My film professor had an ingenious idea: After showing us Noferatu, she showed us E. Elias Merhige’s tribute, Shadow of the Vampire. Here’s my response to it.
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
BBC Films/Madman Films
UK, US, Luxembourg, 92 minutes
Starring Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich
Films that are tributes to entire genres are pretty common – Mel Brooks’ comedies to Wes Craven’s Scream – but to make a film specifically about one film is pretty unique. E. Elias Merhige did just that with Shadow of the Vampire, his tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. His film is actually half-way decent, perfectly capturing a bizarre, darkly humorous fictional version of how that classic film came to be.
The driving force of Shadow is the relationship between Max Schreck and Murnau. Willem Dafoe, in full make-up that makes him almost unrecognizable, is fantastic. The funny thing is that, since the movie follows the idea that Schreck was an actual vampire, he acts consistently in the same way that he acts while filming. I almost felt like I should not have been laughing at his over-the-top acting, thinking that that’s just the way Schreck acts in the real film, but it was impossible to hold it back. My favorite sequence was filming the scene where Schreck is reading the contract at the table. Schreck isn’t acting as if he doesn’t understand what’s going on – he really doesn’t. Dafoe deservedly was nominated for this performance, especially for being able to take Schreck’s original performance and expand on it without making it feel like he was doing something that Scheck would not have actually done.
John Malkovich also does a fantastic job as Murnau, directing with an iron fist. It brings to light that directors are like dictators on their sets, pushing everyone to their limits and asking for sacrifices. The part in the beginning where he asks Greta Schroeder (Catharine McCormack) to sacrifice her theater career is just mesmerizing.
Shadow of the Vampire is probably one of the more fun films about filmmaking. It’s no 8 ½, which is fun, but has an incredibly serious subtext. Shadow of the Vampire is just fun. Sure, there’s the thin subplot of Murnau’s financiers on his back, but that is hardly mentioned beyond passing references and a mention on one of the interstitials. It really revolves more around Murnau’s controlling personality and the fact that Schreck is actually a vampire. I also really enjoyed how detailed the film was in its presentation of how silent film was done. It was great to see Murnau interact with his actors in a way that is impossible for directors to do in the sound era.
Overall, I enjoyed Shadow of the Vampire as a peek into a world of filmmaking we are ninety years removed from and for the great performances by Malkovich and Defoe.