Anyone who has ever seen Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s marvelous, silent vampire flick, is likely to never forget the appearance of Count Orlok, the bald, rat-like bloodsucker with long fingernails that look like claws. It’s the most off-putting vampire in the history of cinema and in my opinion also the scariest. And this feat was accomplished as early as 1922. Count Orlok was played by a man called Max Schreck (“fright” in German) and he is so believable that 78 years later a film claiming that Schreck was a real vampire was produced.
Of course this isn’t true. Max Schreck was an ordinary human being who just happened to be a very good actor. But as a fantasy this is nevertheless very entertaining. Writer Steven Katz follows Murnau’s (John Malkovich) crew as it is shooting Nosferatu, a rethinking of Bram Stoker’s novel that carries a changed title and a new name for the Count. Things are not going too smoothly and several members of the cast and crew find the mysterious fellow (Willem Dafoe) who’s playing the bloodsucker pretty annoying. He always stays in character, doesn’t seem to care much for the film, demands fresh blood and has a strange effect on the poor cameraman.
The director won’t tell anyone where he’s found this Max Schreck but has a gut feeling that his contribution to the film will be invaluable. As the final scene is about to be shot, Schreck prepares to meet the lady of his dreams and Murnau hopes to capture something with his camera that will make Nosferatu immortal.
Little hope or joy
Murnau’s work is an example of what German Expressionism looked like on film. Everything is twisted, the atmosphere is chilly and dark and there is little hope or joy – in other words, the perfect atmosphere for a horror film. Director E. Elias Merhige and his crew have designed the movie in a way that at least reminds one of German Expressionism. The Central European landscape looks very unpleasant indeed and the pale-faced characters have few similarities with real human beings. The audience is never told whether Max Schreck is a real vampire or not and it doesn’t really matter. It is as if real life clashes with German Expressionism; we all realize that the Nosferatu shoot was probably a lot duller than is portrayed in Merhige’s film, but we’d like to think otherwise.
Perhaps it doesn’t sound like a film one can enjoy on a Friday night – but it is. It has a nice sense of humor; Schreck’s behavior (attacking cast members and eating bats) does not make his colleagues think he’s a monster, but rather a very tiresome idiot who acts like a pig.
The actors contribute a lot. Malkovich is fun to watch as the intense filmmaker who is consumed by his work and will not allow the eccentric Schreck to ruin what he’s trying to achieve. Standup comic Eddie Izzard is well cast as one of the dazed actors. But the movie does belong to the barely recognizable Dafoe – you’d like to think that just like Schreck he also might have stayed in character throughout the filming of this story. Impressively, he creates a person who is revolting, frightening and funny. The possibility that Dafoe may actually be a vampire… have we completely ruled that out?
Shadow of the Vampire 2000-U.S.-Britain. 93 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Nicolas Cage, Jeff Levine. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. Screenplay: Steven Katz. Cinematography: Lou Bogue. Music: Dan Jones. Cast: John Malkovich (F.W. Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Cary Elwes (Fritz Wagner), John Aden Gillet, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier.
Quote: “I feed like an old man pees – sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop.” (Dafoe)
Last word: “It’s an incredible thing being a screenwriter. You write a screenplay on spec, and then one day they make your movie and you get to walk onto the set. It’s about as close in this life as you can get to realizing your dreams. Starting out you’re sitting there in that little room typing away, and I was in a really shitty room when I wrote that screenplay, and then one day I’m on the set and everyone is dressed up in character and there it is; everything I’ve dreamed about and imagined. Dafoe was just incredible. I would see him at the Performing Garage, this was before he became a movie star, and I just kept thinking he would be great as Schreck. His career eventually took off, and later when ‘Shadow’ was set up the producers asked me if I had any casting suggestions. I said just one, ‘you need to ask Dafoe to be the Vampire’. And they did.” (Katz, Screenwriters Utopia)