Most people with even a cursory awareness of art cinema have seen or heard of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterwork. Nosferatu is a film so powerfully rendered, so insanely memorable, that its continuing resonance over the past nine decades feels self-explanatory. This resonance has taken on many forms: from the appearance of the Nosferatu vampire, Count Orlok, in Kim Newman’s alternate history/crossover fiction mashup Anno Dracula, to Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu: The Vampyre.
Nosferatu’s continuing resonance is also reflected by the existence of Shadow of the Vampire: a black comedy, meta-fiction take on the behind-the-scenes production of Murnau’s film. Directed by Edmund Elias Merhige, a little-known director who to date has only three credits to his name, Shadow of the Vampire is a peculiar cinematic oddity. It isn’t particularly funny, nor is it overly dramatic. What does do is provide a minor showcase for its actors, such as Willem Dafoe, who gives an Oscar-nominated performance as Max Schreck/Count Orlok. Additionally, it conducts a shrewd examination of film as a medium, particularly its ability (or inability) to capture “reality.”
In Shadow of a Vampire, John Malkovich plays the director of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, whose meticulous, obsessive filmmaking style comes to the forefront when he decides to mount an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. Calling the film Nosferatu, Murnau takes his crew deep into the remote European countryside to shoot scenes at the vampire’s castle. He also informs his crew that Nosferatu’s leading actor, Max Schreck, is a method actor, and that he will remain in makeup and be referred by his character’s name for the duration of the shoot.
When Schreck first appears on set the crew is understandably repulsed. Chalk white and vermin-like, Schreck is a freakish and ancient-looking man, whose stiff movements and malice-filled stares are palpably creepy. His behavior is also deeply threatening. In some of his first scenes, Schreck begins acting crazy and violent. When there is brief power surge on set, Schreck is found crouched the film’s cinematographer, his mouth on the downed man’s neck.
As you might have pieced together, the whole premise of Shadow of a Vampire is that Schreck was actually a vampire. This isn’t a spoiler either. It’s revealed early on that, in his quest for realism and truth, Murnau made a deal with the creature in order to have him appear in his film.
This deal is arguably even more horrifying than Schreck’s ghoulish behavior, which sets up a fairly interesting ambiguity about who is the bigger monster on the Nosferatu set. Is it Murnau? Is it Schreck? The film doesn’t come down on either side. Instead, it seems more interested in setting loose its two main actors, Malkovich and Dafoe, and letting sparks fly.
In embodying these two men, both actors are in spectacular form. Malkovich is born to play roles like this: obsessive, powerful men, whose veneer of self-composure belies volcanic rage. One only has to look at his parts in Being John Malkovich and Burn After Reading for further evidence of this.
As Schreck/Orlok, Dafoe has by far the showier role, and he runs away with it. His Orlok is a character of many different layers. There is a comedic and hammy side to him for sure, but there is also a poignant nature. To some extent, Shadow of a Vampire closely aligns Dafoe’s performance with Klaus Kinski’s work in Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu. There is the same burdened quality to both takes on Orlok, the same acknowledgement that this is a character who has been alive for centuries.
Dafoe’s performance in Shadow of a Vampire also has a harder edge than Kinski’s, with a self-obsessed side being readily apparent. This comes through powerfully in the film’s best scene, where Dafoe’s Schreck/Orlok muses over the inability of Stolker’s Dracula novel to accurately depict the vampire experience.
This scene sets up the film’s main thematic preoccupation, which is how the search for “truth” is a fool’s errand. Malkovich’s Murnau however seems entirely oblivious to this notion, continually haranguing his crew with long soliloquies about how they are akin to scientists, extracting empirical realities instead of creating subjective stories. Director Merhige deftly exposes this thinking as a fallacy, emphasizing the artifice of the period’s filmmaking style by using intertitles and iris lenses.
And yet, despite dismissing the medium’s overall ability to capture “reality,” Shadow of the Vampire clearly has an immense respect and love for cinema, which it hammers home through its strong performances and creative directorial vision. It intuitively makes room for the idea that although films are all, to some degree, fake, they are one of the primary ways that we, as human beings, relate to and understand the world. “If it’s not in frame, it doesn’t exist,” Murnau says near the end of film, which when heard our screen-obsessed year of 2016, feels pretty damn truthful indeed.