Published Sep 01, 2000The credits for Shadow of the Vampire appear over images of a primitive battle painted in a spiky, controlled art deco idiom, suggesting murder as the motor and price of progress. When the credits finish, we see German director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) filming his 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu in a lab coat and safety glasses, coaxing cinema-quality performances out of his theatre-trained actors. That evening, he takes morphine at a Berlin cabaret. Shadow of the Vampire director E. Elias Merhige quickly establishes Murnau's contemporary status: not only his technical authority over a new medium, but also his feverish, almost anxious, conviction of its superiority. Murnau and crew depart for location shooting in Bavaria aboard a magnificent, iron-haunched train called the Charon. As the train cuts an easy swath through field and forest, we hear Murnau deliver a florid speech to his crew on the primacy of film and its role in the future of art. At a rustic inn, Murnau teases his cast and crew with a mystery: he has hired an unknown actor, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) to play the title role in Nosferatu. The cast and crew do not take well to the reclusive, eccentric Schreck: he snorts, mutters, hisses, glares obsessively, and has no manners. Nonetheless, one evening, some of Murnau's crew invite Schreck to share a bottle of schnapps. They chat about Stoker's Dracula when, all of a sudden, Schreck grabs a bat in mid-flight, bites the animal's head off, and drains its blood. Murnau's crew don't yet know what the audience figured out early on: there is no Schreck æ Murnau hired a real vampire for the role. They drunkenly congratulate Schreck on the depth of his immersion in the role, exclaiming, "The German theatre needs you!" This horrifying, very funny scene offers a glimpse of what Merhige might have achieved if his direction had been more focused. Shadow of the Vampire starts out as an expressionistic fable about the cost of artistic ambition in a culture cooked over the fire of progress æ but it ends with a muddled, tinny climax and a real lack of spirit. Once the action in the film shifts to Bavaria, Merhige essentially abandons his development of Murnau's character, which he'd established with a fair amount of style at the start of the film. Perhaps he wanted the structure of the film to mirror Schreck's growing domination of the production of Nosferatu. But I don't think that Merhige knew how to use Dafoe's remarkable performance properly. Dafoe delivers a fully rounded and very forceful portrayal, and it chokes off the mood that Merhige established in the film's first half hour. Merhige turns Murnau's hiring of the vampire into the sole signal of the great director's obsession. Once we learn the truth about Schreck (and we do earlier than I think Merhige intended), we don't learn anything else about Murnau.