Most biopics are either lavish costume dramas heroizing or demonizing historical figures or intense portrayals of dead politicians recontextualized as Greek tragedies or flag-waving courtroom proceedings celebrating martyrs of free speech and racial injustice. Rarely are biopics funny and rarer still are they scary. Shadow of the Vampire manages to be both.
Of course, Shadow of the Vampire also manages to be based entirely on speculation, rumor, innuendo and half-truths. An imagined tale of what inspired and possessed legendary German filmmaker F.W. Murnau to make the classic Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire is a fantastical exploration of the madness of genius and the depths visionaries will plunge to create art. And it’s very, very funny.
Verboten by Bram Stoker’s estate in his bid to adapt Dracula for the cinema, Murnau (John Malkovich) merely changes the name of the vampire and sets about shooting his most authentic film to date. Eschewing the soundstages of Berlin for real locations in Slovakia, Murnau, producer Albin (Udo Kier), writer Henrik (John Gillet), cinematographer Wolfgang (Ronan Vibert) and principal actor Gustav (Eddie Izzard) arrive at their destination. On set, they meet the mysterious actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), who Murnau has hyped as a great “method actor,” an artist so impassioned by the role he will only appear in character and must only be addressed as Count Orloc.
It soon becomes apparent that Schreck is no actor at all. In fact, he is a real vampire discovered by Murnau who struck a bargain with the bloodsucking creature of the night: Schreck promises to play the role of Orloc, curtailing his nocturnal urges throughout production, in exchange for the hand, or neck rather, of leading lady Greta (Catherine McCormack).
Murnau is unable to control Schreck who is, in turn, unable to control his bloodlust. Beginning with Wolfgang, one-by-one the crew becomes victims of Schreck’s vampiric tendencies. Wolfgang is replaced by brilliant photographer Fritz (Cary Elwes), but it is apparent to all that the production is doomed. Junked on laudanum, Murnau pushes onward towards completing his film and his descent into madness.
Albeit an homage to Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire never avoids an opportunity to poke fun at German expressionism and the decadence of cabaret culture. Director E. Elias Merhige deftly balances the humor within the tragic story, while somehow providing moments of pure fright as well. The casting is impeccable; wonderful performances are given by Malkovich, Udo Kier and Eddie Izzard, and Cary Elwes is hilarious. But Dafoe as Schreck/Orloc steals the show, delivering a powerfully funny portrayal of a 400-year-old vampire pretending to be an actor pretending to be a vampire. This may well be Dafoe’s Oscar performance.