For all horror fans - and most cinéphiles - where you first saw Nosferatu is kind of
like where you were when you heard the news about Princess Di’s car crash or, if
you’re a little older, John F Kennedy’s assassination. Not quite so historic,
maybe, but something that sticks fast in the memory all the same.
Where I was when I saw the film was (of all places) Brussels, at what used to be called
the Musée du Cinéma - a small, friendly screening theatre nestling half-way down some
steps. By the time I saw it, I knew enough about film history to know that Nosferatu, Eine
Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror), to give it its full title, was
definitely fiction - part of the German expressionist cinema of the twenties, and that its
director was Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.
But I still had the uncanny feeling that the film, with its flickering images, its
faces drifting in and out of shadow, and above all its completely unique, dream-like
quality, was somehow a documentary. Watching Murnau’s Nosferatu is like seeing the
only true image of a vampire ever captured on film.
It wasn’t, of course: the part of Nosferatu was played by an actor who rejoiced in
the name of Max Schreck (literally, ‘Max Fright’). He appeared in other films,
few of which have survived, and he was dismissed by Murnau’s biographer as "an
actor of no distinction". Since Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu is, in every
sense of the word, unforgettable, this seems a little harsh.
"first horror masterpiece"
Murnau, of course, made other films, including at least two further masterpieces: Der
letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), which was shot at the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin; and
Sunrise, which he made in Hollywood and which won Janet Gaynor an Oscar at the first-ever
Academy Awards ceremony in 1928.
So, yes, Nosferatu is a feature film, complete with some remarkably bad acting, most
notably by Gustav von Wangenheim as the male lead and by all the actors playing peasants
in the scene where, for the very first time in the history of the movies, a traveller
stops at a lonely inn to ask directions to the castle of the sinister Count.
But for all its shortcomings, the film is nevertheless the first horror masterpiece,
genuinely disturbing and appealing directly to the emotions in a way in which such earlier
examples of the genre as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem do not. Most of this
appeal has to do with the on-screen presence of Schreck, a figure whom one could
justifiably describe as coming from the world of nightmares. By comparison, the urbanely
sinister Bela Lugosi and the suavely threatening Christopher Lee seem almost camp.
Screenwriter Steven Katz obviously felt the same way. "About 10 or 11 years ago, I
became very interested in Nosferatu," he says. "I especially liked the fact that
the film looks incredibly realistic, to the point that you almost think you are watching
an old documentary about a vampire. I then got the idea of what would have happened if the
actor who played the vampire in the film really was a vampire. I started to do some
research on Murnau and I saw this amazing picture of him filming: all his crew were
wearing lab coats and goggles. From that, I got the idea of Murnau treating the whole
thing as a documentary - as a scientific project."
"a distinctly offbeat
To move from seeing the film as a quasi-documentary to a story in which Murnau, the
perfectionist, does indeed hire a real vampire for the role of Nosferatu, promising him
the blood of the lead actress in return for keeping himself under control until the final
scene - that requires a particular kind of imagination. But then Katz has apparently
always had a thing for vampires: one of his earlier efforts was a preliminary draft of the
script for Interview With the Vampire. And the screenplay he wrote, entitled Shadow of the
Vampire, has since been turned into one of the most original and engaging movies of recent
Rapturously received at its international premiere in the Directors Fortnight at the
Cannes Film Festival in May 2000, Shadow of the Vampire is a film with a distinctly
offbeat sensibility, a powerful cast (John Malkovich plays Murnau, with Willem Dafoe
totally convincing as Schreck) and the ability - just like last year’s Being John
Malkovich - to steer a course between its slightly tongue-in-cheek premise and some
genuinely disturbing moments as it approaches its climax.
"John and Willem had never worked together before," says Nicolas Cage, who
produces the film. "The film allowed me to team up two of my favourite actors and put
them into the hands of a pure artist."
The artist in question is Shadow director E. Elias Merhige. Katz’s agent sent his
completed screenplay to Nicolas Cage, whom he knew to be interested in both silent cinema
and vampires (he played one in Vampire’s Kiss). Cage was at the time looking for a
project on which he could produce with Merhige, and the fit was perfect. "I’d
seen Elias’ first feature, Begotten, and found it completely compelling," says
the actor, who set up his own production shingle, Saturn Films, in 1996 and had been
looking for projects ever since. "When I read Steven’s script, I saw it as the
perfect vehicle for his talents."
"many different levels"
Merhige graduated top of his class at SUNY in 1987 and has divided his time since then
between making music videos, most notably for Marilyn Manson (whose tour settings he has
also designed), teaching and directing for the stage. He has also made the aforementioned
feature, Begotten, which quickly became a cult classic and ended up on Time’s Top Ten
Films of the Year list.
"What I love about Shadow of the Vampire is that it speaks on so many different
levels," says Merhige. "There is a lyricism and a poetry in it without it being
weighty or slow in any way. The producers, cast and everyone I worked with on the film are
all of an artistic mind, so everybody’s interests were in making a great film. There
was nothing to impede that. I was given a great deal of freedom in terms of whom I should
hire and the way the film would look and feel."
In addition to Malkovich and Dafoe, Merhige hired Catherine McCormack (Mel
Gibson’s murdered wife in Braveheart) to play Greta, the conceited, strung-out
leading lady; Cary Elwes as Fritz Wagner, the cameraman brought in after an encounter with
Schreck sends his predecessor into a mental hospital; and British comedian Eddie Izzard as
Greta’s hammy co-star, Gustav von Wangenheim. And, in a wonderful instance of casting
against type, he also hired Udo Kier, who has played nightmare figures in any number of
recent movies (arthouse regulars will remember his sadist aboard the Russian boat in
Breaking the Waves) to be the apparently straightest man on the set of Nosferatu,
Murnau’s producer Albin Grau.
Before long, however, Kier had discovered that even Grau may not have been as straight
as he seemed. "The first thing I did was a good amount of research," says the
German actor, who made his name in Fassbinder’s films in the seventies and in Paul
Morrissey’s Andy Warhol-produced gorefests, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood of
Dracula. "Grau found the money for the movie, but nobody knows where it came from. He
belonged to so many lodges that you can just imagine secret meetings in cellars..."
"fear, pain and sexual
As for Malkovich (he actually bears a striking resemblance to Murnau, who died in a
mysterious car crash in 1932), the actor reckons that at least part of the fascination of
vampire movies has to do with that strange triangle which links fear, pain and sexual
excitement. "Our collective fascination with vampires is probably due to the fact
that we like to be frightened," he says. "It’s a form of arousal."
Malkovich freely concedes that the vampire in Murnau’s movie is scarcely an object
of desire. "Nosferatu is very different," he says. "He’s not a sexy
type of Dracula vampire. But that’s what I like about it. It’s about time and
decay and corruption. Our film’s also much funnier, and has that ancient glamour of
For all the sense of decay and the almost farcical situations that Murnau’s pact
with Schreck produces, the sexual charge is never far from the surface. Much as the
fascination that adolescents have with films about people changing into something else
(werewolves, monsters, whatever) is linked to the changes which their own bodies are
undergoing at the time, so the parallel between the vampire’s bite and other forms of
penetration has always been part of the appeal of such films.
"a story which has it all"
But the genre underwent a big change with the advent of AIDS, reckons Katz. "The
current crop of vampire films definitely came about post-AIDS," he says. "Anne
Rice wrote Interview With the Vampire in 1976 or 1977 and it became a cult novel. She
wrote her follow-up, The Vampire Lestat, in 1982-83, which was right at the beginning of
the AIDS epidemic. Suddenly, her books jumped to the top of the bestseller list. I really
think the vampire is all about the dangers, guilt and illicitness of sex more than
anything else - the idea that you can have sex with someone and you are changed the next
day: you’re ill, or you’re not the person you were before."
In an age in which studios struggle to cram as many marketable elements as possible
into their stories (even the most slam-bang of action movies now has the obligatory pause
for either a romantic moment or, more likely, a strong sexual frisson), Shadow of the
Vampire is a story which has it all - and has it effortlessly. It deals with artistic
creation, posing the question: how far can and should an artist go to achieve a
masterpiece; it deals with sexual tension and hidden desires; it has all the makings of a
cult horror movie; it conjures up the strangely glamorous world of silent movies; and it
is all put together in a style entirely in keeping with the new motion-picture millennium.
I’m not sure how Murnau would have reacted to all this: he was, by all accounts,
an Artist with a capital ‘A’ who took himself fairly seriously and was not
over-burdened with a sense of humour. But the person who discovered Nosferatu in the
Brussels Musée all those years ago certainly approves.
Published January 25, 2001