Shadow of the Vampire is a 2000 metafiction horror film directed by E. Elias Merhige, written by Steven Katz, and starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. The film is a fictionalized documentary account of the making of the classic vampire film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, directed by F. W. Murnau, during which the film crew began to have disturbing suspicions about their lead actor.
The film borrows the techniques of silent films, including the use of intertitles to explain elided action, and iris lenses. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Makeup. For his performance, Dafoe was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Plot[edit | edit source]
In 1921, German director F. W. Murnau takes his cast and crew on-location in Czechoslovakia to shoot Nosferatu, an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Murnau keeps his team in the dark about their schedule and the actor playing the vampire Count Orlok. It is left to the film's other main actor, Gustav von Wangenheim, to explain that the lead is an obscure German theater performer named Max Schreck, who is a character actor. To involve himself fully in his role, Schreck will only appear amongst the cast and crew in makeup, will only ever be filmed at night, and will never break character.
After filming scenes in a studio with leading actress Greta Schröder, who is displeased about leaving Berlin, Murnau's team travels to the remote inn where they will be staying and shooting further scenes. The landlady becomes distressed at Murnau removing crucifixes around the inn, and the cameraman, Wolfgang Muller, falls into a strange, hypnotic state. Gustav discovers a bottle of blood amongst the team's food supplies, and Murnau delivers a caged ferret in the middle of the night to a not yet fully revealed Shreck.
One night, Murnau rushes his team up to an old Slovak castle for the first scene with the vampire. Schreck appears for the first time, and his appearance and behavior impress and disturb them. The film's producer, Albin Grau, suspects that Schreck is not a German theater actor, and is confused when Murnau tells him that he originally found Schreck in the castle. Soon after the completion of the scene, Wolfgang is found collapsed in the tunnel into which Schreck had receded. Upon returning to the inn, the landlady appears frightened by his pale, weak appearance and mutters "nosferatu" while clutching at a rosary.
Whilst filming a dinner scene between Gustav and Orlok, Murnau startles Gustav, making him cut his finger. Schreck reacts wildly at the sight of the blood and tries drinking from Gustav's wound. The generator powering the lights fails and when the lights return, Schreck has pinned Wolfgang to the floor, apparently draining his blood. Albin orders filming ended for the night, and the crew rushes from the castle, leaving Schreck behind. Alone, Schreck examines the camera equipment, fascinated by footage of a sunrise. With Wolfgang near death, Murnau is forced to bring in another cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner, after chastising Schreck in private for attacking his crew members and threatening him with harm if he does not control himself in Murnau's absence—a threat that Schreck challenges due to his immortality.
While Murnau returns to Berlin to calm financiers of the film, Schreck approaches Albin and the screenwriter, Henrik Galeen. They invite Schreck to join them, believing he is still in character, and ask him a vampire's opinion of the character Dracula. Schreck points out Dracula's loneliness and the sadness of him trying to remember how to do otherwise mundane chores that he has not needed to perform for centuries. When they ask how he became a vampire, Schreck says it was a woman. A bat flies by and Schreck catches it, viciously sucking its blood. Grau and Galeen, thanks to their drunkenness on schnapps, are impressed by what they assume is talented acting. Later that night, Schreck attacks and kills a crew member on the film's set.
The production moves to Heligoland to film the final scenes, and Murnau, in a laudanum-induced stupor, admits Schreck's true nature to Albin and Fritz: Schreck is in fact an actual vampire, and Murnau has struck a deal with him in order to create the most realistic vampire film possible. In return for his cooperation, Murnau has promised him Greta as a reward. The two realize they are trapped on the island, leaving no choice but to complete the film and give Greta to the vampire if they wish to survive.
Just as they are about to begin filming their scene together, Greta becomes hysterical after noticing Schreck casts no reflection. Murnau, Albin and Fritz drug her with Murnau's laudanum, and film as Schreck feeds on a now comatose Greta, with the laudanum in her blood putting Schreck to sleep. At dawn, the three attempt to open a door and let in sunlight to destroy Schreck, but discover that the vampire, suspecting their treachery, had cut the chain to the mechanism, trapping them in the process. Fritz and Albin each try other means of killing Schreck, using a pistol and prop stake respectively, only to be killed by the vampire. Murnau, meanwhile, resumes filming, and, seemingly crazed, completely ignores the deaths of his colleagues and the glare of malicious intent Schreck is giving him. Instead, he instructs Schreck to return to his mark for another take. Schreck is perplexed by Murnau's disregard for the threat, and is told, "If it's not in frame, it doesn't exist". Schreck obliges the request, returning to Greta and feeding on her again, finally finishing her off as Murnau resumes filming. During this second take, Galeen and the crew arrive and lift the door, flooding the set with sunlight and destroying Schreck. The crew sees how insane and obsessed Murnau has become, and he stops filming before calmly states, "I think we have it."
Cast[edit | edit source]
- John Malkovich as Frederich Wilhelm Murnau, the director of Nosferatu
- Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, who plays Count Orlok
- Cary Elwes as Fritz Arno Wagner, the cinematographer
- John Aden Gillet as Henrik Galeen, the screenwriter
- Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangenheim, who plays Thomas Hutter/Jonathan Harker
- Udo Kier as Albin Grau, occultist; the producer, art director, and costume designer
- Catherine McCormack as Greta Schroeder, who plays Ellen Hutter/Mina Harker
- Ronan Vibert as Wolfgang Muller
- Nicholas Elliott as Paul
- Sophie Langevin as Elke
- Myriam Muller as Maria
The film depicts several of the major characters as being killed by the vampire; however, historically these individuals continued to live long lives after the film's production. Fritz Wagner and Albin Grau, who are shown having their necks snapped by Count Orlok, lived to the 1950s and 1970s respectively. Greta Schroeder, who also did not actually die, continued to have a film career until the 1950s and died in 1980. She is also depicted as being a famous actress, but in fact, she was little known, and by the 1930s her roles had diminished to only occasional appearances. Of all the characters, Murnau died the soonest after the production of Nosferatu, killed in a car crash in California in 1931. The film's depiction of Murnau as ruthless and dictatorial is also wrong. He was known as a director with rare sensitivity.
Production[edit | edit source]
The film's working title was Burned to Light, but Merhige decided to change the name of the film when Dafoe asked, "Who's Ed?"; the actor thought the title was Burn Ed to Light.
The film was produced by Nicolas Cage's Saturn Films with the intention of playing Schreck, until he cast Dafoe after he expressed interest in the role. Cage stated he always wanted Malkovich as Murnau. Members of the online community "The HollyWood Stock Exchange" were able to donate a small sum towards the film's production in exchange for listing their names on the DVD release of the film as "virtual producers".
Of the film's cast, three actors had previously appeared in vampire films: Kier played Count Dracula in Blood for Dracula (1974) and Dragonetti in Blade (1998), Elwes played Arthur Holmwood in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and Dafoe played a minor role in The Hunger (1983).
Producer Cage has previously acted with Malkovich and Dafoe in Con Air (1997) and Wild at Heart (1990) respectively.
Reception[edit | edit source]
Critical reaction has been mostly positive with Dafoe's performance as Schreck/Orlok receiving particular praise. The film holds an 82% approval rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 138 reviews, with an average rating of 7/10. The site's critical consensus states: "Shadow of the Vampire is frightening, compelling, and funny, and features an excellent performance by Willem Dafoe." On Metacritic, the film has a 71 out of 100 rating, based on 31 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert gave the film 3½ stars out of 4, writing that "director E. Elias Merhige and his writer, Steven Katz, do two things at the same time. They make a vampire movie of their own, and they tell a backstage story about the measures that a director will take to realize his vision", and that Dafoe "embodies the Schreck of Nosferatu so uncannily that when real scenes from the silent classic are slipped into the frame, we don't notice a difference." Ebert later awarded the film his Special Jury Prize on his list of "The Best 10 Movies of 2000", writing of Dafoe's "astonishing performance" and of the film, "Avoiding the pitfall of irony; it plays the material straight, which is truly scary."
A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote, "You can find diversion in an improbable blend of behind-the-scenes satire and art-house fright-fest, anchored by Willem Dafoe's creepy, comical and oddly moving performance as the blood-sucking Schreck."
Dafoe won the LAFCA Award and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Awards[edit | edit source]
Shadow of the Vampire won several awards:
- Prix Tournage
- Saturn Award
- Gran Angular Award
- International Fantasy Film Award
- President Award
- Golden Satellite Award
- Independent Spirit Award
- LAFCA Award for Willem Dafoe
- Bram Stoker Award for Steven Katz