Shadow Of The Vampire

on December 29, 2000 by Lael Loewenstein
   An intriguing and audacious look at the great German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, "Shadow of the Vampire" both documents and mythologizes Murnau's celebrated 1922 production, "Nosferatu." Assets include fine technical values and standout acting, especially a nuanced, understated performance by John Malkovich as Murnau and a thrillingly over-the-top turn by Willem Dafoe as the vampire. British comedian Eddie Izzard also excels in a small but compelling role as the production's leading man.

   Denied the rights to Bram Stoker's original "Dracula," Murnau decided to go ahead and shoot his own version of the story. Seeking an effect of heightened realism, he takes his cast and crew out of the studio and goes on location in Czechoslovakia. There he has discovered a dedicated, unknown method actor, Max Schreck, to play the title role, but no one is prepared for Schreck's eccentricities. It seems the ghoulishly bald, Vulcan-eared, long-nailed "actor" may be an actual vampire, with whom Murnau, in his passionate quest for authenticity, struck a harrowing secret deal: play the part and receive the film's self-absorbed actress (Catherine McCormack) after the shoot as a reward--and possible meal. But Schreck can't seem to wait, and when members of the crew start to fall ill, Murnau knows whom to blame.

   Film historians, no doubt, would quibble with the liberties Steven Katz's script takes about Murnau's production. But historical accuracy is not his goal; rather, he and director E. Elias Merhige aim to capture the exquisite daring and experimental atmosphere of German Expressionist filmmaking. In that they succeed beautifully. The story takes a while to get moving, but when it does, Assheton Gordon's production design and Lou Bogue's cinematography so convincingly recreate the look and feel of silent film that at various moments you'd swear you were watching the original "Nosferatu." But then, of course, the amorphous distinction between reality and art is exactly the point.    Starring Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Eddie Izzard and Catherine McCormack. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. Written by Steven Katz. Produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 93 min.

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