Malkovich plays F. W. Murnau, the German director who sets out to make his most identifiable film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, in 1922. To make his somewhat lawyer-friendly take on Dracula, he hires the mysterious Max Schreck to play the vampire Count Orlock. Murnau knows that Schreck is a real-life vampire, and he's hired the actor to ensure a real-life performance. But, he's really bitten off more than he can chew this time...
Dafoe earned an Academy Award nomination for his role.
This film provides examples of:
- Above Good and Evil: Murnau thinks of himself as this because he is an Artist with a capital "A".
- Age Without Youth: Schreck has lived centuries, and he looks it.
- All Part of the Show: When Schreck grabs a bat and chomps down on it in front of two crewmembers, one of them says admiringly, "What an actor!"
- All There in the Manual: When Albin Grau and Henrick Galeen ask Schreck how he became a vampire, Schreck states it was a woman and the film doesn't go into detail about it. The original script revealed that it was his wife, a child bride who died while giving birth. He would only ever see her at night as she was slowly turning him into a vampire. She eventually left him and over the centuries Schreck forgot what she even looked like.
- Artistic License History:
- The obvious one: the film's premise is that the urban myth that Max Schreck was a real vampire is not a myth. Any reputable source will attest to Schreck having been an accomplished stage actor for over a decade when he was cast as Orlok, and he continued to appear on the German stage and screen until he died of a heart attack in 1936. For that matter, neither was Schreck a method actor who remained constantly in character, though the elaborate make-up he wore as Orlok couldn't be removed during breaks in filming. The myth, however, makes for a much more entertaining story. (It didn't help Schreck himself was an eccentric, solitary man who delighted in being scary.)
- In 1922, shooting outdoors at night simply wasn't possible with the film stocks and cameras available, and in fact all of the night scenes in the actual Nosferatu were obviously shot day-for-night for this reason. However, it serves the "Max Schreck was a vampire" narrative better to pretend these scenes were shot at night.
- Sergei Eisenstein is cited as a great director. Nosferatu was filmed two years before Eisenstein directed his first movie.
- Bad "Bad Acting":
- Schreck is hyped up as an insanely dedicated method actor who toured with a prestigious company. However, his actual performance is stilted line readings, dialog screwups and looking at the camera. Of course, it makes sense because he isn't really an actor and was cast for the overwhelming creepiness and legitimacy he brought to the role. Then again, in a silent film, only his movements count.
- Gustav von Wangenheim, the actor cast as the hero Thomas Hutter, can't even fake a yawn without looking hilariously over the top. Again, during the silent film period, since there was no dialog, actors exaggerated their physical actions.
- Bald of Evil: The baldness really does reinforce Max's creepiness.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Max Schreck is portrayed as an actual vampire, so he's really not acting as Count Orlok.
- Breaking and Bloodsucking: Played with. Schreck doesn't attack Greta in her room, it's a movie set, the bedroom from the climax of Nosferatu. Per the arrangement with Murnau, Schreck only receives his payment for playing "himself" in the movie in the scene were Orlok feeds on Ellen.
- Bullying a Dragon: Murnau constantly yells at Schreck for killing his crew.
- Cast the Expert: Satirized. Murnau decides there's no better person to play a vampire than a real one. This ends up causing havok for his production of Nosferatu when Max Shreck keeps killing other members of the crew.
- Chekhov's Gun: During the opening scene of the film, Albin reveals they gave the cat actor laudanum to make it less difficult to control under the hot lights. Murnau uses this again on Greta to make her more docile after she sees Schreck has no reflection, making her docile for "Orlock's"feeding scene and her eventual death. The plan is twofold here, as it also drugs her blood so that Schreck passes out after drinking from her.
- Seems like the shutter door mechanism Schreck finds will be one. Schreck sabotages it before his final scene, cutting the counterweight out of an excess of caution. However, when some of the crew open the shutter door manually, Schreck is exposed to the light and dies.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Murnau.
- Continuity Nod: The famous scene of Orlok's projected hand's shadow is reproduced several times.
- Control Freak: Murnau, full on. However, things eventually get way out of his control.
- Deal with the Devil: Murnau promises Schreck a meal of the leading lady in return for his performance.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Everyone involved with filmmaking will recognize the film as one big metaphor for film production itself. Roger Ebert noticed this in his review:Roger Ebert: Schreck muses aloud, "I do not think we need . . . the writer . . ." Scenes like this work as inside comedy, but they also have a practical side: The star is hungry, and because he is the star, he can make demands. This would not be the first time a star has eaten a writer alive.
- Doing It for the Art: Murnau's excuse In-Universe, though he uses the words For Science!.
- Enforced Method Acting: The end result of having to work with an actual bloodsucker In-Universe. Murnau even lampshades it:"They don't need to act. They need to be"
- "Consider this a sacrifice for your art"
- The two crew members' reaction to Max plucking a bat out of the air and greedily eating it is: "What an actor!"
- "Consider this a sacrifice for your art"
- Establishing Character Moment: The first appearance of Schreck. Few vampires have ever made a more frightening entrance - and it's exactly the same as it was in the actual Nosferatu.
- Fake Nationality: Other than Udo Kier, none of the actors are actually German(or Romanian in Schreck's case). Cary Elwes accent as Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping Fritz standing out the most.
- Fatal Method Acting: Schreck is a real vampire In-Universe, thus disintegrates when his character is killed via sunlight.
- Happens to several members of the cast and production crew.
- The Flapper: Greta is depicted as the German equivalent.
- The Fog of Ages: Max Schreck, the vampire actor, suffers from this; most of the memories of his early life and his sire have faded, and throughout the film he claims to have forgotten killing members of the film crew less than a few hours after doing so. However, it's implied that Schreck isn't a "complete" vampire, given that he has continued aging despite being immortal, and that he was never capable of siring vampires of his own.Crew member:f you're so lonely, why don't you make more vampires?
Max Schreck: I can't. I'm too old. Although, I seem to remember I was never able to.
Crew member: Then how did you become a vampire?
Max Schreck: It was woman... We were together in the night, and then she left me. At first, I had a painting of her in wood, then I had a relief of her in marble, and then, I had a picture of her... in my mind. But now, I no longer even have that. What was I saying? This Schnapps they make in these parts... I haven't tasted it in —...
- For Halloween, I Am Going as Myself: "For this horror movie, I shall be playing a vampire."
- Foreshadowing:Murnau: Why would you possibly want to be in a play when you could be in a film?
Greta: A theatrical audience gives me life. This... thing only takes it from me.
- Gratuitous German:
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Well, to begin with, Max Shreck probably wasn't a vampire...
- He was noted as being rather solitary by his contemporaries, but he certainly wasn't implicated in anything such as murder or bloodsucking.
- F. W. Murnau's perfectionist tendencies are also played up for the film. While it's true that he, like other directors of German Expressionism, had strict control over his set, he certainly didn't allow his crew to be murdered in order to create a film masterpiece.
- Large Ham: Murnau. "Death of centuries! Moonchaser! Blasphemer! Monkey! Vase of prehistory. Finally to Earth, and finally born."
- Lie Back and Think of England: Or as Murnau tells Greta: "All you have to do is relax and, as they say, the vampire will do all the work."
- Looks Like Orlok: Max actually plays Orlok.
- Mad Artist: Murnau, Murnau, Murnau...
- Making the Masterpiece: A rather fictional example of this type of story.
- Meaningful Name: A rare Real Life example: Schreck is German for "fright". The real Max Schreck delighted in this coincidence.
- Nice Character, Mean Actor: Greta."Stupid cat!"
- No-Sell: Fritz tries to shoot Schreck at the end. It doesn't work, with dust pouring from his injuries.
- "Not So Different" Remark: Said verbatim, by Shreck, telling Murnau, "You and I... are not so different."
- Oh, Crap!: Greta during the climactic scene, when she happens to look in a mirror and sees Max is not reflected in the mirror.
- Our Vampires Are Different: They don't reflect in mirrors, but since they cast shadows, they can be caught on film.
- Schreck comments that he cannot make other vampires (whether he is physically limited himself or just doesn't know how to is unclear), drinks alcohol on more than one occasion (and gets drunk by it), can feed on animals, and while he refuses to board a ship he manages to reach an island by plane (thus passing over moving water).
- Pretty in Mink: Greta first shows up in a fur-trimmed coat.
- The Prima Donna: Greta is introduced as one at first, but quickly gets surpassed by Murnau himself.
- Sanity Slippage: Murnau. In the end, he's so consumed by his vision for the film that after Schreck kills Fritz and Grau, he actually offers direction to Grau's lifeless body.
- Snuff Film: Nosferatu itself becomes one over the course of the film.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When you live as long as Schreck (which is centuries), you don't remember your early life as well as you'd expect. It's like trying to remember one's infanthood.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Let's just say this film plays very loosely with the facts.
- Villainous Breakdown: Murnau, after Schreck kills cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, and producer Albin Grau. He expresses his cracked sanity as he orders Schreck to be killed via sunlight.
- Warm Bloodbags Are Everywhere: Murnau has to keep his cast and crew from falling prey to Schreck's fangs.
- Wham Line: "There is no Max Schreck."
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: Schreck reads the book Dracula in order to study for his role, and is saddened by the scene where Dracula leaves a meal for Jonathan Harker, and remembers when he used to have servants to do such tasks for him, which reminds him of when he had a wife, family, estates, etc., and now he's just a lonely scavenger squatting in a ruined castle.Max Schreck: Dracula hasn't had servants in 400 years and then a man comes to his ancestral home, and he must convince him that he... that he is like the man. He has to feed him, when he himself hasn't eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine? And then he remembers the rest of it. How to prepare a meal, how to make a bed. He remembers his first glory, his armies, his retainers, and what he is reduced to. The loneliest part of the book comes when the man accidentally sees Dracula setting his table.
- Writers Suck: After Schreck kills the cinematographer, he quips "I don't think we need the writer..."