Film - Jonathan Romney on a pale imitation of the 1920s horror classic <em>Nosferatu</em>

Shadow of the Vampire is what you might call a biopic of a film. It is a fictionalised "making of", a fanciful account of how the great German silent film director F W Murnau shot his 1922 vampire movie, Nosferatu. But who, apart from historians and the more fetishistic of cinema buffs, cares how a film was made? Some films, however, are so extraordinary, such miraculous freaks of culture, that you just cannot help wondering about the background history.

Nosferatu is a perfect case for study: horror is the genre in which there is the greatest discrepancy between the mystique of the image and the mundane graft of getting the image on screen in the first place. Think of the vampire casting his long-fingered shadow on a wall, then imagine the dreary industrial process of lighting and framing a posturing actor. This is the divide explored in Shadow of the Vampire.

Murnau's star was Max Schreck, to this day one of the most unsettling of all screen presences, even if you are tempted to snigger at his ostentatiously rat-like demeanour. His Count Orlok is Dracula by any other name, the Bram Stoker estate having refused Murnau permission to use the original. But nine years before Bela Lugosi established Dracula's image as a suave salon mesmerist, Schreck made the vampire a genuinely vile nocturnal thing with bat ears and an aura of decaying abjection.

The director E Elias Merhige's Murnau (John Malkovich) announces that his star is an actor from the Max Reinhardt theatre company, who will appear permanently in the guise of Orlok and only be filmed at night. The anachronistic joke is that everyone thinks they're getting a cranky method actor - a "Stanislavsky lunatic", one actor complains. The real Schreck was indeed a Reinhardt player, and a presence on the German screen until his death in 1936. But, for Merhige's purposes, the real Schreck (whose name means "fright" in German) is erased and replaced by a genuine vampire - to be precise, a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. It is a wonderful conceit - Murnau, in search of authenticity, finds his star feeding on his cast and crew, as well as biting the head off a bat, in the style of Ozzy Osbourne. ("Schreck - the German theatre needs you!" enthuses one witness.)

"Authenticity" and "realism" are meaningless terms when applied to an entirely fantastic being, and the film is really satirising film-makers' more distorted fantasies of what constitutes the real. The true madness on display in Merhige's film is not that of an excessively dedicated actor, but of Murnau himself. If this monster movie has its creature, it also has a mad savant in the shape of the lab-coated Murnau, who sees film-makers as "scientists engaged in the creation of memory". This image of the director seems to be inspired by the common argument that Weimar cinema was a direct precursor to Nazi ideology. Here is the auteur as autocrat, deigning to explain himself to no one and muttering instructions to his actors during takes, like a hypnotist/puppet master, a cinematic Caligari.

Shadow of the Vampire is a preposterous conceit that never quite hits its full potential for comic fruitiness. Often, it is pure farce, one step away from Mel Brooks, with the cast exploring a range of hammy German accents (bizarrely, even Udo Kier, who really is German, seems to be trying it on). At the centre is the fevered play-off between Murnau and Schreck, and although Malkovich gives it his florid all - vaulting from effete whispers to petulant barks, always with his gimlet stare - he is outacted for once. Willem Dafoe at least has a good excuse. The make-up artist, Katja Reinert, sticking close to Schreck's original, has fabricated a truly repellent wraith, with nasty tufts of white hair on an elongated, egg-like skull. Dafoe breathes fetid life into the role, grunting, sniffing and wielding long, grubby nails that variously resemble tendrils, lobster claws and castanets. He is as funny as he is gruesome.

But Merhige and the screenwriter, Steven Katz, seem uncertain whether to play for laughs or for poetic unease. For all his pastiche expressionist effects, Merhige never overcomes the cut-price look sufficiently to create the other-worldly, silent-screen mood at which he gestures. Katz at times indulges in lushly purple philosophising about the moving image, and at others seems anxious to produce witty bites of dialogue: "In my old age," says the vampire, "I feed the way old men pee - sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop." There is, however, an inspired and rather moving moment when Schreck explains why he found Dracula such a poignant novel. Stoker's solitary vampire, he explains, has no servants to aid him: can he remember how to select cheese?

Ultimately, the whole curious exercise is made somewhat redundant by Werner Herzog's underrated 1979 remake of Nosferatu, which starred an actor quite as bizarre in his own right as either Murnau's or Merhige's Schreck. Behind all his eye-rolling and verminous whimpering, there was little doubt that Herzog's nemesis, Klaus Kinski, was indeed essentially being himself - a mad, feral monster that no amount of effects or make-up could ever equal.

Shadow of the Vampire (15) is out on general release nationwide

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose