Shadow of the Vampire is a film about film that manages to be both playful and cerebral. It gives a fictional retelling of F. W. Murnau’s making of Nosferatu, drawing on the myth that unconventional leading man Max Schreck was himself a vampire.
The film is grounded in its performances. The supporting cast is an eclectic bunch, including Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard. The real draw, however, is the two stars, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe; they are given dream roles as Murnau and Schreck, respectively. Malkovich’s particular strain of intense fervour is well suited to Murnau. Dafoe has the more difficult task, acting from beneath transfigurative makeup whilst wearing a corset and platform shoes. He is contorted towards resembling Schreck’s Orlok, but Dafoe embodies the character in his own way. His movements and expression are mesmerising whenever he’s onscreen, to comedic, tragic and horrific affect. He received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar nomination for his performance.
Shadow of the Vampire is reverential of Nosferatu even while deconstructing it. Snippets of the original film appear, blending into Merhinge’s as though affirming Murnau’s dream of creating something eternal. Certain scenes from Nosferatu are recreated, vividly and with affection. Many other scenes show Murnau at work, which brings to life the process of creating silent film.
Film as an art form is Shadow of the Vampire‘s central concern, but the viewer many simply be wondering if Schreck really is a vampire, or if he and Murnau are just deluded. The revelation occurs in the midst of the truly unpredictable final scene. It’s a thrilling conclusion that casts the film in a different light, and demands that the viewer question and think about what they’ve seen here.