Published January 1, 2001
Shadow of the Vampire, directed by E. Elias Merhige, is very slight but frequently entertaining, mainly because of the performance of Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, acting the part of the actor who acted the part of the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s classic of 1922, Nosferatu. Murnau himself is played with typical menace by John Malkovich, and he and Dafoe prove to be perfect partners in a double act whose pleasures for the audience fortunately do not depend either on dramatic plausibility or on a successful evocation of the horror of both films’ ostensible subject, since we don’t come close to getting either of these things.
What we do get, besides the skillful acting, is a clever script by Steven Katz, whose way with a joke also helps to compensate us for what the movie hasn’t got. For example, a worried flunky pursues Murnau from the set, saying: “Frederick, ve haff to talk about ze vampire.”
“Not now,” says the preoccupied director. “It’s nearly dark.”
Then there is the superstitious Czech landlady who is horrified that Murnau has removed the crucifixes she has posted in every room of her inn, insisting that he “can’t film unless you put back the crosses.” Murnau replies with some irritation: “We’ll put them back later; now they overwhelm our composition.” I also liked Dafoe’s Schreck on Dracula, for which Murnau had been unable to obtain the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow. “I read that book,” says the stand-in vampire, the ambiguity of whose own actual life as a vampire is the flimsy foundation on which the film’s humor is built: “It made me sad…because Dracula had no servants.”
Murnau mildly observes: “I think you missed the point of the book,” but Schreck does a very good job of explaining what he means.
“Someone comes to his ancestral home expecting hospitality…to be fed, when he hasn’t eaten food himself in four centuries.” What is he going to do? Whip up a nice macaroni and cheese for his guests? It is one of the few moments where the film is successful in its aim (if this is its aim) of bringing together the mythic origins of the vampire legend, the aristocratic trappings with which the 19th century adorned it and the popular cinematic culture, based on celebrity, which retailed the legend to a 20th century mass audience in search of “entertainment.” But the film has nowhere to go with this and itself becomes a victim of the obvious fact that that entertainment has made a regrettable transition from horror to comedy.
In fact, we might almost posit it as the law of cultural entropy that every other form of artistic emotion is eventually reduced to mere comedy. And in this case it is one of the lowest forms of comedy: a Hollywood satire of “the business” of filmmaking, which is really just an excuse for yet another dose of Hollywood narcissism, already the business’s besetting sin. The filmmakers make the mistake of believing that, by satirizing the movie culture’s own fuzziness about the distinction between cinematic illusion and reality, they are saying something both funny and profound. This itself is an illusion to dwarf any other, so often and to so little purpose have similar things been said.
Other clichés which cleverness cannot avoid include the film’s obeisances to popular images of the period with, for example, obligatory scenes of pornographic acts (very tastefully represented) in a Berlin nightclub before the film crew and company evacuate to Czechoslovakia to shoot the vampire scenes on location. But why not use these reminiscences of Cabaret, these clichés of Weimar Berlin, to play the vampire stuff off of? Elsewhere the film has no difficulty in recognizing the connection between sex and death. But once we have said good-bye to Berlin, any sense of connection with the actual historical and social realities of the period in which the film is set vanishes. In Czechoslovakia we are, as it were, transported to the middle ages — which may indeed be an accurate representation of parts of Czechoslovakia at the time.
But here is another missed opportunity, and the one most to be regretted. For the film throws in the towel at once when it comes to persuading us to suspend our disbelief. All that’s left are some portentous statements of philosophy (Murnau insists that “we are scientists engaged in the creation of memory, but our memory will neither blur, or fade” ). Even observations that are very much to the purpose, as when Murnau compares his cinematic representation of the vampire myth to “lovemaking games” because “you believe them when they happen, but they always stop short of anybody being seriously hurt” is singularly unhelpful in understanding what these people are up to, since people are hurt. People are killed. Or apparently so. Yet their deaths are not given their full cinematic value, which naturally prevents any slippage of this comedy about horror film-making into actual horror. A pity. It might have been quite something if it had managed to combine the two.