Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

I don't believe there is much confusion around Shadow of the Vampire, but I will reiterate that, though based on the making of Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror this is a work of pure fiction.  It features portrayals of real people who were involved in the making of the movie, but Steve Katz based his script on a legend that Max Schreck, who portrayed Count Orlok in the 1922 film, was a real vampire.  It was based on specious information that Schreck made only the one movie and then disappeared.  

These rumors arose long before the internet but still at a time when it was not too hard to verify information if one tried.  It was one of a number of rumors about Schreck, who was a bit of a loner and kept his private and public life separated.  Another was that he never existed and that Orlok was played by another actor named Alfred Abel.  That Schreck did exist and was a bit eccentric is not in question and it is not hard to find information about him, but the truth is Shadow of a Vampire not only takes liberties with him but also with F. W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu.  The movie itself is a dark comedy about obsession and artistic self-indulgence as well as positing a wild what-if story. 

German director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) was unable to secure the rights to make a movie of Dracula, so he has decided to call his movie Nosferatu and make his lead character Count Orlok in hopes of getting around the copyright infringement.  With a frustrated crew including producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and writer Henrik Galeen (Aden Gillett) and frightened investors he has filmed a good portion of the movie in Berlin.  However, he is insistent on filming the rest on location at a ruined castle in Czechoslovakia where a mysterious actor named Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) is to join them, as he is to play the vampire. 

The trip is rough as are filming conditions and the crew is even more nervous when Schreck makes his appearance in what is supposedly full makeup.  His presence makes actor Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) quite nervous, enhancing his performance.  Still, the film comes to halt when cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vilbert) comes down with a mysterious illness.  Murnau accompanies him back to Germany and flies out a new cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes), to complete the film.  More and more the rest of the crew realizes the secret Schreck and Murnau have been keeping from them: rather than playing a vampire, he is a vampire, and his price to appear in the movie is to feed on its star, Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack).  Murnau, though, has some plans of his own for the movie's finale. 

This is a movie that one must just accept the world it is set it.  While director E. Elias Merhige helps recreate the filmmaking techniques of the 1920s and tries to fill it with as much of that atmosphere as possible anyone with any knowledge of Murnau's career needs to just accept things as they happen rather than get stuck on historic fact.  John Malkovich portrays the director as a hedonistic, drug addicted artist in pursuit of some unattainable goal.  Many of his monologues are closer to that of Werner Herzog, who made his own version of Nosferatu over 60 years later.  

It is a performance that manages to stand out despite having to go up against Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck.  This is one of the first attempts to play a vampire realistically.  There is no elegance or passion, just loneliness and vague memories of past glories.  His hunger is as obsessive as Murnau's, but in a different fashion.  It is also clear that he has lived separated from humanity so long that he has become more animal over the years, and that the new contact he has with the film crew is bringing back memories of his lost past that cause him great emotional pain.  

Into all this is injected a dark strain of humor.  Malkovich's portrayal of Murnau, while intense, is also so over-the-top pretentious that one can't help but laugh at how pathetic the character is.  Udo Kier gets in a number of great lines, with Albin being one of the few adults in the room trying to get everyone to take the production seriously.  Dafoe, of course, gets many of the more outright humorous quips, while keeping in character the whole time. 

Shadow of the Vampire can be frustrating if one is looking for a true telling of the making of Nosferatu or any insight into the real Murnau or Schreck.  I think that was part of the problem I had with it when I saw it on theatrical release.  I didn't get the humor at the time as I was expecting a more serious horror film, and the historical inaccuracies surrounding the characters took me out of the film.  I didn't realize at the time that these are what make the movie what it is, and what Katz and Merhige were going for.  It may have an art-film feel, but it never intended to be more than a piece of "what if" entertainment. 

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Time: 92 minutes
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack
Director: E. Elias Merhige



  1. It reminds me of the last story in "The House That Dripped Blood" where the third Dr. Who is shooting a movie in an old house and gets a cloak that turns him into a vampire and he starts attacking people. It's at least in the same vein. (I borrowed that pun from the Cryptkeeper.)


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