American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The best of all vampire movies is "Nosferatu," made by F.W. Murnau in Germany in 1922. Its eerie power only increases with age. Watching it, we don't think about screenplays or special effects. We think: This movie believes in vampires. Max Schreck, the mysterious actor who played Court Orlock the vampire, is so persuasive we never think of the actor, only of the creature.
"Shadow of the Vampire," a wicked new movie about the making of "Nosferatu," has an explanation for Schreck's performance: He really was a vampire. This is not a stretch. It is easier for me to believe Schreck was a vampire than he was an actor. Examine any photograph of him in the role and decide for yourself. Consider the rat-like face, the feral teeth, the bat ears, the sunken eyes, the fingernail claws that seem to have grown in the tomb. Makeup? He makes the word irrelevant.
In "Shadow of the Vampire," director E. Elias Merhige and his writer, Steven Katz, do two things at the same time. They make a vampire movie of their own, and they tell a backstage story about the measures that a director will take to realize his vision. Murnau is a man obsessed with his legacy; he lectures his crew on the struggle to create art, promising them, "our poetry, our music, will have a context as certain as the grave." What they have no way of knowing is that some of them will go to the grave themselves in the service of his poetry. He's made a deal with Schreck: Perform in my movie, and you can dine on the blood of the leading lady.
John Malkovich plays Murnau as a theoretician who is utterly uninterested in human lives other than his own. His work justifies everything. Like other silent directors he has a flamboyant presence, stalking his sets with glasses pushed up on his forehead, making pronouncements, issuing orders, self-pitying about the fools he has to work with and the price he has to pay for his art. After we meet key members of the cast and crew in Berlin, the production moves to Czechoslovakia, where Schreck awaits. Murnau explains that the great actor is so dedicated to his craft that he lives in character around the clock and must never be spoken to, except as Count Orlock.