There is no doubt in my mind that this is an impressive film with some remarkable performances. Willem Dafoe embodies the vampire in just the same way that Max Schreck did (in the reality of the original acting, of course, not the fiction of this account), while John Malkovich gives us an amazing portrayal of a descent into madness, fuelled by an obsession with his art. And “art” is exactly the right word:
“Our battle, our struggle is to create art. Our weapon is the moving picture. Because we have the moving picture our paintings will grow and recede, our poetry will be shadows that lengthen and conceal, our light will play across living faces that laugh and agonise and our music will linger and finally overwhelm because it will have a context as certain as the grave. We are scientists engaged in the creation of memories, but our memory will neither blur nor fade.”
I had to include that quote in full, as it’s the moment that is the highlight of this film and defines the original perfectly. And yet it highlights a key difference between the two films. Nosferatu gave us a heady combination of beauty and fear. Shadow of the Vampire has the fear, but none of the beauty beyond the borrowed moments of recreated scenes. Nosferatu was art. Shadow of the Vampire is not.
It is amazing to see some of the original scenes recreated so accurately, and this is a film that demonstrates a loving respect for the fiction of the original, but total contempt for the fact of how it was made. You don’t even need to know anything about the making of Nosferatu to get frustrated watching Shadow of the Vampire. You just need a very basic knowledge of the history of film-making for the impossibility of the night filming to scream out at you as so, so fundamentally wrong. The question is, how far should artistic licence be taken in pursuing a fiction like this? I always think a good story should come first, but should it be the only thing that matters? Despite the love shown for the original visuals, anyone who has watched Nosferatu will be familiar with the problem of Orlok carrying around his coffin in broad daylight, with tinted film doing little to help convey the idea of night. But maybe the intended audience of this film doesn’t even need to be fans of the original. As somebody who has just watched Nosferatu and thought it was a stunning, pioneering piece of work, Shadow of the Vampire felt like a film that cheapens the memory of the original a little.
It’s not hard to understand how silly little myths have grown up around Nosferatu. Max Schreck’s name translates as something like “greatest terror”, for a start. You couldn’t make it up. But no, he was a real person who had a varied acting career, nobody died making this, and there is absolutely no attempt to capture the real people behind the scenes, especially Murnau, whose fictional representation couldn’t be further from the man who really directed Nosferatu. I’m not quite sure how I feel about twisting history into different shapes like this, representing people who probably still have living relatives as monsters. Does that matter? Well, I certainly came away from this wondering what the point is of that disclaimer you normally see at the end of films about any similarity to actual persons being purely coincidental.
So for what it is, I think Shadow of the Vampire succeeds admirably at what it is trying to do. As for whether it should have tried to do what it does, I’m not so sure. But if it brought new fans to the original film, that can only be a good thing. The context that is as “certain as the grave”, is as false a context as the myth of the undead emerging from a coffin, while the “weapon” of this moving picture fails to create art, while succeeding in casting a long shadow some way towards the genius of the original work. I’m not sure it ever quite reaches its target, though. RP
The view from across the stormy seas:
I remember when Shadow of the Vampire came out; I had wanted to see it because I was a big fan of Nosferatu, the original movie this was based on but I was never a big fan of documentaries, so it wasn’t that high on my list. Over the years, it dropped further and further from my watch list and I had eventually forgotten about it. When Roger and I decided to make it our Halloween special for the year, I finally sat down to watch it. I even got my wife involved, knowing she’s far more interested in documentaries than I am. (She’s one of those people who prefer reality to fiction! Oh, the horror!!!) Imagine our mutual surprise by the time this wrapped up!
The problem I had with Shadow is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It opens with a very long, drawn out instrumental sequence over what appears to be wallpaper, before offering us placards with information about director F. W. Murnau and the work he’s engaged in. It bears the hallmarks of a documentary. And that makes sense because I had read years ago that there was a lot of odd behavior from Max Schreck, the man who plays the titular Nosferatu. It seemed a perfect movie to make about the strange behavior of the lead actor. I had every expectation that this would dive into the man’s eccentricities. Or, if they wanted, they could keep him on the sidelines, a veritable shadow throughout the story, focusing instead on Murnau, played by the extremely talented John Malkovich. I would have been happy with that as well, creating an air of mystery that lingers throughout. Instead, the story begins to turn into a horror. By the end, my wife and I were totally thrown. We ended up with a horror when we expected a dramatization. So confused were we that we both did a little research expecting to find out that at least some of the cast died on set, cursed like the cast of The Twilight Zone Movie or Poltergeist, but the truth was that no one died and the first death in real life was that of Murnau himself in a car accident some years after this movie. The rest of the people went on to live long lives! What was the point of a movie about the making of a movie that was totally fabricated?!
To compound my disappointment with the movie, Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Count Orlok paled by comparison to the original portrayal. Dafoe is an utterly amazing actor and I’ve seen him deliver some truly stellar performances. (If you’ve ever seen him in Boondock Saints, he is just unbelievably good in that…) I don’t deny his skill, he just could not capture Count Orlok. Comically, I think of Weird Al’s Ode to a Superhero, where Weird Al offers a commentary of Green Goblin, played by Dafoe: “yeah, he’s wearing that dumb Power Ranger’s mask, but he’s scarier without it on!” Dafoe is scary looking on his own, but his Orlok looks like a crotchety old man. His facial grimace isn’t scary, it just looks like he’s smelling something foul. His tufts of hair exacerbate the look of an old man, which I never saw on the original Nosferatu. And the teeth didn’t even factor into it; the eyebrows were what was needed; they failed to even try to capture those long, angular brows. Yes, the scene of him emerging from the tunnel is great but at no point did he capture the abject terror that Schreck evoked. And that made this movie harder to watch for me. I never felt engrossed, whereas my recent late-night excursion into the original had me starring, unblinking, at the screen!
I’m sure Shadow of the Vampire is a good movie, but I was left wishing we’d done this first and capped Halloween with the actual movie of Nosferatu, a far superior experience especially for this wonderful holiday. Perhaps it’s one time where I am judging the book by its cover character: no one could top Max Schreck as Count Orlok, he was amazingly disturbing to watch and I mean that in the best ways. I hope this at least increased interest in the original. If it did, it succeeded as far as I’m concerned. Alas, I’m planning on watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula just to wrap the holiday spirit with a proper vampire movie.
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