“New Films From Germany”

To Feb. 1 at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge

In 1921, demanding German director F.W. Murnau took a crew to Transylvania to make Nosferatu, a film inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Once in place, Murnau introduced his collaborators to an eerie, seemingly inhuman actor named Max Schreck. Gradually, the crew and other actors came to realize that Schreck was not a performer at all, but an actual vampire who had made a macabre deal with Murnau. By then, however, it was too late to undo the arrangement.

Of course, the real Schreck was not a vampire—despite having a surname that means “terror”—and the real Murnau did not arrange any blood sacrifices to complete his film. The vampiric bit is just the premise of E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, which pumps up its film-buff scenario with considerable help from scenery-biting performances from John Malkovich (as Murnau), Udo Kier (as producer and art director Albin Grau), Catherine McCormack (as female lead Greta Schroeder), and especially Willem Dafoe (as Schreck)—all speaking English, although the background chatter is in German. If the premise sounds to you like a modest inside joke, however, actually watching the movie will probably not change your mind.

As scripted by Steven Katz, Shadow of the Vampire is overly explicit with its metaphors. “You and I are not too different,” Schreck inevitably informs Murnau—the creature who sucks blood from innocent bystanders (including the film’s cameraman) thus comparing himself with the director who sucks life from the world to make his embalmed images. This is a variation on one of Hollywood’s favorite ironic notions, often expressed in exchanges between obsessive villains and obsessed heroes—including Dafoe and William Petersen in To Live and Die in L.A.—and it doesn’t seem much fresher transferred to actors and directors. It’s amusing when Schroeder, who’s been cast as vampire bait, complains that theater’s live audiences energize her while film acting depletes her. But for Merhige and Katz, such knowing asides are the film’s, uh, lifeblood.

The filmmakers make the most of German cinema’s—and Germany’s—reputation for darkness and decadence, depicting Nosferatu’s cast and crew as devotees of morphine and S&M. There’s the obligatory scene in a polymorphously perverse nightclub before Murnau leads his company to Czechoslovakia on a train named Charon (after the ferryman who takes the dead across the river Styx in classical mythology). The film crew has apparently seen it all, so when Schreck plucks a bat from the sky and eats it, they’re merely impressed by the intensity of his Method-style devotion to character. “The German theater needs you!” says screenwriter Henrick Galeen (John Aden Gillet) in tribute to the actor’s unconventional snack.

The actual Schreck’s performance is indelible, and Merhige shows the depth of his own obsession with it by meticulously re-creating some of the actor’s famous scenes. The original Nosferatu was a silent film, of course—which means that Dafoe’s hissing and slurping are not actually derived from Schreck. Instead, the actor draws from Klaus Kinski, who played the vampire in Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu remake. Unlike Kinski, however, Dafoe hasn’t cultivated an off-camera reputation as a maniac. His intense but controlled performance advances Shadow of the Vampire’s campy appeal while simultaneously undermining the film’s actor-as-monster thesis.

The real Max Schreck came not from a Carpathian castle but from Max Reinhardt’s theater company, which was also the training ground for many of the most prominent figures in early German film, including Murnau and Marlene Dietrich, the subject of Joseph Vilsmaier’s new biopic. Marlene is one of 10 films in the latest edition of the annual survey “New Films From Germany,” which is being hosted this year by Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge. The film (which screens Jan. 31 and Feb. 1) is based on a biography written by Dietrich’s daughter and covers the years from the actress’s discovery by director Josef von Sternberg to the end of World War II, most of which the married but sexually omnivorous actress spent in Hollywood. The period is convincingly evoked, and Katja Flint eerily embodies Dietrich. But the film is curiously coy about Dietrich’s female lovers and, like Vilsmaier’s The Harmonists, dabbles in fiction to no useful effect: The German army officer who is depicted as the great love of Dietrich’s life is actually a composite character.

The German cinema in its most prominent decades—the ’20s and the ’70s—pursued unsettling themes, but such recent German hits as Run Lola Run are much more easygoing. So are most of the films in this series, including In July (Jan. 26), which stars Lola’s male lead, Moritz Bleibtreu, as a timid student teacher who decides on a whim to follow a woman he’s just met to Istanbul. Like Lola, this is a romantic tale cloaked in a thriller: The story begins with a man who has a corpse in the trunk of his car, but the protagonist faces nothing more threatening than corrupt Balkan border guards (one of them played by writer-director Fatih Akin) and the risk that he might not realize which of the movie’s two attractive female characters is the one for him. (Hint: It’s the one the movie’s named for.)

The series’ most improbably upbeat entry is Sun Alley (Jan. 28), a familiar tale of early-’70s adolescent yearning set in a less familiar locale: East Berlin. Seventeen-year-old Mischa lives so close to the West that his street is regularly observed by tourists on a platform on the other side of the Wall, but he doesn’t worry much about the political freedoms that exist just a block away. He wants only to listen to banned Western rock and to win the love of the neighborhood’s teenage beauty. Director Leander Hausmann stages some agreeably blithe moments and, with co-writer Thomas Brussig, provides some mordant satire of ’70s commie chic—”I drew a picture for Angela Davis,” boasts a little girl—but only bits of the film are distinctive.

Another remarkably benign adventure is writer-director Rudolf Thome’s Paradiso: Seven Days With Seven Women (Jan. 27), in which a self-assured woman decides to celebrate her husband’s 60th birthday by inviting his two ex-wives and four former lovers to spend the week with the couple at their country house. For symbolism’s sake, the 60-year-old composer (played by Kings of the Road star Hanns Zischler) is named Adam and has written a work called Paradiso; his wife is Eva; and one of his exes is Lilith. Yet no one is expelled from the garden during the course of the week; there is some friction, but it’s mostly between Adam and his grown son. If the premise suggests Resnais’ riotously Freudian Providence, the ultimate effect is more like the warm but bland The Big Chill: a portrait of an extended family that seems, rather improbably, cozier than a standard-issue household.

Rendered in handheld video, The Policewoman (Jan. 29 and 30) is grittier than most of the films in this series—but only somewhat. Fresh from the police academy, 27-year-old Anne is assigned to Rostock, a dismal Baltic city that’s never seen a female cop before. Her problems, however, mostly stem from her own inability to separate her work and her personal life: She sleeps with both her partner and one of the criminals she arrests, and gets deeply involved with a young shoplifter whose mother neglects him. Director Andreas Dresen apparently finds Anne’s compassion admirable, but her empathy is repeatedly trumped by her unprofessionalism.

The darkest of these films is Oi! Warning (Jan. 29 and 30), shot by twin-brother writer-directors Dominik and Benjamin Reding in vivid black and white that suggests Nosferatu-era German expressionism. Although the film is juiced by skinhead hostility, it’s not strictly a tale of Germany’s shaved-head youth subculture. Expelled from school, 17-year-old Janosch goes to live with old friend Koma, a kickboxing thug into oi! punk and ultraviolence (though not neo-Nazism). Janosch emulates his brutish friend, but he has neither the build nor the disposition to succeed as an intimidator. Janosch investigates the other possibilities that appear to him—dirty sex with a male fire-eating punk, tidy domesticity with a female classmate he barely knows—but Koma always pulls him back, leading to an inevitable showdown. This is hardly a definitive statement on the appeal of the skinhead subculture, but the film’s chaotic energy does capture male adolescence’s high-octane confusion.

I didn’t preview two of the series’s three sports films, Soccer Rules! (Jan. 28) and Home Game (Jan. 31 and Feb. 1). The third, Sumo Bruno (Jan. 27), is nominally more unconventional. It is, after all, about a fat, broke, laid-off railroad worker who decides to become a sumo wrestler. This makes for some passable culture-clash comedy, especially when Bruno acquires a wannabe-samurai trainer who calls himself Akashi even though he was born and raised in East Germany. Lenard Fritz Krawinkel’s film is as haphazardly constructed as any Hollywood picture, however, and on his way to the final contest Bruno discovers the usual True Love and reveals the customary Big Heart.

Although no one has yet scheduled a screening of Nosferatu to supplement Shadow of the Vampire, several relevant German films will be shown locally in the near future. On Saturday, the National Gallery of Art will present Die Nibelungen, a film by Fritz Lang, one of Murnau’s few equals among German expressionist directors; on Monday, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop will screen two of Murnau’s post-Nosferatu efforts, City Girl and Tartüff. And on March 1, the Library of Congress will show The Blue Angel, Dietrich’s first Hollywood movie, whose making is recounted in Marlene. CP