Shadow of the Vampire

Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Eddie Izzard Directed by:E. Elias Merhige

Riddle me this:  how is Shakespeare like Shadow of the Vampire?

If you've read As You Like It for a literature class, the teacher or professor probably discussed how in the bard's era, women did not act.  Female roles were played by boys.  In As You Like It, one of the main characters is Rosalind, who disguises herself as a boy for parts of the play.  So, the irony is that the actor is a boy playing a girl playing a boy. Now hold that thought.

Shadow of the Vampire fictionalizes the making of the movie Nosferatu. (Which I meant to watch, but it is another German Expressionist film.  I'm not sure if I can watch two of those in the span of a month.)

Eccentric director Friedrich Murnau (played convincingly by John Malkovich) has a very focused vision for an adaptation of Dracula. Much to the dismay of his lead actress, Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) as well as some crew members, Murnau insists on filming much of the movie on location, particularly a remote castle in Czechoslovakia.

Though some background scenes have been filmed at the studio, one important cast member is missing – the actor playing Count Orlok, the vampire. Gustav (Eddie Izzard) has overheard the elusive Max Schrek is a character actor already on location immersing himself in the role.  No one else has heard of him or knows how Murnau found him.

Once the actors arrive on location, there are precious few extras (just some nervous locals) and one of the cameramen immediately begins to fall ill.  The cast also finally meets Schrek/Orlok (Willem Dafoe)…and are not quite sure what to think of this strange man who is so immersed in his character he appears only in full costume/makeup and prefers to be addressed as Count Orlok rather than Max.

This role further solidifies my opinion that Willem Dafoe is one of the most versatile actors ever.  He's in Platoon.  He's Jesus inThe Last Temptation of Christ.  He's a flamboyant detective in Boondock Saints.  He's Green Goblin in Spider-Man.  He's a goofy German in The Life Aquatic.  I didn't even recognize him as Schrek/Orlok at first, but he plays the role with absolute relish.  He is gleefully cunning, somewhat scary, and slightly humorous in some scenes. It is easy to believe Schrek is completely immersed in his role as Orlok because Dafoe seems to be similarly absorbed by his character.

All of the acting is actually excellent in this star-studded film.  Had I not been trying to watch scary movies for the blog, I would have wanted to see this movie for its fine cast. I believe this is the first time I've seen John Malkovich in a serious role (as opposed to his limited dialogue and character development in Burn After Reading) and was quite impressed.  Cary Elwes was delightful in his brief role as cameraman Fritz Wagner.  Eddie Izzard continues to be highly expressive and wears lipstick better than I do.

Ready for the answer to the riddle?  In Shadow of the Vampire, one of the main characters is a vampire playing a man playing a vampire. And in the movie within a movie, many actors are playing people that are actors playing their characters in a movie. (Confused?  Go have some popcorn).

So how did Murnau convince a vampire to act in his film?  Hopefully this review will make you curious enough to watch this movie and find out. Particularly as some of the best moments in the film are when the vampire threatens meticulous Murnau's grand vision for the film and you discover exactly what he is willing to sacrifice for art.

Written by Jennifer Venson