I recently interviewed Willem Dafoe onstage, as part of The New Yorker Festival, and I made sure to ask him about—and to show a clip from—“Shadow of the Vampire,” from 2000, which, even though it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, remains an unduly obscure entry in his filmography. It’s the second feature directed by E. Elias Merhige, a work of straight-faced and ingenious giddiness—a riotous yet loving laugh up the ample sleeve of cinematic history that’s also a substantial and troubled contemplation of the art.
“Shadow of the Vampire,” written by Steven Katz, is a made-up making-of story, a wickedly fabricated behind-the-scenes yarn about the production, in 1921, of the real-life seminal vampire movie “Nosferatu.” The director of “Nosferatu” is the great F. W. Murnau; it was the first of many films in which he expanded the possibilities of the art form before his death, in 1931, at the age of forty-two. The premise of “Shadow of the Vampire” is that its star, an actor named Max Schreck (played by Dafoe), is a real vampire, whom Murnau (played by John Malkovich) has cast in order to lend the film an unprecedented authenticity. (“Thank God—an end to this artifice!” Murnau declaims as the crew abandons the studio for the on-location castle where Schreck awaits them.)
Murnau promises to pay Schreck for his performance by allowing him to drink the blood of his co-star, the actress Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack)—after the end of the shoot, of course. (And, no, she hasn’t consented or even been consulted about this arrangement; Murnau only warns her that “it’s a very demanding role.”) Being a real vampire, Dafoe’s Schreck is naturally endowed with pointy ears, claw-like fingernails, fangs, a mortal allergy to sunlight, and an unshakable pallor to go along with his insatiable thirst for blood. The joke of it is that Murnau presents Schreck to the rest of the cast and crew as an actor who is so committed to the truth of his role that he refuses to get out of character or costume and won’t even appear on the set in the daytime—as a performer who seeks truly to live his role for the duration of the shoot, the ultimate Method actor.
Merhige approaches this hyperbolic, potentially sketch-comedic plot with a shuddering, sepulchral realism; he blasts past its elements of camp to confront his two predatory protagonists, one inhuman and one all too human, and to observe their inevitable conflict. In his telling, Murnau and Schreck depend on each other for the fulfillment of their strongest needs, which, for Murnau, is an aesthetic one realized carnally and, for Schreck, a carnal one realized aesthetically. Malkovich excels in the role of an artist (one of his specialties) whose intellectual passion and dubious ambition emerge in florid and torrential discourse. Dafoe’s performance is in an altogether different realm: despite the ample antics of the role (or, rather, because of them), Dafoe suggests the grand theatrical manner—the Shakespearean sublime—in cinematic form. Each feral snort and supercilious leer, each vaulted syllable of his chewy mitteleuropäisch accent, and each tremor of his predatory gestures plays to the intense concentration of Merhige’s pressing close-ups.
Merhige delights in Dafoe’s extreme performance, but he doesn’t lose sight of the story’s overarching personal import—its drama of the inherent conflict between directors and actors, and of the misguided effort to fuse art and life. The scenes in which Murnau and Schreck face off, in private, on the set, and even while Murnau’s camera is rolling, evoke a war that gets preserved for history onscreen, one in which real blood is shed. In “Shadow of the Vampire,” the making of a horror movie proves to be a far greater horror than the drama in the film that’s being made. “Shadow of the Vampire” is a gory and grandiose metaphor for the torments and sacrifices made, extracted, and endured in the name of art. It’s a story of the madness of the Method, and of a vampirical director who signs up for that conflict in blood—the blood of others.
Stream “Shadow of the Vampire” on Amazon Prime, Tubi, or Vudu.