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Murnau’s silent vampire movie, Nosferatu, is an experience Nick Roddick has never forgotten. So he is happy to get his teeth into Shadow of the Vampire, a funny, scary new film with some startling ideas about how Nosferatu came to be made. . . in a genre where the sexual charge is never far from the surface.

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 sensibility"

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 time.

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 excitement"

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 old movies."

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

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