Shadow of the Vampire
2000 • 92 minutes • Lions Gate Films
I’ve talked before about my distaste for what I call unimaginative biopics: films about artists that argue that, for all their greatness, they more or less just transcribed what they saw around them. Shakespeare in Love, Molière, and the like all try to be a humanizing (read: sexy) look at a great artist while also insulting their powers of creativity. But it’s only recently that I’ve discovered that the late, great Roger Ebert shared my distaste and articulated it far better than I have:
Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”
Shadow of the Vampire could easily fall into this category. The film argues that the enduring chills of Nosferatu were all real. But the film nimbly avoids such categorization by taking that concept to its logical extreme by arguing that Max Schreck, the man who brought Nosferatu to terrifying life, was, in fact, an ageless vampire.
This largely forgotten independent picture (which I discovered via a Halloween recommendation at the wonderful The Dissolve) is a fascinating oddity. Released in 2000, it has that stilted, theatrical approach to production design that recalls both independent films and big budget historical films from the nineties. Restoration is perhaps the platonic ideal of that latter aesthetic, complete with a bafflingly large cast of great actors in a subpar film. Shadow of the Vampire too has a fantastic cast, with John Malkovich as director Frederich Wilhelm Murnau and Eddie Izzard as male lead Gustav von Wangenheim. But its ambitions far outstrips the production’s actual abilities, in a way that suggests a lack of resources more than a lack of imagination. (The former is much more forgivable than the latter. Better done and out in the world than perfect and only in your head.) When the film doesn’t work, it chugs along decently, taking its premise seriously. But when it works, Shadow of the Vampire shows flashes of being a remarkable, unique film.
And that all lies in the hands of Willem Dafoe’s performance as Max Schreck, which earned him a Los Angeles Film Critics Association award and an Oscar nomination in 2000. (He lost to Benicio del Toro, who was nominated for Traffic.) Obscured underneath prosthetics and false teeth, Dafoe’s trademark stormy glower shades into something sharp, eternal, and wrong. Every aspect of the performance—from the way he lifts his head, the way he touches his hands, his voice—is astonishing, captivating, and deeply unsettling. Dafoe vanishes into the role, leaving behind of the greatest performances of his career.
Shadow of the Vampire is not all creepy atmosphere, however. It’s lovingly sincere and there’s room for natural humor among its cast of debauched German actors and filmmakers. Unsurprisingly, all the best bits come from Dafoe’s Schreck. At one point, he timidly asks for more makeup after a makeup artist is chastised for approaching him, and the look on his face is priceless. (The film states that Schreck is acting in the film in exchange for the leading lady, but Dafoe’s performance suggests that he’s also enamored of film himself. As to how a vampire shows up on nitrate, it’s never explained.) But one of his best scenes incorporates both pathos and bathos, when Schreck talks about reading Dracula in preparation for his role. After snatching a bat from the air and snacking on it, he tells the producer and screenwriter how tragic it is, seeing how far Dracula has fallen. (The producer and screenwriter take the bat thing in stride, assuming that Schreck is deep in the role, despite Method acting being far off in their future.)
The film does go off the rails towards the end, when it remembers that it forgot to give Murnau a moral arc and shoves it into the last five minutes of the film. But Dafoe’s performance makes it worth checking out. Double billing this with the original Nosferatu would make for a philosophically spooky evening at any time of the year.
I watched this film on Netflix.