Art Consumes Life: The Shadow of the Vampire

I wrote this review in 2009 or 2010 in another Journal while I still lived on campus. I’ll just warn you now that I liked to use big words then: especially back in those days. When I use the word intertexuality, what I’m referring to how different sources and references–like quotations and characters being mentioned in a film, or even how different media–can actually overlap in some really cool ways. I also really love meta-narratives and stories within stories. The metaphor of Achilles’ Shield and its little moving world comes to mind again. Also, it’s the season of Halloween and I feel evil. So enjoy, fellow horror-watchers and blood-drinkers. 🙂

So two days ago I watched the whole of Nosferatu for the very first time. Then yesterday night, I watched Shadow of the Vampire. And then I watched it again in the same night with the Director’s commentary.

There is a lot to be said about this film, and I’m still trying to absorb a lot of what I got out of it. First of all, the blending between Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s film and E. Elias Merhige’s creation is almost seamless. Certainly, the scene towards the end of the film where Max Schreck transitions from a black and white scene into the subdued glowing light of colour is nothing short of awesome. I also liked how when they were originally filming Greta Schroeder’s scene as Emma playing with her cat, they mentioned how they had to put it on laudanum to get it to be still in front of the camera.

But that in some ways misses the point of what I really do want to talk about. When I first saw the film without the commentary, I wondered why it was that they had the diagrams at the film’s introduction, and what they possibly meant. The images displayed there made very little sense to me, while at the same time there was a strange … familiarity about them and their arrangements as well. It was only really when Merhige gave his commentary that I started to understand what he meant by making the introduction like this, and what he was attempting to do with this film.

Basically, he explains that the illustrations in the beginning of the movie represent a hybridization of ancient and medieval art along with 1920s cubism. In this way, he attempts to show how humanity has depicted itself and the world around it throughout the millennia, incorporating time all the way to the point of the 1920s and its new expressive medium — namely, film. By the very end of the film, Merhige explains how we have always tried to capture what is around us, what is magical and timeless, on our “cave” — in our cave drawings. We are all mortal, and the materials that we have used to try to capture these moments and life itself are just as frail and brittle.

Enter the camera.

The camera, as Merhige explains, is the new “cave” — the new mechanized interior where we can record these moments for posterity. All moments. It sets a new tone in the world. At the very beginning of Shadow of the Vampire, you see first Murnau’s eye, then the dark lens of a 1920s camera recording Greta’s domestic scene with the cat, and then the crew in the very cool vintage white lab coats and film goggles of that time. From this point onward, this is the entire tone of the movie — this need to capture something in the gaze forever. Once, in a third year University class I watched part of a movie called Ulysses’ Gaze, which I barely even understood. But what I do remember was our professor explaining the idea that through the gaze one attempts to capture everything — to understand and preserve it, and to some extent even possess and control it.

It is, arguably, a visceral and in some ways very patriarchal need. Enter Murnau. As this film would have it, Murnau — played by John Malkovich — is a film pioneer in a medium that is not being taken quite seriously yet. It is still in many ways a novelty. But in his own obsessive and very tightly controlled way, Murnau sees the potential in film and what can be done with it.

Enter the 1920s, a time that I’ve been told I could have fit into rather well. It is 1922, and the first WWI is not that far behind the world, especially not Germany and its humiliating Treaty of Versailles verdict. However, at the same time a whole new decadence and vitality has filled this world, and in this case Berlin. From the culmination of twisted Victorian nationalisms, and the peak of the Industrial Age’s penultimate achievements in creating mechanized death come more advanced pain-numbing drugs, along with looser morals, and social inhibitions.

Society loosens up, but the shadow of death — of the figurative vampire, if you will still lingers. It is a demon that has to be exorcised from Europe and particularly Germany. This much is something you can understand without this film or the director’s guidance. But this is the backdrop of Murnau’s world, and Murnau himself (who was actually a fighter in WWI and needed his laudanum to deal with the physical and possibly psychological pain of his injuries). So there is already this dichotomy between innovation and a new pioneering spirit of the age, of new ideologies and ideas breaking out of social stratification and, at the same time, there is still the dark spirit of the chaos not long left behind. In all of this, a few films are being created to express both principles.

In the film, Greta Schroeder, very much more sassy and sultry than her character Emma Hutter tells Murnau about how much she dislikes film — that while Theatre gives her life, Film seems to steal it away from her. Like a vampire would. But as Murnau very ominously tells her, she will get her chance at fame, and immortality. This is something that can best be expressed from the words of Murnau himself when he says:

“Our battle, our struggle, is to create art. Our weapon is the moving picture. Because we have the moving picture, our paintings will grow and recede; our poetry will be shadows that lengthen and conceal; our light will play across living faces that laugh and agonize; and our music will linger and finally overwhelm, because it will have a context as certain as the grave. We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory… but our memory will neither blur nor fade.”

In essence, Malkovich’s Murnau wants to create an ever-present, something that all people can see happening forever and all be a part of. Of course, there is a price to be paid for this innovation — this enlightenment. The Industrial Age has already cost many lives, and the camera — this neutral dispassionate lens that can supposedly capture everything (including, as some societies would have it, the soul) is but a child of this process. As Merhige attempts to explain again, the old is always replaced or supplanted by the new. And what is the old? The old is nature. It is mystery and magic. It is power, and immortality. It is fear, and it is the unknown.

This is where, finally, the Vampire fits into this structure.

Enter the Vampire. It is difficult to describe all of this without talking about Nosferatu and the novel that loosely inspired it — Dracula. Nosferatu was an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker’s story that his widow did not grant the rights to. She, like many of that time believed that the Theatre was more professional and hallowed than film. This in fact cost Murnau’s company a lot of money in terms of lawsuits, and Nosferatu itself was very nearly destroyed. At the same time, even Dracula is the child of older, much older sources. This is one context of intertextuality that is very interesting to this regard.

In Dracula, the Count is portrayed as a foreign alien menace, something beyond England and “the civilized” world. He is powerful and seductive and almost “Orientalized.” Whereas in Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire, the less attractive figures of Count Orlock and Max Schreck respectively live much closer to Germany, and while they do embody something “primitive, ancient and horrible,” they are not so much a foreign terror as much as an old familiar horror just below the collective unconscious of the people living in, or close to the land that they come from. These narratives neither have the luxury of thinking that their monsters come completely from elsewhere, nor that they do not have any role in the human world.

The fact of the matter is that there have always been stories about vampires or things like them — about immortal creatures that feed off of the blood and energies of the living. The analogy between the vampire and the camera can be very apparently seen here. Both feed off of the present and life. Traditionally, a vampire can even preserve a life form in a parody or imitation of the life they once had.

Willem Dafoe’s Max Schreck cannot create other vampires. He is alone and awkward, and twisted. He barely remembers how he became what he is, or what he used to be. He is a monster that unapologetically and unrepentantly feeds off of blood. It is his nature and what he is. At the same time, he is sad, and lonely. This vampire has lived too long, misses the light of the sun, and he reads the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson about immortality at the price of always aging. He above everyone in this movie knows how beauty can truly fade and has paid the price for this knowledge just by existing. Of course, every thinks that Max Schreck is merely a character-actor and is always in his role for professional reasons.

To me, in this situation the vampire represents something dark and ugly, but also mystical and incredibly truthful. He does not lie about what he is, or how he feels about what he is. If anyone is the liar, it is Murnau who is willing to risk and throw away all life in order to use this actual vampire in his film — a truth that isn’t revealed until it is all too late. He is the power that Murnau wants to capture, to use a figure of actual immortality to make his film even more timeless. But as I said, there is a tradition to be followed here. Like Grimm’s fairy-tales, like the Germanic folktales before it there is a price for mortals to pay for achieving any form of immortality, for dealing with any kind of it.

A sacrifice. A human sacrifice.

I will not say anything more on that matter, save that despite the theme of the modern overtaking the ancient, there is still a sacrifice — and if anything the modern makes it more clinical, and even more chilling. And the camera lens captures it all. Even as mortal life fades, and immortality ends, and all sanity is lost, the camera continues to take everything in — cold, detached, dispassionate, and hungry. It creates a story for all people to experience for ages to come. Merhige tells us that originally he wasn’t even going to name this film after a vampire: that his film was not about a vampire at all. A vampire is in it, but so are a lot of other people and in many ways they are all equal in how they captured in this narrative. No one escapes it. Not even the vampire. Especially not him.

But after viewing both movies, I felt this deep calm that I haven’t felt in ages. Like it all made sense and something was now gone from me. Perhaps it was catharsis: a powerful combination of pity and fear that are both the essential components of awe. But I wonder — was this ever-present Shadow and all it represented really purged through pity and fear? Was it in fact exorcised or dealt with?

Somehow … I doubt it. Not in the 1920s. Not here. Not now. Perhaps it will never be. But maybe … just maybe, as Merhige stated, through understanding that such living stories could last generations, this is something that can be encountered both consciously and responsibly — through film or any other medium.

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