In the early 1920’s, director F.W. Murnau set out to make a movie based on Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. The resulting film, titled Nosferatu and starring Max Schreck as the vampire, remains to this day a masterwork of horror.
Shadow of the Vampire, released in 2000, is a fictional account of the making of Nosferatu, with one small modification. This time around, the roles of vampire and actor have been reversed. Nosferatu’s Max Schreck, so effectively frightening as the undead bloodsucker in the original, is no longer merely an actor portraying a vampire. In a twist that could be among the most ingenious in recent memory, a real-life vampire (Willem Dafoe) has been hired by director Murnau (John Malkovich) to play the role of an actor named Schreck who is, in turn, playing a vampire in his new film. And exactly how did Murnau convince a real vampire to star in his movie? By promising him the throat of the leading lady (Catherine McCormack) once filming was completed. For Murnau, it’s the perfect arrangement, the ultimate truth for his artistic endeavor. But can he control the beast he has so callously unleashed on his unsuspecting film crew?
Director Elias Merhige weaves Shadow of the Vampire into an engrossing conflict of artistic accomplishment versus morality. Murnau hides the true nature of his ‘star’, Max Schreck, from his crew, yet while filming on location in Czechoslovakia, everyone realizes there’s something odd about their leading man. For one, his scenes are only shot at night, and he always appears in full makeup wherever he goes. Producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) chastises Murnau repeatedly for keeping his star so tightly under wraps, yet before long the director starts to lose control. In the early days of shooting, the cameraman, Wolfe (Ronan Vibert), dies, a victim of the beast. Unfortunately for Murnau, Wolfe is merely the first in a string of victims.
The basic thrust of Shadow of the Vampire is the accountability of the artist towards the creation of his art. From the opening scene, it’s apparent that the obsession which drives Murnau is the creation of his film. Murnau believes himself an artist, and his tool, the motion picture camera, is one he is convinced will someday prove more expressive than even paint and canvas. After all, images committed to film, aside from being in motion, are also permanent, and Murnau believes that his films will serve as a testament to future generations of his skill, even of his very existence. It is for this reason, and to this end, that he so willingly offers up the blood of his crew to a monster.
But then who is the real monster of Shadow of the Vampire? Schreck is indeed a monster, but only because nature has made him so. Murnau, on the other hand, risks the lives of those who depend on him, all for the furthering of motion pictures as a legitimate art form. Schreck kills to survive, and to a degree we can pity him his pathetic existence. Murnau’s demons, while equally as personal, are encapsulated within a seemingly selfish personality, and this makes his sins much more difficult to forgive.
As evident in Shadow of the Vampire, the pursuit of a filmmaker, or indeed any artist, to achieve immortality through their work could, if left unchecked, become a double-edged sword, and the thing about a double-edged sword is that there’s simply no way of telling who will be cut by it.