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Film Review from the Film Gang

February 2nd, 2001 - - Hear Bill Nichol's review in Real Audio


FW Murnau, unlike Eric von Stroheim, was famed as a silent film director less for his dedication to realism than for his obsession with the uncanny and preordained.  His FAUST, SUNRISE, about a doomed love affair, TABU, about doomed love in the South Seas, and NOSFERATU, about sacrificial love and unholy desire, established Murnau as a master of composition and camera movement.  SHADOW OF A VAMPIRE, now at the Nickelodeon, however, gives us a Murnau whose preoccupations lie elsewhere.  Like von Stroheim, this Murnau wants reality more than realism.  It is his quest for the ultimate reality that leads Mr. Murnau, and the viewer, into a shadowy and deranged darkness.  Using reality to feed an illusion, the shadow play of cinema, requires an inversion of priorities that lures us, slowly but surely, into the lair of the vampire.
SHADOW OF A VAMPIRE is, in essence, a "making of" movie. In this case, it is the making of NOSFERATU that we get to see. This is no documentary, however.  SHADOW is in the style of full-blown expressionismóthe moody, crazy angled, more black than white world of anxious subjectivity that was rampant in the German cinema of the 1920s. This is a claustrophobic world, limited from beginning to end, to those small parcels of reality destined to serve as sets for Murnauís film.  The cast and crew of the film, including the mysterious Max Shreck, an unknown actor chosen by Murnau for the role of the vampire, populate it. "Who is Max Shreck the cast wonders?" Murnau is not telling, although it quickly becomes apparent that Shreck's dedication to his role far exceeds that of any one else in the film. He, in fact, seems unable to step out of character.  One night, on location in the Slovakian countryside, when the screenwriter and cameraman try to engage him in conversation they must endure a pause while Max plucks a bat from the air and sucks away its blood.  A mere appetizer, however. Max, played with extraordinary intensity by Willem Dafoe possesses an enormous appetite that refuses to be denied. Like Faust, Murnau has made a bargain with this undead devil, but Max is not patient enough to honor a bargain that requires the postponement of all gratification for the duration of the shoot. Soon he is pleading, and then demanding, from Murnau a more substantial appetizer or two before being allowed to feast on the leading lady in the film's climatic and final scene. When Max makes a meal of the camerman Murnau complains, "Why couldn't you take the script girl?" but his reply is only, "I'll eat her later." "I don't think we need the writer any longer," Max suggests, in his fidgety, impulsive manner. Murnau, though, speaking as if he were the voice of the studio system, responds, I'm loath to admit it myself, but the writer is still necessary. If the original NOSFERATU was an allegory for fear and contagion that could be applied to everything from occult knowledge and the plague to homosexuality and AIDs, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE is closer to a parable about cinema itself. It is, after all, Murnau's moving making that drains the life from his crew. His leading lady gripes that she should be on stage: the audience gives something back to her while the camera only sucks something from her. Not exactly original, the parable seems to want to label the cinema itself,as well as Murnau the director, a vampire, but this is more a light frosting than biting conclusion. SHADOW offers powerful performances and obsession laced with humor.  It may be a shadow of NOSFERATU itself, but it is a dark and lively one.

Copyright Bill Nichols 2001