In a rare moment of forethought, I decided to watch Shadow of the Vampire, a film I’ve somehow managed to avoid since it came out. It’s been on my list for a long time, but I was never quite in the mood to see it. Part of that is because I never really enjoyed Nosferatu– the making of which is the basis for Shadow‘s plot. I decided to give the classic silent film by F.W. Murnau another shot in preparation.
As much as I love old black and white movies I admit to having a hard time with the silent era films. It takes a certain extra level of effort to suspend disbelief and ignore the artificial nature of what I’m seeing. Comedies are actually the easiest for me – Buster Keaton movies are amazing and hilarious no matter what era you’re living in – and horror is the hardest. Generally I can’t lift that weight and, at best, I enjoy those silent films mostly for craftsmanship and their places at the beginning of a new art form.
There are films that make it easier. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seduces with its oddness, creating a surreal world that makes it easier for me to let go of expectations (and my phone, as suggested in Mitch Roush’s excellent article). Haxan‘s broken non-narrative and bizarre imagery doesn’t require much investment in characters or plot lines.
Unfortunately Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horror isn’t one of those films. I’ve watched it several times and only once was I able to watch it easily, without significant re-arranging of my mental furniture to accommodate the static camera, the exaggerated acting, the use of the camera iris and, yes, the lack of sound. I couldn’t tell you exactly why this is a film I struggle with whereas the previous two I mentioned pass through those mental filters easily. I think it has something to do with it feeling like it’s on the cusp of a more modern era. The use of location shooting is fantastic, for instance, but it also throws those segments shot on a stage into sharper relief. It’s almost like a weird uncanny valley of film for me. I keep expecting it to work like a much later film, like Vampyr – a film shot ten years later.
Both films are available on Amazon Prime, but there are multiple variations of Nosferatu. I understand the Kino Lorber Blu-ray release is the way to go for the best restoration and that’s available for rent on Amazon as well. The original film had color tinting and there are versions with this recreated and available on YouTube. As the film is in public domain you can find copies of various quality all over the internet.
Stay the hell away from the one titled Nosferatu a Symphony of Horror Full Sound – it’s a terrible, amateurishly dubbed horror show, and not the good kind.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
The film is, famously, an adaptation of Bram Stokers novel, Dracula. Unfortunately for the studio, Prana Film, it was done completely without permission. Stoker’s estate sued for infringement and won, with the courts ordering all copies destroyed. Luckily it had been in release already and some of those prints survived.
Fans of pretty much any adaptation of the Stoker tale will find things very familiar. A young man (Hutter, rather than Harker in this) is sent to Transylvania to close a real estate deal with an eccentric nobleman – Count Orlok here, rather than Dracula. Superstitious locals warn him from continuing, but go he must. Once in Orlok’s castle the poor man is overwhelmed by the strangeness of his surroundings and his host. His suspicions grow after Orlok tries to suck blood from a wounded thumb and he sees the count loading numerous coffins on to a wagon.
And there is the coffin in the crypts below.
I find myself warming somewhat to the film this time around. Without the benefit of sound the characters have to do their acting with their faces and gestures – while exaggerated, this time around I found a lot more subtlety than I remember from previous viewings. A decent version of the musical score for the film helps enormously with creating mood as well.
And then there’s the Count. From his first appearance, almost tiptoeing up out of a dark tunnel, Orlok’s lean and predatory countenance overwhelms the screen as well as any poor unfortunate sharing the screen with him. Max Shrek’s performance and makeup is effective even now – it must have been absolutely terrifying at the time.
The middle part of the film sags for me, as there’s a ponderous race between Orlok’s ship and Hutter attempting to return to his wife, Ellen, as well as some melodrama with Hutter’s boss, Knock, (playing the Renfield role). Not to say there aren’t moments – Orlok’s final arrival on the deck of the ship is a classic scene for a reason – but it’s difficult to maintain my interest here.
Once the ship, Hutter and Orlok arrive things pick up again, and the mood is appropriately grim. There’s a scene of coffin after coffin being carried down a main street that’s particularly effective. The ending comes quickly, with the Count being too fascinated by Ellen to heed the clock and being caught out by the rising sun.
The Bottom Line
Nosferatu remains a difficult film for me, though I had more moments where I could simply sit and enjoy it this time. It’s a work of genius, but it’s cold and complicated – especially if you’re not in the right mood or have problems with silent films in the first place. It’s more than worth watching for the scenes that do resonate down the decades, and the performance by Shreck is a must-watch.
Shadow of the Vampire
In 1921 German film director Frederich Murnau (John Malkovich) brings his crew to a remote location in Czechoslovakia to shoot scenes for his newest film, Nosferatu – an unofficial adaptation of Dracula. Though pestered about his mysterious star, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), Murnau refuses to devulge anything about the actor – other than that he will be employing the Stanislovski Method. Meaning Shreck will only appear to the others in character, in makeup, and at night.
Things begin to go wrong almost immediately. The cinematographer falls ill. The locals are distressed when crucifixes are removed from the walls for various scenes, and there’s that odd bottle of blood found amongst the supplies…
It’s odd – there’s a certain echo of Nosferatu in the making of Shadow. I don’t mean in the film within a film elements- there are enough moments of overlap there that I’m still not certain if some of the film clips were recreated or original – but in the way the film itself is shot and acted. There’s that level of disconnect and stiffness. Artificiality. It’s not always there, though – so it’s either unintentional or specific the few scenes I noted it in (and those are mostly when Murnau is trying to avoid dealing with the reality of the situation).
The director, E. Elias Merhige (Begotten), tries to avoid revealing the twist – if twist it is – for far too long, but come on. The man is given a ferret for a snack. He freaks out and tries to attack an actor when they cut themselves. Shreck is a vampire – a real one – and he’s something of a prima dona.
Murnau in Shadow is a ruthless and tyranical director, willing to sacrifice anything – and anyone – to get what he sees as truth onto film. There can be no more realistic vampire than a real vampire, after all, and so he’s gone out and found one. I’m not sure what reputation Murnau had in real life, but as so many differences begin to pile up between film reality and ours – many of the people who die in Shadow actually went on to live long and productive lives – it becomes less important. Reality is just a launching off point for a tale about obsession and artistic vision.
Much of the joy in this film is in the interaction between Malkovich and Dafoe – it’s so much fun to watch. Dafoe in particular manages to make Schreck into a figure with depth, pathos and menace. One of my favorite scenes ends with Murnau threatening to hurt Shreck if he gets out of line again. Shreck’s response: “How would you harm me? When even I don’t know how I could harm myself?” There’s a whole story there, the idea that maybe he’s tried to harm himself and failed, but it’s conveyed only in tone and expression.
Another fun aspect for me, having just watched the original Nosferatu, was at the points where the two films overlapped. Seeing the same scenes from, essentially, behind the camera, was like having a window on the making of Nosferatu – even though those glimpses are completely fictional. Just the speculation on how it might have been to be on that set and making that film – leaving aside the idea of Schreck as an actual vampire – actually gave me a greater appreciation of the craft it took to make the original film.
The more I think about it, the more I love Dafoe’s performance. His Schreck is a fantastic creation, and his moments of humanity are heartbreaking in how fleeting they are. A wide-eyed viewing of a filmed sunrise. A story about the saddest part of Dracula being how the Count has to recall what it meant to be human just to set a dinner table.
You can’t really control a monster, and so Murnau’s production spirals out of control as more people die and the narrative narrows like those iris shots he’s so fond of. We hurtle towards the end and the promised sacrifice of the actress Greta (Catherine McCormack) – the price that Murnau agreed to pay for Schreck’s cooperation. The thing is – who’s the greater monster in the story? An inhuman creature, tormented by a life he can no longer easily recall and a lust for that same life, or the man who is willing to sacrifice everyone around him if only he can capture something REAL on film?
The Bottom Line
Shadow of the Vampire is an excellent film, despite its liberties with history. Affecting, funny, scary, entertaining, well written, directed and with some amazing performances. It even manages to retroactively increase my enjoyment of the original Nosferatu.