Shadow of the Vampire (Universal, 2000) is a fictional film about the making of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu set in the 1920’s Art Deco era of Germany. Murnau, played by John Malkovich, is a director with a singular and obsessive goal: to make a film portraying the fate of a real-life vampire, Max Schrek, played by Willem Dafoe. Murnau had originally wanted to make a film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but was denied the rights of Stoker’s novel by his surviving estate. So instead of Count Dracula, the vampire villain is changed to Count Orlock and the title of the film is changed to Nosferatu. Shadow of the Vampire, while made to seem like an historical account of the making of Nosferatu, remains a thriller/horror feature in which the true nature of a supernatural creature is revealed with deadly consequences to the human filmmakers.
The main story arc of the film chronicles Murnau’s Faustian deal with Max Schrek (a vampire, posing as an actor who plays a vampire) where in exchange for acting in the film, Schrek will have fulfilled his greatest desire: the possession of the famed German actress Greta Schroder (Catherine McCormack). Though the film follows the cast and crew of Nosferatu from Berlin to Heligoland, the true action is a game of cat and mouse in which Murnau and Schrek threaten to foil one another, and ultimately reduce the cast and crew’s numbers in a series of mysterious “disappearances.” In the end, both Murnau and Schrek achieve their goals, but the result is a fevered insanity of the former, and the demise of the latter. Thus both the demons of mankind and vampire alike are exorcised and brought into the light of day.
The opening credits of the film are a series of Art Deco stills by John Goodinson that highlights the aesthetic tastes of the 1920’s, and the distinctive sepia glow harkens to the era of silent film. The sequence of images lends a wonderful prologue to both a film that was made in the 1920’s, and to the mystery and myth of the vampire. Done with slow pans, fades, and dissolves, the opening sequence is a narrative prelude to the legends of the existence of vampires in Europe.
Another aspect of the film that helps to heighten the sense of 1920’s Germany is the spectacular classical score written by Dan Jones and performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The main theme music of the film has a muscular string section that contrasts with the gentle and lilting melodic solo performed on clarinet. It is also worth noting that a distinct lack of music is present in the more dramatic scenes, wherein well-placed Foley and sound effects resonate thunderously in the chilling silence.
Shadow of the Vampire appeals both to the nostalgia of the silent era of film and to the myth and fascination with the legend of the vampire, which attained remarkable popularity in Europe and the United States thanks to both Bram Stoker and F.W. Murnau. And since the film is the story of the making of one of the finest silent films, it has appeal to anyone interested in filmmaking and its’ origins. It is also interesting to view Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire as a double feature in that it sparks the imagination to separate fact from fiction in the narratives of both films. The film, Shadow of the Vampire, is perfect for both filmmakers and fans of supernatural thrillers.
Film Review by Nicholas Karasievich
A trailer of the movie can be viewed below