|"All this amoral obsessiveness has given me such a hangover."|
I love Shadow of the Vampire.
German Expressionist films can be pretty tricky for the contemporary viewer. The thick make-up and considerably over-emphasis of body language can often be off-putting. Nosferatu is, in fact, a wonderfully off-kilter experience, the obvious lack of realism adding to its oppressive dream-like atmosphere.
By shooting a modern film about the shooting of a German Expressionist masterpiece, this becomes somewhat more clear. The ultimate aim of Shadow... is the same as that of Nosferatu; to unsettle. The methods through which this is accomplished have changed in eight decades, of course, but Shadow... demonstrates just how cosmetic those changes are. The unreal - even the absurd - is not a barrier to the unnerving. Quite the opposite, in some cases. The first death in the film occurs when "Shreck" drains a man atop half of a sailing ship attached to the side of a medieval Czechoslovakian castle. And it doesn't matter in the least.
The film also provides some context to Expressionism, by reminding us of two things. Firstly, many of the actors working in these early films were established stage actors; that is, people who are used to scaling their vocal and physical performance to crowds of people who are watching actors on a stage from several metres away at least. It's hardly surprising that when placed in front of a camera and told to act - without speaking, no less - their response would be to perform in a way which to contemporary eyes seems desperately over-egged. Secondly, via Murnau's visits to what seems to be somewhere between an opium den and a gay orgy, we're reminded that the Expressionist films of the inter-war period (the period the most famous such films came from; Nosferatu itself, the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis) were created during a time of ludicrous hedonistic excess. It's probably pretty difficult to tell whether someone is whirling their arms about too much when you're mashed off your tits on laudanum.
Indeed, what's fascinating about Murnau's attitude is that in his own opiate-addled mind the only thing that matters is authenticity. He hires an actual fucking vampire for his vampire flick. He has his lead actor (a frankly rather shaky Eddie Izzard, though he does sell nervousness quite well) meet "Shreck" at night in a creepy castle whilst filming their first scene together. He agrees to sell his female lead to his undead hire, and his plan to betray "Schreck" by exposing him to sunlight, he of course intends to film the results.
This, it seems to me, ties into a more general instinct among 20th and 21st century people to film what they don't understand and/or which scare them. There's a reason Blair Witch Project did so well, after all. Here, Murnau has found something outside of his comprehension, so he's dissecting it through film. Which, of course, is what we're doing too. When "Schreck" meets his end, we don't see him burn up or explode or crumble into dust, we see the frames which carry his image shrivelling up. What we see on film can only be interpreted through that film. Thousands of years ago we made up stories to explain those phenomenon we couldn't understand. These days we employ people to pretend to face things that don't exist in order to explain things we don't yet fully grasp, and then for some ridiculous reason we insist this obbious intentional artifice must have the sheen of realism. This is no less stupid today than it was when Murnau wore his goggles.
(Note here that I'm using the word 'realism' to describe something entirely different to internal consistency. The wilful refusal by so many people to understand the difference between the two is one of the most aggravating aspects of genre fandom. Murnau wanting a genuine vampire for his movie is evidence the man is crazy. Him getting upset during the final scene that the stake is in the wrong place whilst "Schreck" dies is entirely sensible. Or it would be, were it not following the brutal murder of two members of his film crew.)
One of the great cliches of vampire stories is how lonely and depressing it is to be one of the undying. This is generally pretty difficult to take even remotely seriously in film, because of the nature of movie casting. How, one might reasonably ask, are we supposed to sympathise with ridiculously good-looking eternally young people who are lamenting the fact that they will never be able to stop fucking other ridiculously good-looking eternally young people. Young people are unbearable even when we know their self-obsessed springtime won't last forever.
Shadow... deals with this expertly. One of the greatest scenes in the film sees "Max Schreck" drinking Schnapps with the producer and the scriptwriter, discussing the sheer degree of knowledge and experience his centuries of life has pushed out of his head, and how all those years of solitude means he can no longer even remember the most basic ways in which humans behave. "Schreck's" life is not one of eternal youth, but eternal lonely old-age and ugliness. It's a wonderful tonic to the standard practice of employing impossibly beautiful people who try to reflect our own fears and experiences back at us whilst barely visible through a fog of hormones. There are no slim and impressionable young girls to hang off "Schreck's" every word, just two middle-aged drunken me who would rather he leave and stop bringing them down.
Why didn't they include the werewolf? That's the funniest scene in the original film. "The werewolf is roaming the forest." BOOM. Cut to hyena. Cut to scared horses. Cut to hyena. NEVER MENTION IT AGAIN.