Friday, October 8, 2010

Movie Review: Shadow of the Vampire


Sometimes the film industry comes up with a novel and interesting approach to an overused genre or formula. Twenty years after Herzog reinvented Nosferatu, the makers of Shadow of the Vampire managed to retell the story again without retreading the ground already covered. It is essentially the same story Stoker came up with and that has been retold over and over again. The evil from the primeval east makes a deal with someone in the modern west to try to regain the glory it had in the past. Only this time, it is not some real estate agent—it is Murnau himself. In an effort to film Stoker’s story as realistically as possible, he stumbles upon a true vampire and uses him to play the part.

The film is well made. The acting, especially Dafoe as Max Schreck, is superb. Audiences familiar with the original film get a kick out of seeing scenes recreated with the “new” perspective. It aims at being an “important” art house film, but really succeeds at being an amusing minor piece. That being said, there are seeds of worthy ideas here. For all of the characters’ talk of philosophy and Murnau’s grand statements about his art and what he is doing for science, the context of the film makes them seem silly. Perhaps that is the point. In the words of the vampire character as the cameraman tries to discuss Plato with him: “I grow tired of your sophistry.”

Plato’s analogy of the cave is an important influence on this film. The idea that film serves as the cave wall is missed by all the filmmakers in the story. They say things like, “If it isn’t in frame, it doesn’t exist.” They think they are showing the world a great truth, but like so many documentarians one can think of, they are manipulating reality to tell a story all the while missing the point. They have encountered true evil, the sort that the very story they are working on warns them about, and they fail to recognize or respect it. It destroys them in the end. In the words of Murnau describing the symbolism in his film, but self indicting:

“Albin, collect the wooden stake and return it to its rightful place; it is necessary for the final frame, to remind us of the inadequacies of our plans, our contingencies, every missed train and failed picnic, every lie to a child.”

Once again, Modernism is the target here. Humanity thought they could know everything, control everything. The truth is we can’t. There are truths in the world that are beyond comprehension. There are powers in the world that we cannot control.

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