February 1, 2001

Chew On This

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“You want to eat the writer?”

“I do not think we need the writer any longer,” Max Schreck states deadpan with a grisly Eastern European accent during a tense exchange with his hyper-passionate director F.W. Murnau. Schreck is becoming a troublesome presence upon the set. In this case, he desires to feed upon the scriptwriter. This is the price a director pays for casting too close to role.

History can be a very strange thing: the details best remembered in later retelling may very well be the ones never having existed in actuality. In E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, this is very much the case, as this decidedly revisionist history gives a glimpse into an intriguing alter-history.

In this playful variation of Faustian myth, German horror film director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is an obsessive figure: choleric, hubristic, exacting; desiring to create great art above all possible human endeavors. In crafting the perfect vampire picture, Nosferatu (1922), he is willing to go to any extreme, shaping every detail, making the necessary sacrifices and bargains to ensure that he has created a work transcending life, a work for all posterity. “We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory,” Murnau rants. There are, however, costs of such pursuits. In exchange for the ideal vampire “actor,” Murnau has promised Schreck the film’s beauty, the lecherous and morphine addicted leading lady Greta (Catherine McCormack) — or at least, her neck.

Who is Max Schreck? None of the other actors have ever heard of him. Murnau’s great find? He lurks in the darkness, will only be filmed at night, and only on location. He will not travel by sea. He asks to be referred to only in character. He is introduced as a method actor, purported to have studied with the great Stanislavsky. No one knows for sure.

Out of the darkness, he appears–a figure of few words, strange expressions. With long, tapered fingers, razor-sharp nails, prominent nose, gaunt complexion and a wide-eyed, beady glare, Schreck (Willem Dafoe) looks not quite human. Somewhere between Uncle Fester and Hannibal Lechter (physically and temperamentally), Schreck/Count Orlock is a most unusual character: grotesquely terrifying, though with a Burlesque twist, providing both hideous horror and comic relief (unbeknownst to himself) in sinuous turns.

The show must go on, and Murnau will not take no for an answer. Murnau’s cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert) rapidly falls ill; the awkward male lead (Eddie Izzard) is interminably fearful. Though his crew is “mysteriously” disappearing, Murnau continues to force his will upon the production. The forceful interplays between Murnau and the comically gruesome Schreck make for many of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Sections of the film at times feel forced, filled with philosophic espousals already inherent in the visual output. The Faustian parallel also seems to be overwrought, and certain scenes appear visually unbalanced. Steven Katz’ screenplay, though overall quite good, sometimes tries to encapsulate some of everything from existentialist theory to commentary on director-producer relations in modern Hollywood.

The ensemble cast, led by Malkovich and Dafoe, is deft. Dafoe is especially so: menacing, but also strangely likable. The cinematic techniques are often well crafted and usually add to the disturbing and dark vision of the picture. Switching between modern day equipment and the 35mm film Nosferatu was originally shot in provides a powerful atmospheric touch. Actual footage from the original film is spliced in as well.

Schreck, sharing the philosophy of Milton’s Satan, vehemently believes it is, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” The give and take of this well-made film blurs the line between the two, shaping an earth-bound Pandemonium, while at the same time, blurring the lines of history and artifice, graying fact and fiction, shaping new from old.

Archived article by L. Weiss