We are welcomed into the film’s world by an extended opening credit sequence staged in some kind of grand old movie palace of the 1920s with an ornate proscenium arch, pillars, carvings, and images of medieval and modern warfare. But these images are ever so slightly “off”—somehow out of time. When we leave this grand auditorium of the mind, we are transported via old, silent film-style title card to the year 1921 and the time of the making of one of the greatest films of all time, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. The world we are transported to in E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is an unlikely blend of many disparate types of films. It is a vampire film, a movie about making movies, a biopic, a complete fiction, inspired by a true story, a comedy, even a war film of sorts. But perhaps above all, it is part of the continuum of one of the great sub-genres of classic horror: The mad scientist movie.
F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is struggling to create his silent classic “Nosferatu” on location in Eastern Europe. The director is obsessed with making this the most authentic vampire movie ever. To that end, Murnau has employed a real vampire, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), explaining to the crew that he is the ultimate of that new breed, the “method actor” — trained by Stanislavsky himself. Schreck will appear only in character and only at night.
As we enter this brave new world, first we see a human eye, then the lens (an eye as well) of a camera. The first glimpse we see of where we are to spend the next 90 minutes is through that mechanical gaze: a black and white world in which a woman plays with a kitten while a disembodied voice guides the action. We then see, in color, the owner of the voice: A lab-coated, dark-goggled mad scientist whom we assume from the opening card to be Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the early film pioneer and creative genius. This is our “Herr Doktor” as his crew calls him, our Dr. Frankenstein, desperate to cobble together his creation by any means necessary, and he considers the creation of his film to be war. “Our battle, our struggle is to create art. Our weapon is the moving picture,” says John Malkovich as Murnau in a monologue early in the film. On multiple occasions, the camera is compared to a weapon, much as it is demonstrated to be in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which this film’s opening resembles in several ways too striking to be mere coincidence.
I have no intention of summarizing the entire movie, but these key elements demonstrate Shadow to be less of a vampire film, but much more a mad scientist film. The set-up is so delicious and crazy, that for years part of me felt, and maybe hoped, that it could be true. Its blending of fact and fiction is so complete that it becomes nearly impossible to delineate the real-world elements from the fantasy, and that is where a great deal of the film’s genius lies. For example, until recently, there were no known photographs of Max Schreck, the actor who played the vampire Count Orlock (so named rather than Dracula to avoid being sued by Bram Stoker’s widow; it didn’t work) in the original Nosferatu, out of make-up. This, combined with the fact that the make-up remains remarkably convincing after nearly a hundred years, makes it strangely plausible that Murnau was photographing an actual vampire for his film.
Shadow also beautifully captures the process of silent filmmaking. Those lab coats and dark goggles that make Murnau and crew look like mad doctors were a necessary part of the process in those early days to protect the eyes and clothing from the toxic dust created by the arc-lights used at the time. Because sound was not a factor, there was no need for “quiet on the set” as is so often heard in films about the making of sound pictures. The director guided each take and performance in the moment, there was mood music to set the feeling for the actors, there was no clapper on the slates, and Murnau’s recurring refrain of “iris in” at the beginning of each take was a common method during the era.
Filmmaking was then, and still is, very much both an art and a science, but Murnau in this film is also a philosopher. “We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory, but our memory will neither blur, nor fade.” Some of his longer speeches (according to producer Nicolas Cage in an interview on the DVD) were reportedly written by John Malkovich himself. I can’t help but wonder if he gathered some inspiration from the director of another Nosferatu, Werner Herzog, also something of a director/philosopher. I even caught myself wondering that if Malkovich had turned down the role, Herzog might have played it. Malkovich is brilliant and irreplaceable as Murnau, but it makes for some entertaining speculation.
One thing sometimes forgotten about Shadow of the Vampire is how funny it is. I daresay that until What We Do in the Shadows came along in 2014, it may well have been the funniest vampire film ever (apologies to Love at First Bite and Once Bitten fans). Central to this is the outstanding performance of Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck. He delivers a performance of remarkable physicality and is able to deliver lines like “In my old age, I feed the way old men pee: sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop” with an unparalleled perfection of tone. The script by Steven Katz, along with Dafoe’s darkly hilarious performance, walks a razor’s edge, bringing up several questions: Is he actually a vampire? Does he just think he is? Or is he just an extremely committed method actor? Until the final sequence, any of these are a real possibility. He is accused by lead actor Gustav von Wangenhein (Eddie Izzard, also in a brilliant and funny performance) of being “a Stanislavsky lunatic” referring to the famed acting teacher and inspiration behind the infamous “method” school of acting. After Schreck snatches a bat out of the air and sucks it dry of its blood, producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) exclaims, “What an actor! Dedication!”
But soon, Murnau realizes that he has lost control over his erratic star. In one of the film’s great scenes, we witness an acting tour de force in which Murnau confronts Schreck for attacking the cinematographer, Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert). But still, Murnau must finish his picture. “I have shots! I am the director!” he shouts, becoming increasingly and wonderfully unhinged, as only Malkovich can, to the point where he is willing to continue making multiple deals with this devil—rather appropriate considering Murnau went on to make Faust in 1926. The film continues its production with a new cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner, played in another standout performance by Cary Elwes. When a crew member calls him Herr Doktor, he says, “I’m not a doctor, but I have dabbled in pharmaceuticals,” which brings up another thread that runs throughout the film: Drug use.
Under the influence of the powerful and popular drug of the time laudanum, Murnau finally confesses to Grau and Wagner that “there is no Max Schreck,” but that he found him living in an old monastery while scouting locations. This is where he made his first deal with the vampire: To give him the actress Greta Schroder (Catherine McCormack). When asked why he did it, Murnau answers, “I did it for science. To preserve it for posterity.” Again, the mad doctor will finish his picture by any means necessary.
As it turns out, Schreck is not the only one who desires Greta. Though she is absent for much of the film, she is a constant topic of conversation and clearly wanted by nearly every man on the production. She is a true diva, extremely demanding, and feels that film is beneath her. To her, cinema itself is a kind of vampire. In the opening scene, she describes the old craft of theater as giving her life, while the camera sucks it out of her. Still, her desire to be immortal outweighs her prejudices and so she appears in the film. “It is the role that will make you great as an actress,” Murnau promises her, “consider it a sacrifice for your art.” Little does she know how literally Murnau meant this until she sees, in the final scene, that Schreck casts no reflection in the mirror. She flies into hysterics and remembers his words as she is being sedated (drugs once again) for her last scene.
The final sequence of the film is where we finally see who the true monster of the film is. Murnau allows Schreck to kill several people but continues to operate the camera himself, capturing their murders on film. The mechanics of the camera are shown in close-up, once again emphasizing the mad science of it all. He will have complete dictatorial control over his film. As Schreck strangles Albin Grau, Murnau calmly states, “Frankly, Count, I find this composition unworkable. Could you return to your original mark, please?” And then, the curious line, “If it’s not in frame, it doesn’t exist.” Of course, he is speaking of the world of the movie, but there seems to be much more going on here. It is as if the real world is the artifice now and the world of the film is the only reality; if it is outside of the camera’s gaze, it is a mere illusion.
What madness it is to create! Who but a lunatic would put himself and others through such suffering to realize his vision? And perhaps that is the message of the film. Perhaps creators, artists, writers, filmmakers really are mad scientists. But oh, what wonders they create!