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[whitespace] Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich
Bloodsucking Brothers: Willem Dafoe (right) and John Malkovich portray cult actor Max Schreck and film legend F.W. Murnau in 'Shadow of the Vampire.'

Watch Your Drac

Willem Dafoe brings 'Nosferatu' star Max Schreck to life--or undeath--in 'Shadow of the Vampire'

By Richard von Busack

THE REAL DRACULA was, according to his creator Bram Stoker, a "tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white mustache, and clad in black from head to foot." His face was "a strong--a very strong--aquiline." Dracula is called eaglelike before he becomes a bat.

We read of Dracula's "thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. ... His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusions. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy mustache, was fixed and rather cruel looking, with peculiarly sharp teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality for a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed, his chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin." He is white from his exile from the sun.

Stoker's Count Dracula is an aristocrat, from a proud bloodline. "Ah, young sir," he later tells Jonathan Harker, "The Dracula ... can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach." Perhaps so, but Dracula's hands give him away. Hands always tell breeding. The count's palms are hairy. The hands, which seemed fine at first, are "rather coarse--broad, with squat fingers ... the nails were long and fine and cut to a sharp point."

We moviegoers have never seen a walrus-mustached Dracula or one with hairy palms, but the pointed ears, the bushy eyebrows, the pallor and the pointed nails are all part of the image of the count indelibly created by his first screen incarnation as Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau's 1922 German film. The light-bulb-headed actor Max Schreck played the title character with ratlike chisel teeth, a seaman's coat, a furze of hair around his ears, and clawed fingers as long as spider-crab legs. Unlike Stoker's Byronic Dracula, Count Orlok the Nosferatu looked like something that had escaped from the grave.

He was called "Count Orlok" in a hopeless trick to fool the lawyers of the Bram Stoker estate. Renaming Dracula didn't work; a British court ordered the burning of all prints. Nosferatu exists because the legal order couldn't be carried out in post-World War I Germany.

THE MAKING of Nosferatu--quick, low-tech, cheap and illegal--is imagined in E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire. The film is based on an inspired idea: what if the actor Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe) was actually a vampire recruited by Murnau (John Malkovich)?

Let's give this argument the benefit of the doubt. Little is known about the real Schreck. "Schreck" sounds like a vampire's stage name--it means "fright" in German. Further mystifying matters, Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Movies states, "Orlok is allegedly played by Schreck." Allegedly?

Schreck is not a familiar figure, so Dafoe doesn't have any memories to displace. And Dafoe is perhaps a better actor than the original. Dafoe's Orlok is an asthmatic rat, sick and old. He sighs through his cracked lungs. His memory is uncertain. Amusingly, Dafoe's accent sounds not florid Transylvanian but Florida retirement home. He has an old geezer's name, too, "Max." (At times, there is a bit too much of Mel Brooks in his performance.)

Like the very, very old often are, he's amused by his being the last around to survive, but there are surprises in him still. The worldly filmmakers, used to the eccentricity of avant-garde actors, don't raise an eyebrow at Schreck's curious behavior. They aren't disturbed by his insistence at only acting after sundown and never appearing except in full makeup.

The always-amusing Udo Kier (who once assayed Count Dracula in the Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey version) plays Murnau's producer. Drinking and chatting with Schreck one night, he's startled to see the actor grabbing a passing bat out of the air to eat as a snack. The impressed Kier congratulates Orlok on his dedication to his craft: "Max, the German theater needs you!"

AS THE FIRST famous vampire movie, Nosferatu is one of the few silents most people have seen. The film, primitive and yet chilling, has indelible moments: the famous scene of Orlok levitating himself up out of his casket, the undercranking that makes the count's speeded-up coach and horses scuttle along like insects. The vampire hunter Van Helsing is almost a walk-on; it's the good wife Nina (Greta Schroeder, in her unlovely sausage curls) who sacrifices herself to overcome the monster.

In Shadow of the Vampire, Greta is played by Catherine McCormack as a silly, swanning actress sacrificed to Murnau's ends in making Nosferatu. Here is where Shadow of the Vampire comes off as weaker than its predecessor. Some kind of magnetism or repellence between Orlok and the actress would have deepened the film, making it more than just an exotic moviemaking satire.

The story of Dracula is, on its most popular level, a story of seduction. Recently, even the feisty Buffy the Vampire Slayer fell for the count, although she concluded that Dracula was basically just another common vampire with a few extra mind-control tricks. Because of this missing female element, Shadow of the Vampire seems like a minor movie with a major performance.

It's a pity that the popularity of Nosferatu has eclipsed Murnau's later work, such as his majestic 1926 version of Faust. Nosferatu, subtitled "A Symphony of Terrors," is more like a haunting folk ballad compared to the symphonic Faust of only five years later. This UFA studios creation is wrought out of swirling smoke and light, and features a wise, aged protagonist who sells his soul to lift people out of misery. Faust is a masterpiece in ways that Nosferatu isn't. Murnau's later Hollywood film Sunrise is also very rarely revived, though reverently remembered. (Brad Pitt's Louis the vampire watches Sunrise in a New Orleans movie theater in Interview With a Vampire.)

Murnau's early death in a car wreck was a huge loss. I would like to have seen this death foreshadowed in Shadow of the Vampire. The film slights Murnau, making him the frame for a joke. Malkovich's Murnau is one exasperated mad scientist of a director, trying his best to wring a performance out of a difficult vampire, a been-around-the-block actress and a doped cat.

Malkovich does have a bright trick here: he uses very precise pronunciation instead of a German accent. You've seen how students of French lit tend to overpronounce French words? Malkovich overenunciates, a very clever take on how to fabricate the rhythms of German speech ("Gus-tave, you must fol-low him in-to the tun-nel").

"We are scientists involved in the creation of memory, but our memory will neither blur nor fade," Malkovich's Murnau says. This is the crux of the film, although we lose sight of the point after Dafoe's Schreck takes over. Thoroughly enjoyable as Dafoe is here, the title vampire isn't really Schreck, it's the camera.

"That thing sucks the life out of me," Greta frets. She's complaining, as a stage actor would, about the style-cramping necessity of acting for a machine instead of a live audience. She's right, though. Cinema does change photographed actors into the Undead: immortal, yet unable to leave the cryptlike gloom of the movie theater for daylight outside.

Shadow of the Vampire (R; 91 min.), directed by E. Elias Merhige, written by Stephen Katz, photographed by Lou Bogue and starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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