(director: E. Elias Merhige; screenwriter: Steven Katz; cinematographer: Lou Bogue; editor: Chris Wyatt; music: Dan Jones; cast: John Malkovich (F.W. Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), John Aden Gillet (Henrik Galeen), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim ), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder/’Ellen Hutter’), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Nicolas Cage/Jeff Levine; Lions Gate Films; 2000-UK/USA)

“We are treated to an interesting take on the vampire legend …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

F.W. Murnau (“Sunrise”) was one of the great silent German filmmakers; he was on a par with D.W. Griffith and Eisenstein. When Bram Stroker’s widow refused to sell him the rights to her husband’s Dracula, Murnau changed the vampire legend to “Nosferatu” and got a scary and most chillingly realistic performance from Max Schreck (an obscure German character actor, but not a vampire) in the title role as Count Orlok. In addition to ripping off the Dracula story Murnau, nevertheless, created his own vampire legend by tapping into the peasant Eastern Europeans’ folklore superstitious fears of vampires. He used marvously eerie studio set shots but mostly he used outdoor location shots, including an abandoned dark castle stocked with bats and a rat-infested ghost ship. Director E. Elias Merhige’s (“Begotten”) original and provocative “Shadow of the Vampire” has much nonsensical fun filming the making of that 1922 Murnau classic, which was shot in 1921 in Berlin’s Jofa Studio and on location in Czechoslovakia. It results in an intriguing fictionalized account of the shooting by cashing in on the mystery surrounding the Reinhardt actor Max Schreck, who was portrayed by Merzihige as a real vampire and is shown acting on the set as if he certainly was one. The brilliant actor was pampered and appeared before cast members always in character which led to a comical belief that he was influenced by Stanislavsky, the founder of the method acting school, who has his actors get fully absorbed into their characters.

Merhige’s bizarre film follows the drug-induced, kinky, control freak Murnau’s (Malkovich) questionable secret pact with Max Schreck (Dafoe) that has Schreck play the vampire as he sees fit, body count and all. Schreck is given some human dimensions (his cry of loneliness) and can be pitied for the monster he is. But, the true monster, according to Merige, might be Murnau because of his disregard for others to satisfy his own vanities. Murnau’s vampire masterpiece became a prime example of the German Expressionist cinema movement and its use of cinéma vérité. Here he is fictionalized as a heterosexual, who lives only for his art.

The uneven film was too far over-the-edge for its own good and wasted too many scenes by not staying on focus. As a result the film was a mixed bag where some scenes, especially the ones with the mischievous portrayal Dafoe gives as a blood-sucker, were witty and fully absorbing while other scenes, such as those showing clips from the Murnau’s silent film, were not fully realized and were followed-up with scenes that were too schlocky to be taken seriously and not laughed off the set. Ultimately the film rests its case on portraying the spooky, feral toothed, long fingernail clawed Schreck, as a real vampire who took the part because he had an agenda and that the egotistical madman Murnau went along with that for art’s sake and because he believed he must aim for complete authenticity even calling for real blood and for the cast and crew members to be unwittingly jeopardized by his experimental way of filming.

Murnau convinces his lead actress Greta (McCormack) to take this part and not return to the theater at the height of the season because this difficult role will allow her to become known as a great actress if she makes the sacrifice for art. But she’s fearful the camera will only steal her soul, and relishes the stage because it gives her life. But the filmmaker’s response is that movies are a form of vampirism, a necessary crossing of the borders between the living (real) and the dead (illusional). Of course, she had no way of knowing how literal Murnau’s words were and that she would be served to Schreck as part of that unsavory deal the two made. At one point when his methods are questioned by his nervous producer and art director, Albin Grau (Udo Kier), Murnau rails back with conviction “We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory.”

We are treated to an interesting take on the vampire legend, as screenwriter Steven Katz desires to shun the genre’s clichés and he instead goes for broke letting out of the castle the truly inspired filming moments. He also asks the serious question that rises above the black comedic moments: What price must the creative artist pay to work fully from his convictions in order to achieve immortality? But what the filmmaker fails to do is keep the story in perspective and paced with a proper tone, as the film was muddled in spots. There’s fun in this film, but it comes at the expense of eliminating suspense and building on momentum for its story to amount to something more than taking scattered shots at the dark creative process.

These supporting cast members also give fine performances: Eddie Izzard as the male lead in the film within the film; Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer for Ronan Vibert, the latter ran into some dietary problems from the vampire; John Aden Gillet as the screenwriter who gleefully proclaims after Schreck snatches a bat from the air and devours it, “Max—the German theater needs you.”