of the Vampire
Perhaps the best biopics are those that concentrate on a particular phase of their subject's life or, better still, a single incident shrouded in mystery – such as a holiday to an unknown destination or the identity of an anonymous correspondent.
Beyond being one the greatest directors in cinema history, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931) was certainly an international man of mystery. From Germany to Hollywood, he zealously guarded his privacy while none the less enjoying the proliferation of rumours that constituted his public image.
With his interests in astrology, the occult and Eastern philosophy, his mooted bisexuality and his reputation as a dashing dandy off set but a painstaking tyrant on set, Murnau was, for his day, a minor media celebrity.
Writer Steven Katz has concocted a brilliant premise for Shadow of the Vampire. It is 1922, and Murnau (John Malkovich) is filming what is to become the horror classic, Nosferatu. His temperamental and exacting ways try the patience of cast and crew. Murnau is in search of realism, and it appears to his colleagues that he has passed beyond the pale in his rapport with Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who is never out of character as the vampire Nosferatu.
This is not a film of suspense or mystery. It informs us almost immediately of the secret pact between Murnau and Schreck: this seeming Method actor really is a vampire. But he is a difficult creature to control, and will only bow to the director's wishes on the condition that his dark desires are eventually sated.
One can enjoy this film – or, as some have done, dismiss it – as a pure conceit. It is definitely a fantasy: Katz and director E. Elias Merhige play fast and loose with period verisimilitude, pouring such '50s-style lines as "Use that emotion!" into Murnau's mouth. Those with even a passing knowledge of film history will flinch at the wilful inaccuracy of certain technical details, and the exaggerated role given to the "Stanislavsky influence".
But, like Dancer in the Dark (2000), this is a film that takes calculated risks at the surface level in order to mine a deeper truth. Shadow of the Vampire is remarkably faithful to the spirit of Murnau's work and of much German cinema in the Expressionist period of the '20s.
Murnau did indeed seek a certain kind of realism – not in Method acting but in his use of the natural world. He did speak in grand, lofty, visionary terms about the "life essence" that was to be bottled and re-animated by the medium of cinema. He did have an intensely aesthetic and almost religious belief in the power of the static frame – those four lines of the screen that define and shape an imaginary world.
Thirty years ago, the film historian Lotte Eisner wrote a book about German Expressionist cinema called The Haunted Screen. The power of Murnau's Nosferatu (like many of his other films) lay in the fact that this horror story was not only haunted but positively demonic: it was the cinema itself, for Murnau, that exerted a vampiric force upon reality, draining and reconstituting it in uncanny, undead form.
Merhige, whose only previous feature is the gruelling punk-Gothic extravaganza Begotten (1989), is the perfect director for this demonic parable. He wisely avoids mimicking Murnau's style too closely. All the same, he utilises rhythm, staging and framing in a precise, unsettling and beautifully focused way. The final scene is a disquieting gem, evoking Thomas Elsaesser's sombre reflection: "That the world is beautiful when viewed through a lens is the devil's pact to which, it seems, our century has succumbed."
Merhige also reveals himself to be a fine director of actors. The often amusing ensemble includes Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack and that Euro-trash cult star, Udo Kier. But it is Malkovich and Dafoe who truly shine.
Malkovich, who increasingly gravitates to unusual, anti-psychological roles and special arthouse directors, brings a fascinating stillness and concentration to the driven Murnau. Dafoe's performance, by contrast, approaches a delirious kind of pantomime: the manic glee with which he sets down a fold-out seat for another cast member is a mini-spectacle in itself.
© Adrian Martin January 2001