Premised on the notion that F.W. Murnau’s silent horror classic Nosferatu was actually a documentary, Shadow of the Vampire manages to turn a highly dubious concept into a subtle and deliciously mordant comedy.
The movie, directed by E. Elias Merhige from Steven Katz’s script, joins Jim Shepard’s 1998 novel, Nosferatu, as the second recent fiction to feature the German filmmaker as a tormented protagonist. But, unlike Shepard, Katz has only a casual interest in the historical Murnau. His protagonist has been reinvented for the movie as an overbearing Herr Doktor and heterosexual of the s persuasion. Of course, this, as well as numerous other liberties, anachronisms, and historical inaccuracies (Sergei Eisenstein invoked as a “master” of the medium three years before he made his first film), is minor compared to the movie’s insistence that Max Schreck, the Reinhardt actor who played the indelibly feral Count Orlock, was actually a centuries-old Carpathian vampire typecast by a filmmaker driven to go beyond “artifice.”
Shot largely on location, Murnau’s Nosferatu was an experiment in “open-air” expressionism. That Shadow of the Vampire is itself so predicated on artifice is part of the joke; that the 1922 Nosferatu was an authorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is only the movie’s first instance of blood-sucking. Murnau’s leading lady, Greta Schroeder (played by Catherine McCormack as a far greater vamp than the potato dumpling who appears in Murnau’s film), complains to Herr Doctor that she prefers the theater—the audience gives her life while the camera takes it from her. The creepy suggestion, eventually to be literalized, that the cinema is an inherently vampiric medium is hilariously self-serving in a movie as parasitic as this one.
As played by John Malkovich, Murnau is most impassioned as an apostle of the moving picture: “We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory that will neither blur nor fade.” Perhaps taking this to heart, Merhige—directing his first feature since his own poetic horror film, 1989’s remarkable Begotten—has created a near perfect replica of Murnau’s original footage. This facsimile is even more fastidious than Tim Burton’s in Ed Wood—it’s suggestive that Merhige, like the actual Murnau, came to this project as a hired gun. (The driving force behind Nosferatu seems to have been the art director Alben Grau, played in the movie by an uncharacteristically restrained Udo Kier.)
Merhige’s simulacrum is all the more amazing in the scenes of the filmmaker at work. He revels in the crazy logistics of nighttime shoots, which are necessary for the mysterious Max (Willem Dafoe), Murnau’s latest discovery, who, so the cast is informed, will remain in character throughout the production. Dafoe is the most uncanny aspect of Merhige’s pastiche. On one hand, the filmmaker goes in and out of Nosferatu—boldly re-creating Murnau’s original sequence to introduce Max or showing Murnau cleverly setting up the scene in which the Count’s spooked visitor inadvertently cuts his hand with a bread knife. On the other, he plays with the backstage notion of the vampire’s secret vanity and on-screen “innocence.”
During a break in the production, the hissing star holds forth on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, offering poignant insight into the feelings of a lonely vampire compelled to plan and prepare dinner for a human guest when he himself hasn’t eaten food in centuries. Grau and screenwriter Henrick Galeen (Aden Gillet) are astonished by the dedication the actor brings to his role, particularly after he snatches a bat out of the air and devours it. “Max—the German theater needs you,” the writer exclaims in admiration. (Murnau has explained that his vampire is a disciple of Konstantin Stanislavsky—a joke comparable to the Coneheads’ claim that they have pointy craniums because they come from France.)
Ultimately, the movie becomes the battle of the vampires. “You and I are not too different,” Max tells Murnau, as they struggle for possession of the project. In fact, Shadow of the Vampire belongs to Dafoe. Where the real Max Schreck gave a remarkably focused expressionist performance, Dafoe’s is pure Wooster Group—its rigorous precision is part of its underlying humor. Sniffing and snorting, sucking on his fangs and nervously clicking his claws, Dafoe treats Malkovich as his straight man. There’s a wonderful buildup for the last scene. Annoyed Greta can’t quite take her slavering costar seriously—is he a crazed fan or what?
The original Schreck gave one of the most iconic performances in silent cinema. Dafoe not only invokes but enriches and, paradoxically, humanizes it. In a lovely bit of business, the vampire is left alone with the cinematic apparatus and, cranking the projector by hand, makes his own shadow play. It’s particularly apt that this evocation of eternity and fake paean to the veracity of camera-based art would materialize at the dawn of the digital animation that will reduce the camera to mere graphic tool. More than a footnote scrawled in the margins of film history, Shadow of the Vampire is a footnote whose philosophical weight allows it to make light of that history.
Traffic, the Steven Soderbergh dope opera that outflanked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and pushed past The House of Mirth to win the New York Film Critics Circle best picture award, is a most ambitious pop epic. Inspired by the 1989 British television miniseries Traffik, it brings the story closer to home, opening just south of the border with two Tijuana cops (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) capturing a planeload of cocaine. In the first of many reversals, another agency unexpectedly takes over.
Cutting north, Soderbergh introduces a parallel pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) making a messy undercover bust in San Diego; a quartet of upper-class teens freebasing in Ohio; and Michael Douglas flying into Washington, D.C., to take over as the nation’s latest drug czar. Traffic is not just an ultra-procedural—it’s the Big Picture, the Whole Enchilada, complete with a complicated war between two Mexican drug cartels. The movie, which Soderbergh shot as well as directed, can be a bit exhausting in its color-coordinated parallel action, but it replenishes itself once the various melodramas begin to entwine.
Traffic puts a heavy arm on the audience to demonstrate that drugs touch us all. The effect is never more Griffithian than when the czar’s golden daughter (Erika Christensen) becomes a crack ‘ho. There are more than a few plodding clichés mustered among the movie’s large ensemble cast, but TV writer Stephen Gaghan has scripted some excellent scenes—teenage kids trying to think and then think again when one of them goes into convulsions, Douglas’s harried wife (Amy Irving) demanding that he stop babbling about his access to the president and devote some “face time” to their daughter. (This terse domestic squabble has a bitterness far beyond the smarmy histrionics in American Beauty.)
As it turns out, Douglas’s comprehension of the Mexican situation matches his understanding of his daughter. Nothing else in his performance equals the tight fist he makes of his face when a 16-year-old preppie (Topher Grace) informs him that, down in the ghetto, crack is “an unbeatable market force.” Everyone has a piece of the puzzle: A posh La Jolla matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) comes to terms with her husband’s real business; a middle-level drug dealer (Miguel Ferrer) lectures his DEA captors on how NAFTA makes their job harder. (“Are we on Larry King or something?” the bored cops ask.) Traffic may be didactic, but it’s not unduly moralizing or simplistic even when Douglas tosses away the text of his big speech and tells the nation, “I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.”
Performing public service here for the feckless (if unconvincing) pothead he played in Wonder Boys, Douglas is the film’s nominal star. It’s Del Toro, however, who has been racking up the raves he should have received for enlivening Basquiat and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Unafraid to posture (his Paul Muni parody in The Funeral was exceeded only by his Brando turn in Way of the Gun), Del Toro plays his enigmatic Mexican everyman as cocky yet thoughtful, an infinitely delicate brute. (The scene wherein he cruises a psycho hit man in a Tijuana bar is a standout non sequitur.) Fascinatingly mannered, Del Toro is not exactly giving a coherent performance—although his stunts seem to have driven Tomas Milian to his own heights of weirdness as a Mexican general.
Surely less lugubrious than if it were directed by Michael Mann, Traffic is exemplary Hollywood social realism. Skeptical about the War Against Drugs, it’s cannily designed to make the movie industry look good—and not just because the film is serious, responsible, and half in Spanish. Watch for that D.C. party where happily co-opted Hollywood basher Senator Orrin Hatch simpers with pleasure at the prospect of hobnobbing with the likes of Michael Douglas. There’s more than a shadow of Willem Dafoe’s Nosferatu in the old tart’s hunger to share the spotlight and more than a bit of Malkovich’s Murnau in Soderbergh’s willingness to oblige.