There’s a very important point in every kid’s life these days when he or she realizes that entertainment isn’t real life. After that realization sinks in, we try to make the rest of our lives feel more like our favorite entertainment.
At some point or another, you accept that James Bond doesn’t exist, but Sean Connery does. That’s when you stop wanting to be Bond and start wanting to be Sean Connery. It doesn’t happen all at once, and it doesn’t happen willingly. We want to believe what’s on that screen. Life adds up and conflicts get resolved there. But when it’s obvious that things don’t work that way, we look for substitutes in the actors, athletes and artists who seem to embody what we learned to love from entertainment in the first place.
But most of us never stop shuffling the two in our minds. TV stars get advice from fans on what their characters should do. Athletes get booed when they’re in restaurants. Kim Delaney gets vaguely threatening love letters from an unstable Rocky Mountain film critic who wants her to star in the new film he’s making in his basement with a Handicam and some props he found in the dumpster behind the Salt Lake Acting Company. They’re all products of that difficult transposition between our real lives and the better, sweeter, completely fictional lives we watch on screen.
Crossing that line has become a subject of more literature, film and television than it’s healthy to recall. Some of the worst films, books and TV programs ever created are about films, books and TV programs. But some have enough of a remove to make them interesting to somebody other than the creator. For instance, Woody Allen wrote a wonderful short story called “The Kugelmass Episode” about a guy who finds a guy with a machine that allows him to be injected into any work of literature. He decides to travel into Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and he eventually brings the heroine back to modern times through the machine, but she quickly becomes a nagging mistress who wants him to pay for a suite at the Plaza and acting classes.
The latest attempt to re-examine entertainment comes in Shadow of the Vampire, a cleverly conceived film about the making of the creepy 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu. Writer Steven Katz’s concept is simple: What if obsessive real-life director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) was so concerned with realism in this Gothic horror film that he found an actual vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play his title character?
Shadow of the Vampire is the hypothesized story of such a film shoot in Eastern Europe. Murnau, who’s played by Malkovich with his particular brand of self-aware camp, declaims the importance of authenticity while never telling his cast and crew that the actor he calls Max Schreck, who always stays in costume and will only film at night, is a real member of the walking undead. Instead, Murnau says he’s been in Moscow studying with Stanislavsky, and that’s why he’s sleeping in a coffin. It’s a wonderfully chilling milieu.
Dafoe steals the show in a part that could easily have been one of the more goofy things ever put on screen. He makes it work by creating something we haven’t ever seen before—a hideous vampire with some sort of hard-edged dignity, as well as a bloodlust that’s both funny and prickly. It’s a bizarre character for a bizarre actor, and he’s simply entertaining.
The rest of this examination of the line between reality and fiction isn’t as cohesive. As is almost always the case in a film with such a slam-bang premise, it’s difficult to find a place to go from the initial shock. The film’s final minutes are fine, but it’s the getting there that slows. Once the initial stakes are established—what will Max do, and what is Murnau going to do about it?—the picture crawls through a number of studious set pieces of moderate entertainment value and little storytelling relevance.
The idea that this particular masterpiece of German expressionism was actually a documentary raises all kinds of interesting film-forum discussion possibilities. And that’s what Shadow of the Vampire strives for: It carries the air of a scholarly work, of an examination rather than a story. For instance, Murnau’s leading lady, played by Catherine McCormack, makes a point of complaining that film acting robs her of the humanity she projects in her characters. It’s a point worth contemplating, but it’s not entertaining.
There are other concepts of equally dubious veracity in Katz’s film-geek-friendly script, but they can’t detract from the looming black-and-white images of this picture and the film by which it was inspired. Schreck’s clicking fingernails and animal-like teeth linger in the mind. We find ourselves entranced by the Shadow of the Vampire’s aura, if only amused by its ideas.
Shadow of the Vampire (R) HHH Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe and Udo Kier. Directed by E. Elias Merhige.