have a limited appeal. However, if you have any love for the original movie it has to be worth a watch and I personally think it a marvelous piece of cinema. 8 out of 10.

The homepage of the film, which has trailers and a flash comic, is here.

the imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Ithink I may have to add this and Vampires Vs Zombies to my "must get" list. This because of the mark you've given it, and the fact I know I can trust your judgment, The other for the zombie reason.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I'm glad you think you can trust my judgement - and a little terrified!