Thursday, April 3, 2008

reVIEW (43)

“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 agonize. 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 memory. But our memory will neither blur, nor fade.”
-- F.W. Murnau

Nicolas Cage certainly has an interesting view of vampires.
In 1989, he starred in Robert Bierman‘s Vampire’s Kiss, a black comedy in which he played poor, befuddled Peter Loew, who believes—perhaps mistakenly—that he’s been bitten by a vampire.
11 years later, Cage chose as his feature producing debut, E. Elias Merhige’s brilliant take on Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire.

Here, noted German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (John Malkovich) sets off to film (without the widow Stoker’s permission) Dracula, and in the interests of authenticity, has a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) pretend to be an actor named Max Schreck, to play Nosferatu’s Count Dracula stand-in, Count Orlock.
As early as that singular premise—with its funhouse mirroring of truth masquerading as fiction, to play a fiction which is both truth (as Schreck/Orlock really is a vampire) and a double fiction (Orlock is merely Dracula, under a different name); all of this, of course, a fiction of a truth, as we see a behind-the-scenes-look-that-never-was of the making of Nosferatu—it should be plainly evident that Shadow of the Vampire is so much more than your average cinematic blood-sucking experience.
With a script by Steven Katz, Shadow of the Vampire asks the central question, How far is an artist willing to go for his art? And in asking that question, Shadow also explores the double-headed metaphor of art as vampire, and art as a means to immortality.
It also takes the film industry to task. Humourously, by poking fun at how a star’s ego can hijack a production, and darkly, by presenting the camera (in the film, merely an extension of the director) as cold, apathetic observer and recorder, as leecher of vitality and life, an idea which reaches its apex in a chilling sequence that touches on the ultimate disposability of actresses in the grand old Boy’s Club of movie-making.

Merhige takes all of this weighty material and crafts a tantalizing portrait of the high cost of art and the dangers of obsessively brilliant artists.
And who else to play the narrative’s obsessively brilliant artist, but John Malkovich?
Malkovich’s Murnau is calculating and exacting, a cinema despot who asks his extras not to “act,” but rather, to “be.” In his white lab coat and goggles, he is the mad scientist only too willing to go to extreme lengths to complete his celluloid Monster.
But he meets his nemesis in Schreck, a role that Dafoe clearly dives into with relish. As part of the ruse, his Schreck is apparently the ultimate method actor, appearing to the cast and crew always in costume, and constantly in character.
And if you’ve seen Murnau’s Nosferatu, you’ll note that Dafoe nails the oddly disturbing mannerisms actor Max Schreck displayed in that classic of German Expressionism.
But it isn’t just that peculiar physicality that Dafoe brings to his performance. He also brings a humour, curiously both self-effacing and cunningly self-aware, as when, in one scene, he is at first coached as to his character’s motivation, before taking his first stab at ad lib.
Dafoe also brings a strange air of pathos to his character that serves to inform a role that could easily have been all melodramatic pantomime gesture and Vaudevillian tics, with some genuine longing and emotion.
What gives Shadow even more of a kick is how awesome and effective the rest of its cast is: genre stalwart Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, who all go about recreating scenes and sequences from Nosferatu like skilled and particularly respectful grave robbers, making the film, aside from everything else, a wonderful homage to a masterpiece of black-and-white cinema.

Shadow of the Vampire also has much in common with films like John Madden‘s Shakespeare In Love and Ken Russell’s Gothic, films which use actual historical figures to propose a fictional scenario that ultimately informs an artist’s work and creative sensibilities.
Or, as I put it earlier, films that show a behind-the-scenes-look-that-never-was of a film, or play, or novel.
So at this point, I think it should be stated in so many words: Shadow of the Vampire may have fangs, but it really isn’t about neck-biting and blood. It’s a fascinating and complex entry in the vaults of vampire cinema, one that is only willing and eager to be discussed and debated over.
After all, with so many funhouse mirrors around, it makes it that much harder to determine, where is the real Monster of the piece?
The ancient, bloodthirsty creature, only seeking to slake its inhuman thirst?
The despotic director, to whom all are merely a means to an end?
Or the film itself, the aforementioned end, for which all else is sacrificed?

Parting shot: A review of Merhige’s follow-up to Shadow of the Vampire, Suspect Zero, can be found in the Archive, where the article series “The Cinematic (Un)Life of Count Dracula” can also be found. Part I (“A Symphony of Shudders”) discusses F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

(Shadow of the Vampire OS courtesy of [design by Samuels Advertising]; DVD cover art courtesy of

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