The sensible you dismisses as absurd this fanciful faux docudrama about the making of the silent horror classic, Nosferatu. After all, it's too farfetched, not to mention an affront to the memory of those film pioneers it chronicles. But the more adventurous you is infatuated with the implausibly outlandish premise that fuels director E. Elias Merhige's haunting homage to filmmaker F.W. Murnau. Just bring on the insanity, sez you. You don't mind the liberty screenwriter Steven Katz takes. If it's the director's contention that the German expressionist at the centre of his tale was able to achieve realism by actually hiring a 400-year-old vampire to play the title role, who are you to argue?
This is certainly among the strangest backstage sagas ever told. As the film opens, John Malkovich's Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, already Berlin's acknowledged film genius, tells the cast and crew his plan. Max Schreck, his title player and the penultimate Stanislavskian, will appear only for his scenes, and then always in full makeup. Oh, and it'll only be at night. Reputedly, he cut his, er, acting teeth, in the great Max Reinhardt's acting troupe. And then further ruffling his company's feathers, the director whisks them away from the creature comforts of their Berlin studio to humble and realistic locations in Czechoslovakia.
Murnau's eager assistants, who wear long lab coats and address him as Herr Doctor, have their curiosity aroused, but that's all. They're used to the unorthodox and creative wiles of their artistic boss. And though some emit a note of anxiety when Willem Dafoe as the hideous Schreck makes his first appearance, they are for the most part too self-obsessed to immediately realise what has alighted in their midst. Only Udo Kier, as producer Albin Grau, looks on at the hideous spectre and blankly opines, "He's not from Reinhardt's company."
The audience isn't quite so nonchalant, as well they shouldn't be. Mr. Dafoe's physical and emotional re-creation of the pointy-eared monster that Max Schreck brought to life (or death, depending on your take) is frighteningly accurate.
Remember though, technically this isn't Dracula. Bram Stoker's wife wouldn't sell the movie rights. So they called him Count Orlock/Nosferatu and made minor story changes. Mrs. Stoker sued anyway and, after a successful run, Pan Graf Films wound up burning all the prints (of course, boot copies survived -- yup, even then). But no matter, even if you've never seen the original, everyone instantly recognises who this chillingly back lit demon is. For no vampire movie retrospective begins without startling images of this ghastly granddaddy of them all. Utterly despicable, he smirks with unholy satisfaction, amused by his shockingly repellent self.
Dafoe has a great time with the stunningly lurid role. And check out the digit extensions. There isn't a receptionist in the Greater Metropolitan Area has anything on this Nosferatu. Equipped with those legendary long fingernails, pallid and soiled by centuries of skulduggery, delightful Willem exploits this symbolic prop for all its freakish worth.
Clutching these finger fangs to his breast the way a Geisha might nuzzle her fan, he imbues his monster with a strangely offsetting coquetry. But in trying to understand him, don't mistake his curious vanity with the mortal variety. This isn't the sad, old, romanticised vampire that longs for human love or the ultimate peace of death. There is no moment of Homo sapien warmth within this cold-blooded fiend. To underestimate or attempt to ingratiate yourself with him is a sign of weakness. After curdling your blood with fear, he will bite you. In short, he is the essence of uncompromising evil. Sound a little like your boss? Gosh, what some of us put up with for a great 401K plan.
Other players have just about as much fun with their portrayals, especially John Malkovich in his studious depiction of the F.W. Murnau persona. It is Berlin, Europe between the wars. Cabaret and all that. And thus aside from being a great director, completely and effetely full of himself, he is an imbiber of his era's decadence. In a way, he is the other monster. The kind that contends society should sanction his behaviour. Surely he must be accorded dispensation for his social trespasses by virtue of the inestimable good his vision will do for mankind.
The difference is, Malkovich's Murnau is not inherently evil. Convinced of his mission, the film pioneer has appointed himself the keeper of posterity. And in his zeal to preserve on celluloid this vampire-turned-method actor extraordinaire, he winds up biting off more than he can chew, to coin a phrase.
Eventually, the film's two forces go at loggerheads. The climax approaches. The sparks fly. Man against beast, with a pretty girl, actress Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) as Nosferatu's heart's desire, thrown in for good measure. Naturally, or rather, unnaturally, the cast and crew are not immune to the cataclysmic fallout. The blood flows. The body count mounts. Yet in an operatically self-effacing statement about the towering arrogance of art, the cameras keep rolling. Whew! Pretty nutty stuff.
Thinking what price glory, such sang-froid has us abashed. But hey, none of this is true, is it? Well, not all of it, right? Schreck lived until 1936 and made a few more films. And yes, he had been with Reinhardt. Wonder if Actor's Equity knew he was a vampire? Anyway, if he has any living relatives, what must they think of this outrageous contention?
Insofar as the golden boy is concerned, he is credited with influencing a very young Alfred Hitchcock when he studied under him in Berlin. Eventually making it to Hollywood, he had notable success with Fox, and in the South Seas continued his groundbreaking work with location filmmaking. A little while later, F.W. Murnau's still young life and brilliance were snuffed out by a car accident in California. Hence it is apparent that director E. Elias Merhige's preposterously unconventional paean to this filmmaker captures not the details of his life, but rather the spirit and shadows of his being. And though he took his art seriously, one suspects he was cynic enough to agree that Shadow of The Vampire makes for bloody good fun.