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Film / Shadow of the Vampire

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F. W. Murnau: I! Will! Finish! My picture!
Max Schreck: This is hardly your picture any longer!

Shadow of the Vampire is a 2000 film directed by E. Elias Merhige, starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe.

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. As it turns out, Schreck is actually a real-life vampire, and Murnau hired him 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 will only say "It was a woman," and the film doesn't go into detail about it. The original script revealed that he was turned by 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 was an eccentric, solitary man who delighted in being scary.)
    • In 1921, 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.
    • The film also implies that Murnau's camera can record sound, even though this is still the Silent Movie era and talkies were less than a decade away in 1921. (In fact, the real Murnau actually resisted shooting with sound when that become possible.)
    • Sergei Eisenstein is cited as a great director. Nosferatu was filmed two years before Eisenstein directed his first movie.
    • Greta Schröder is depicted in the film as a famous actress. The real life Greta was relatively unknown at the time and even after Nosferatu's release, her film career only peaked during the early twenties with half of her known film appearances being from 1920 to 1923. By the time the 30s rolled around, her career had largely diminished to making the occasional appearance here and there before retiring in the 50s with Nosferatu being the film she's mainly remembered for.
    • Also, the film features Murnau visiting a brothel and literally kissing one of the female prostitutes' backsides prior to getting down to the real sex and drugs, while it's also implied that he slept with Greta at some point in the past. The real Murnau was gay.
  • 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: invoked 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.
  • Cry for the Devil: invokedSchreck's impressions of the novel, Dracula, as he describes it as a sad story about a Romanian Lord reduced to a lonely undead monster.
    • Audiences may also feel this way about [Schreck himself, as his description of Dracula is clearly a description of himself; once a man who had servants, friends, family... now a blood-sucking parasite skulking in the ruins of his once-magnificent home, with only the flickering memories of memories from life to remind him of what he once was.
  • 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.
  • Downer Ending: Pretty much. Murnau's entire film crew is dead and the man himself has pretty much lost his mind, to the point that he directs the townsfolk that just arrived on the scene to provide him with an end board, so he can stop rolling the camera. On the bright side, Schreck is also dead having been disintegrated by the early sunlight, just like his movie counterpart. Aside from that, it's a total downer.
  • Enforced Method Acting: The end result of having to work with an actual bloodsucker In-Universe. In fact, Murnau doesn't let any of the actors interact with Shreck until the first scene with Gustav. 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!"
  • 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.
  • 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: If 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:
    • Herr Doktor, Herr Doktor, Herr Doktor, Ja...
    • Eddie Izzard as Gustav. She basically uses the same German accent she uses for her stand up routine about the Heimlich Manoeuvre.
  • 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.
  • Troubled Production: In-universe. As one might expect, casting the role of the vampire with an actual vampire causes the production of Nosferatu to spin out of controlnote :
    • Almost immediately into the shoot, Schreck attacks his co-star, Gustav von Wangenheim, after he accidentally cuts his finger during the dinner scene and forces filming to wrap for the night.
    • Soon after, Schreck feeds on the cinematographer, Wolfgang Muller, requiring Murnau to go to Berlin to find another cinematographer and calm the film's financiers. In his absence, Schreck kills another crewmember.
    • Schreck's vampiric nature requires Murnau to make expensive accommodations that wouldn't be necessary with a normal actor, such as transporting Schreck to Heligoland by plane instead of boat (since vampires can't cross bodies of water).
    • Shooting of the final scene quickly goes south and leads to Murnau losing his mind and to the deaths of Schreck, Greta, Grau and Fritz. It's probably safe to say that, had this happened in real life, the toxic buzz from the high body count on set would have killed the film's chances of release.
  • 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..." Murnau then dares him to, saying that Schreck would have to explain how his character gets to Bremen if he does so.


Video Example(s):


Murnau vs Schreck

After several incidents among his crew, director F.W. Murnau instructs his star, Max Schreck, to behave himself in Murnau's absence, but Schreck suggests that the writer's presence, at least, is no longer necessary on set...

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / WritersSuck

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