If it's not in Frame it Doesn't Exist - 'Shadow of the Vampire'
When a film takes on a cult status it achieves the kind of admiration and fandom that filmmakers dream of. Whilst it’s typically achieved by those texts that failed to recoup their productions financially or critically at the time of their release, these products take on a life longer than their peers. There’s a great quote from Evil Dead actor and great-dude-extraordinaire Bruce Campbell that says “a mainstream film 1000 people watch 100 times, whilst a cult film 100 people watch 1000 times.”
Talking about ‘underrated’ films comes with a certain degree of trepidation in that case. In the age of internet where everyone (for better or worse) has a voice, there’s arguably always going to be a dedicated fanbase for any film I bring up under the umbrella-term. But fuck it. Why not? Sharing positive thoughts about pieces of art should be a cornerstone of the internet and more people should do it. So every now and then I’m going to talk about said underrated films and TV shows in a piece I’m unofficially going to call “The Underrated, The Overlooked and The Underbooked” because my friend Robbie sent me a cool title idea that rhymed. And everything’s better when it rhymes.
Shadow of the Vampire is a metafictional black-comedy/horror film from 2000 about the production of F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent German expressionist horror Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (A Symphony of Horror). A cultural milestone and iconic piece of cinema, Nosferatu is actually an attempted adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but, after failing to obtain the rights, small story details were changed as well as the titular vampire's name from Count Dracula to Count Orlok.
Directed by E. Elias Merhige from a script by Steven Katz, Shadow of the Vampire fictionalised the production by framing the film’s actor for Count Orlok, Max Schreck (here played by Willem Dafoe) as an actual vampire that Murnau (John Malkovich) has struck a deal with in order to realistically portray the creature on screen. The concept alone is genius and the film plays with it without ever losing an ounce of reputation, yet unfortunately it’s slipped largely into obscurity over the years. It’s a shame too, because Shadow of the Vampire represents a duality within its themes that’s arguably more powerful today than it’s ever been. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?
*Spoiler alert for Shadow of the Vampire, duh*
Part One – Alternate History
Katz’s screenplay takes many liberties with real-life characters that dwell on the assumptions and superstitions that surrounded Nosferatu. As one of the first true ‘horror’ films it’s astounding how unnerving Schreck’s screen presence is, and it’s no wonder that audiences were left to wonder how much of it was actually acting. After all, Schreck was notoriously a recluse with an unusual sense of humour who spent much of his spare time walking through forests – the perfect basis for a meta tale about a vampire.
As a vampire tale the film manages to stick to most of the mythology and even uses it to the film’s advantage. For example, despite Orlok not having the traditional set of fangs, his elongated fingernails, pointed ears and rigid posture immediately signify a fish-out-of-water scenario and it’s where most of the comedy in the film comes from. All of Orlok’s scenes are shot at night, and he is required to be carried to an island in order to film the final scene via plane as vampires cannot cross running water (a deep cut the film doesn’t care to explain and a nice choice). Murnau is even forced to create a fake ship on land in order to get Orlok onboard, allowing Merhige to recreate and reference some of Nosferatu’s most iconic images.
Even before his entrance, Schreck/Orlok’s reputation proceeds him. Actor Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) laments his reputation and insists he trained under Konstantin Stanislavski, who originated an acting technique designed to allow an actor to truly empathize with their character in order to give a realistic interpretation. The entire film can very easily be seen as a parallel for today’s method actors. The difference between Jared Leto mailing used condoms and dead animals to his co-stars isn’t far off from actually being a vampire on set surely? Schreck actually being Count Orlok makes sense as the logical conclusion to the strange behaviour of some actors onset, but he wasn’t the only figure changed for the sake of the art.
Malkovich’s Frederich Wilhelm Murnau is dictatorial and self-obsessed and very quickly proves himself to be a nasty piece of work, far away from the sensitivity the real Murnau was known for. After draining the original cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert playing one of few fictional characters) of his blood, replacement Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes) is brought in to complete the picture. The film takes joy in having Orlok pick off various members of the production one-by-one, many of whom went on to have successful careers and live to old age. Udo Kier’s producer Albin Grau has his neck snapped in the final scene yet continued working until the 1970s whilst actor Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack) continued small work on screen for the following decade. It’s very easy to think how these fictional deaths of real people could be seen as bad taste, but they’re never milked for comedy or come across as cruel. Thanks to Dafoe’s performance as Orlok the presence of a vampire becomes grounded enough to lend his feeding frenzy with some actual weight – despite the fact that it doesn’t really affect the production at all.
But there is another way you could look at the film, one which takes a more troubling and nihilistic look at the filmmaking process altogether…
Part Two – Sacrifice Humanity for Art
“Henrik, when you wrote [the film] you had demons of your own, did you not? Now I have mine.”
Hear me out. Shadow of the Vampire on the surface level isn’t actually about Dafoe’s wacky vampire terrorising a film set, it’s about a filmmaker doing whatever is possible for the sake of their vision. It just so happens that ‘whatever is possible’ in this instance involves making a deal with a real monster and sacrificing a bunch of the crew (Murnau offers lead actress Greta as a sacrifice to Orlok after he’s completed shooting). It’s a strange dichotomy that can blend into the absurd dark comedy of the situation and this is thanks to Malkovich’s strong character work. Hell, even in the first scene of the film we’re told everything we need to know about him. A notorious perfectionist, Murnau berates his actors when they scoff at the idea of travelling overseas in order to complete filming. “Why would you possibly want to act in a play when you can act in a film?” he asks Ms. Schroeder. In the 1920s film was still brand new and offered exciting changes for performers; it was the chance to be pioneers and Murnau wants to take full advantage of it. This was a medium that belonged to the people behind the camera because they made all the shots - it was ideal for a perfectionist. Greta in response claims “an audience gives me life whereas this…thing takes it from me” in reference to the camera, a giant box seen from a low angle looming over the two of them in the most intimidating way possible. The idea of the new drives Murnau’s experimentation into obsession and makes the audience play devil’s advocate for the remainder of the film.
The subtext is littered all the way through Shadow of the Vampire. Murnau removes the crucifixes from their filming locations in order to accommodate Orlok, causing the locals to fear for their lives and even walking in during scenes “a native has wandered onto my set!” The disrespect and mistreatment of screenwriters in Hollywood is fleetingly touched upon when Orlok playfully tells Murnau that they don’t need the screenwriter Henrik Galeen (John Aden Gillet), to which Murnau agrees without hesitation. It’d be a price he’d be willing to pay because it wouldn’t put the art itself in jeopardy. But if Orlok has the power to kill the entire crew and therefore have Greta for himself, what’s he getting out of their deal?
Willem Dafoe actually got his second Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his depiction of Orlok (remember, Hollywood loves films about films) and it’s not difficult to see why. Whilst given the reputation of a beat, Orlok’s first dialogue is merely a subdued request for makeup on set as if it’s something he’s always wanted to try out. He gleefully revels in the busy set work and is swept up by the magic that cinema offers to the point where he’s finally able to see a sunrise thanks to glimpsing one through a projector. In the quieter moments between scenes, he even divulges to Grau and Galeen that he can’t even remember how old he is, and that he’s unable to reproduce anymore. This drunken ramble exposes the most humanity from a character in the entire film – one that consists of only those who work in showbiz. SYMBOLISM BABY!
“Tell me how you would harm me, when even I don’t know how I would harm myself?”
So Orlok wants to leave his mark on history and get some tasty blood along the way, possibly as a last gesture before succumbing to eternal slumber. His intention is the most noble and comes from a place of sympathy as opposed to nearly everyone else, who is each tasked with representing a grotesque aspect of the film industry. Elwes’ Fritz Wagner signifies the lunacy of filmmaking. From the very moment he arrives via plane he’s immediately off to work, refusing to even take his air goggles off before taunting the surrounding crew about what lenses he prefers to work with. This is only bolstered by his erratic methods, firing a gun into the air in order to scare the extras and then capping it all off with his cartoon-level accent. Udo Kier’s Albin Grau is a manifestation of the business/financial side of proceedings. He’s constantly worried about the financiers and labour on display and only becomes worried about the safety of the crew when it threatens to damage his investment. In a tonally jarring scene it’s revealed that Greta Schroeder, already presented as a stereotypical diva, is addicted to morphine and as she writhes around in her room half-nude both Wagner and Grau merely lock her away rather than dealing with the problem of her addiction. It’d simply but the film and their work in jeopardy.
“Frankly Count I find this composition unworkable. Can you return to your original mark, please?”
All of these elements finally slot into place during the final scene as they film Orlok’s supposed death. The three white heads of the production watch on as they allow Greta to be devoured on film as a sacrifice, he even fondles her chest as he does so. They have a plan in place to save themselves from Orlok’s wrath of course, and it’s not a stretch to see how the hierarchical nature of Hollywood inspired such a display. Murnau is the captain, the sole artiste on display. This is his work and nobody else’s, prompting endless comparisons to the films that are only associated with their director’s name despite being huge team efforts. Even as their plan goes wrong and Orlok snaps the necks of both Wagner and Grau, Murnau doesn’t stop filming…
“If it’s not in frame it doesn’t exist.”
Shadow of the Vampire never feels as heavy as I’ve described. It doesn’t dwell too much on the ethics of the situation and would rather display Murnau as a mad, power-hungry artist than anything else. We as an audience aren’t asked to empathise with him at all, in fact the only sympathetic qualities come from Dafoe’s tragically comic (or comically tragic) Orlok. E. Elias Merhige presents these events in the most matter-of-fact way possible and stretches the reality of the production to an almost mythic quality that serves as a love letter to the silent film era. Intertitles are used to explain off-camera action and iris lenses expand the presence of the film beyond the subdued genre qualities within. Perhaps if it had leant into this identity a little more it would have stood out from the crowd.
It’s not difficult to see why the film itself wasn’t a hit. Though it had some big stars attached (Nicolas Cage produced it, yes really) there are only a handful of scenes where the concept is really on full display. Quirks like Greta freaking out on set after realising Orlok doesn’t cast a reflection are wonderful, but instead the film chooses a more respectable identity as a solemn character piece with quite a few moments of introspection and pathos. But it’s the type of oddity that’s endlessly fascinating in many ways. As an alternate version of history/black comedy it works, but the dramatic heft can seemingly go toe-to-toe with any other prestigious filmmaking drama.
“Our very own painting on our very own cave wall.”
Shadow of the Vampire is available on DVD. There is currently no blu-ray release.
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