“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Max Schreck, who will be portraying our vampire, Count Orlock. As you no doubt have heard, Max’s methods are somewhat… unconventional, but… I am sure you will come to respect his artistry in this matter.”
The first vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) remains to this day one of the most eerie, haunting, and iconic films of all time – Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is arguably the least human representation of a vampire. There’s little hint as to the romanticism now overwhelming the horror aspects of these creatures; Orlok is entirely inhuman in both his physical appearance and his actions. It’s no wonder, then, that legend suggests Schreck was truly a vampire. He wasn’t (probably), but Shadow of the Vampire plays fast and loose with the myths and tales surrounding F R Murnau’s silent masterpiece (aptly subheaded A Symphony of Horror), presenting Schreck as the ultimate in difficult leading actors, and Murnau (John Malkovich) himself as a director obsessed with realising his vision.
If Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu is central to the film’s inate creepiness, Willem Dafoe’s performance as Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire is equally crucial, and he was (deservedly) Oscar-nominated for the role that was written specifically for him. The role of Orlok demands a strong performance from an unconventional actor, and has been played by three very different men – Schreck, Klaus Kinski (in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake), and Dafoe. Technically Dafoe plays Schreck-playing-Orlok, but the distinction is particularly blurry, as it soon transpires Schreck is simply a character created to disguise the fact that the vampire is real. Schreck-the-character and Orlok are one and the same, with Murnau so determined to create a piece of documentary-art that he’s willing to sacrifice several members of his cast and crew in the process. In this way, the film is not only about a myth, but about cinema – this extreme example of method acting demonstrates the problems it causes for other members of the cast and crew as well as the success of a truly authentic performance. Meanwhile, Murnau’s obsession cleverly alludes to a conflict within the film industry – the director as auteur, forced to work with others who may somehow taint or damage his unique vision. It’s particularly telling that Murnau is so derisive towards his writer, practically willing Orlok to devour him first.
Such is the success of both director E Elias Merhige’s attention to period detail, and Dafoe’s performance, that when scenes from Murnau’s original film feature, it’s almost impossible to see the distinction. Following the film’s troubled production, Merhige allows his audience to watch the silent movie come into being – the camera rolls, the iris is in, and the colours drain from the image as Gustav (Eddie Izzard) attempts to act – in that delightfully overwrought, overly emphatic style prevalent in the silent era – opposite Orlok. Accompanying these scenes are the unobtrusive yet evocative orchestral score (taken from John William’s score of the 1979 version of Dracula) and the soothing, distinctive tone of Malkovich’s voice as Murnau tells his actors the story of their shot. It’s highly effective, not only in providing a rather romantic representation of the film industry at the time, but also in bringing a literary feel to the film – after all, Nosferatu is famously not an adaptation of Dracula, but the story is undeniably, blatantly rooted in Bram Stoker’s gothic novel.
This is not just a period piece, however, and while at least a basic knowledge of Murnau’s Nosferatu is preferable, it’s not essential. Due to the overtly fictional reimagining of a genuine historic moment, it’s easiest to just accept the supernatural elements, and to enjoy the wonderful performances and, in particular, the brilliantly strained relationship between Murnau and his most difficult actor. Malkovich brings a natural, tightly-wound lunacy to Murnau that frequently threatens to explode. Dafoe is clearly in his element, hamming up the inhuman aspects of Schreck/Orlok – while the real Schreck brought a kind of naïve alienness to Orlok, Dafoe’s creation is indulgent in his strangeness, and often very funny as a result; both he and Izzard in particular encapsulate the black humour permeating the script.
It’s a shame then that Shadow of the Vampire becomes rather cluttered at the end, the script getting messy and seemingly struggling to find an ending that will satisfy all the various elements established to that point. The result, which brings both the supernatural elements and Murnau’s doggedly obsessive vision to a climax, feels far more rushed than the earlier scenes, which gradually built up the sense of on-set unease in much the same way as Nosferatu, with long, shadowy fingers creeping into the frame and ominous shadows in dark corners. Merhige’s version of this well-worn story remains more a well-made curio than a true classic; if it inspires more people to seek out the film on which it is based, then that can only be a good thing. As to whether it will convince audiences that Schreck really was a vampire, well, his performance is still strong enough for that myth to endure without any help.