Saturday, October 30, 2010

By Request: Shadow of the Vampire

For Pete (who probably thought I forgot...)

Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000) "Such is the cost of genius...Thank God!  An end to this artifice!"

God has nothing to do with it.

Besides, there's only room for one god on a movie set.

F.W. Murnau may be the greatest director "of all time."  He will have his way and his vision no matter what the cost.  Wanting to make a film of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," not even the small matter of the author's estate refusing the rights will stop him.  It is only the first purifying cross he must bear in his effort to make the perfect vampire movie.  His actors are either rebelling or morons, his crew is competent but not privy to his plans.  It's all in his head, as he is the auteur, and he will see his film to the bitter end, even if he is the last man standing.  No cost is too great, no sacrifice too small in his sociopathic, artistic blood-lust to see his film see the light of day and projector.

He could be the star of his own vampire movie.  Shadow of the Vampire is on the epidermis level a fictionalized version of the filming of Murnau's Nosferatu, but it is also the story of how movie-making can be a power struggle, completely opposite to the collaborative effort it usually is.  The Murnau of the film (portrayed by John Malkovich) solves all the problems, does all the ground-work, directs the actors in a running stream of manipulation during filming (it's a silent film, of course).  He wants authenticity no matter what, filming on location in castles and ships, distaining studio sets (despite Nosferatu's artistic expressionism), and going the extra mile—hiring Max Schreck* (Willem Dafoe, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance) to play his vampire.

Here's where the film-makers leave reality behind and make their own story about creativity, and the supernatural hold power can sometimes hold over people: to realize his ideal of authenticity, Murnau, in the film, hires a real vampire.  Or maybe not.  Schreck, it is explained to the crew, has studied, with Stanislavsky, the immersive "method" of acting.  So, when he plays a vampire...he REALLY plays a vampire, always in costume, always in mood, even when the camera isn't rolling.  Just another demanding actor whose eccentricities must be humored.  And the humor is dark in Shadow of the Vampire, in the small areas ("I want make-up," Schreck sulks at one point.  "You're not getting it!" Murnau abrasively replies.) and in the larger scheme of things—the power struggles between the egomanical director and the homicidal vampire are giggle-inducing (in a good way)...and apt.  That Malkovich and Dafoe tend to resemble each other (and if Dafoe wasn't heavily made up and affecting Schreckage it would be even more apparent) and director Merhige keeps them sparring, negotiating, arguing throughout the film.  That the two don't destroy each other during the making of the film is only due to their mutual need.

Or maybe it's merely professional courtesy.

* Schreck, and this performance, are somewhat legendary.  Nicolas Cage, who executive produced the film, did his own version of Schreck's performance in Vampire's Kiss.  And Tim Burton named the manipulative toy magnate played by Christopher Walken in Batman Returns after the actor. 

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