Shadow of the Vampire is the epic story of two towering men, each seeking his own immortality. One of them is the brilliant film director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovitch), whose career is peaking with the movie he is about to create, Nosferatu. He has assembled a world-class team of cameramen, actors, and financiers for a film he will speak only a few careful words about. The other is the character actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who will play the vampire. His method of acting is immersive: he lives his role, moving into a dark castle deep in the woods where he can brood and terrify peasants. The director tends to stalk off and inject laudanum, disappearing for a day at a time. Schreck tends to eat live animals and wanders around only at night.
Shadow is a tribute to the original 1922 silent film, and reconstructs it carefully. It almost takes the form of a "behind the scenes" documentary -- we see how the cameras are placed and lit, how the special effects are done, how the filmmakers put together the movie. The film opens with titles on German Expressionist scenery. The scenes we see through the camera are remarkably similar to the original production. Beyond the camera, we catch glimpses of the decadence of Weimar Berlin and the beauty of mountain peasant villages.
Murnau's original Nosferatu was a groundbreaking movie. It is single-handedly responsible for giving us our modern image of vampires, and for defining the entire horror movie genre. Almost all of the things that would later become vampire cliche -- darkened castles, vampires levitating from their coffins, darkened castle doors mysteriously swinging open -- were there, created as original effects. The filmmakers of Shadow know what we owe to those movies, and have given awed homage.
The premise of the movie is that Schreck really is a vampire, not merely an actor. (I'm giving away nothing here -- Dafoe's performance makes little secret of this, and the lie sounds thin even when we first hear it.) He reveals this to various characters as the film goes on, in different scenes. In perhaps the film's strongest scene, two members of the production crew tease Schreck about the recent Dracula novel. He responds that he found it sad -- the tale of a washed-up count, unable to keep around the armies of servants he once was accustomed to. The speech is hushed, and the audience is empathetic. Dafoe clearly delights in the contrast as he eats a live bat just moments later.
The vampire's immortality is a shrunken, memoryless, ageless thing: he doesn't know when he was created, or how long he will live -- only that it somehow involved a relationship with a beautiful woman. He looks at the sudden rush of people around him but sees only their necks, their blood. He has vague memories of past glories, of being powerful and important. But today, he knows he is a poor man, begging for bottles of blood from a film director. He is obsessed with the heroine of the movie, Greta Schroeder (Catherine MacCormack), a cabaret star.
The director is obsessed, in contrast, with a different immortality: the immortality of film and the agelessness of images caught on celluloid. If something is caught on camera, it is real -- "If it's not in frame, it doesn't exist," he shouts. Thus, he can afford to be brutal with his crew, letting the vampire eat them, one by one, as long as the film will be made. In his ethics, there is only one important ending, and the ends justify the means. He abuses the opiate laudanum, to deaden his conscience, perhaps -- one scene finds him high, screaming aloud to confess the true nature of the vampire.
There's a third person dedicated to immortality, too. Greta Schroeder misses her live audience in Berlin, but is kept in the production by the promise of everlasting fame as a film star. Despite the fame that Murnau tells her is coming, she cannot fully trust, or open up, to celluloid. She, too, has a drug habit, one that drives her to unrestrained eroticism, moaning in individual pleasure in her bed. (Can we really believe that one so in love with herself can really share the screen? We don't, and in fact she never does act at the same time as any other character.)
In another movie, we might have been expected to take sides -- to root for the moviemaker to succeed, perhaps, or to cheer for the lonely vampire. Instead, we look up at these towering giants, and empathize with the film crew. By the end, they know about the vampire, know about the deaths -- but also know there's no way off the island where the final scenes are being shot until their job is done.
Willem Dafoe makes a great villain. His slightly off-kilter looks and menacing voice have always made him a favorite, from The English Patient to Speed 2. Here, he wears Vulcan ears and a mouth of false teeth to become the 1922 Nosferatu. He clearly loves the role, and relishes his long yellow claws and strange foreign accent.
Eddie Izzard, who almost always plays himself, plays the dramatic star of the production, Gustav Botz. In the black-and-white frame, Gustav over-acts, bumbling and stunned -- but then his life, too, is over-dramatic, and he fumbles just as much in reality. Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, remember?) looks dashing while offhandedly playing a crew photographer.
Shadow isn't a subtle film. The allegory is painted on thick, and the imagery is blatant. Everyone walks around trying for a German accent. Drug needles look like dripping teeth. Murnau's face is superimposed over a rolling train as the crew travels to the filming site. Several times, he holds forth on the pain of art and the immortality of film. Once, he declaims that he is not creating art but recording science -- that his creativity will allow the rest of the world to see vampires. We know that his work will be great, but not scientific, and that his Germany may be at an artistic high, but will degenerate into World War II in a very few years.
The film raises timeless questions, questions familiar to readers of speculative fiction: Where is the line between art and life? What separates mortal man from monster? Don't expect answers, but it's worth watching this thought-provoking attempt to probe them.
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