Shadow Of The Vampire

In 1921, the great German film director F.W. Murnau shot "Nosferatu" with his singular star Max Schreck as Count Orlok. So little is known about Schreck, that screenwriter Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige ("Begotten") suggest the fantastical - what if Schreck really *was* a vampire - in their new film "Shadow of the Vampire."

Laura's Review: C+

F.W. Murnau was a fascinating man. A seven foot tall homosexual, he was a true artist, covering theater, writing, music as well as film. The young Alfred Hitchcock journeyed from London to Germany to learn from him. Murnau died in a Hollywood car crash shrouded in mystery at the peak of his career. He had helped create and epitomized the German Expressionism movement in film.

Merhige professes to wanting to delve into the director, the method actor, the camera itself as vampire with "Shadow of a Vampire," but that seems just a hairsbreadth away from the 'camera and audience as voyeur' theme which has been explored by the likes of Hitchcock and William Powell ("Peeping Tom"). Not only does he not provide any new insights with his vampiric filmmaking study, he gives us a one dimensional Murnau (John Malkovich).

The film opens with a title card (credit to Merhige for recreating the silent film) informing us that "Nosferatu" is being shot in 1921. The drug addicted diva Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack, "Braveheart") is petulant about leaving the stage sets for Murnau's remote locations (he advises her to make a sacrifice for her art, ahem).

The troupe, including Udo Kier ("Andy Warhol's Dracula") as producer Albin Grau, Eddie Izzard ("Mystery Men") as actor Gustav von Wangenheim and Ronan Vibert as cinematographer Wolfgang Muller arrive in the spooky Transylvanian setting and commence shooting ('Albin, a native has wandered into my frame!' shouts Murnau). Schreck is staying in character and out of sight, Murnau tells the cast and crew, even as we see an offering of a small caged animal taken by inhuman hands.

Schreck (Willem Dafoe) finally makes his appearance as the cameras roll in the dead of night, scaring Gustav silly. Soon Schreck is upon Wolfgang, who disappears with little explanation. Murnau's pact with the undead is brought to light when he admonishes his star for taking a bite of the cameraman. Murnau wants Schreck to wait until the end of the film, where he's promised he'll have Greta as Murnau's payment for his 'acting.'

The cast is wildly uneven. John Malkovich is miscast as Murnau (although the script doesn't serve Murnau well either). Malkovich simply acts obsessed with a ludricous German accent. Dafoe has garnered a lot of attention (and Oscar buzz) as Schreck. His performance is certainly entertaining, never more so than when he plucks a bat out of the air and devours it. Yet it's a performance built out of superb makeup and a stable of ticks, such as the clicking of his overly long, yellow nails or the gutteral grunts Kinski used in Herzog's "Nosferatu" remake. He doesn't find his character's voice, which should be unsettling but isn't.

Catherine McCormack is surprisingly effective as the spoiled morphine hound Greta Schroder. She captures the decadence of 1920's Germany. Udo Kier is restrained and able as Albin which he easily could have played for camp. Cary Elwes arrives at the film's midpoint as replacement cinematographer (and drug supplier/user) Fritz Wagner, reprising his overly theatrical turns from "The Princess Bride" (where the technique worked) and "Coppola's Dracula" (where it didn't). Here, it's one more crazy patchwork in the quilt.

Katz' script, with Merhige's changes, plays more like Murnau's "Faust" than "Nosferatu." Murnau is simply an obsessive filmmaker willing to sell his soul to get his vision on film. He's used as a device, a conceit, not a true character. Humor is well utilizied - Merhige got his licks in by having Schreck proclaim, hungrily, that perhaps the writer was no longer necessary.

Technically the film is good, aping the silent look of "Nosferatu" when not recreating it. However, why, why, why does Merhige choose to accompany his camera POV of the recreations with sound produced to recall the era - this was a silent film! Overtures from "The Flying Dutchman" and "Tristan and Isolde" are apt accompaniments to the visuals. (Herzog again - Merhige stages a scene of a ship set being built that strongly recalls an image Herzog used in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God.")

This film keeps getting compared to "Gods and Monsters," probably because they're both about homosexual directors who made early monster flicks. "Gods and Monsters" painted a beautiful and complex portrait of James Whale. "Shadow of the Vampire" tells me practically nothing about Murnau.