An Icon of the Silver Screen - On the Birth of the actor Max Schreck

6 September 1879, the German actor Max Schreck was born in Berlin.
“There is no question, therefore, of any intellectual uncertainty here: we know now that we are not supposed to be looking on at the products of a madman's imagination, behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth; and yet this knowledge does not lessen the impression of uncanniness in the least degree. The theory of intellectual uncertainty is thus incapable of explaining that impression.” (Sigmund Freud “Das Unheimliche” – The Uncanny)

There are a few symbioses in Gothic fiction and film that have become quite inseparable, Shelley and Frankenstein, Stoker and Dracula, Bela Lugosi and Dracula, Christopher Lee and Dracula – the count did get around after all - and Murnau, Max Schreck and Nosferatu. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s silent movie from 1921/22 was not only an epochal masterpiece of cinematic history and an expressionistic work of art but one of the first horror movies ever made. On top of that, “Nosferatu” founded the rather sad tradition of films deviating from the book by quite a bit. Actually, Murnau’s film is a movie version of Stoker’s “Dracula”, but  set in in a fictional town on the coast of the Baltic Sea in the 1830s, the characters bear German names, Count Orlok looks more like the plague bearer from the vampire epidemics in the Balkans during the first half of the 18th century than the aristocratic undead of the novel and a new vampire myth is created as well – the vampire is destroyed by sunlight, not just weakened, the climactic scene of the film.

Max Schreck in 1922

The casting of Max Schreck as Count Orlok probably was one of Murnau’s more fortunate decisions in the production of the movie. Stoker’s widow sued him for copyright infringement and the UFA, then Germany’s most influential film company, wouldn’t show the movie in its cinemas. “Nosferatu” became a financial disaster, but Max Schreck’s ticket to immortality on the silver screen. He was actually an actor with a broad range of roles, both on stage and in the early days of the cinema, when the pictures learned to walk out of the range of being mere curiosities into a new art form and became the dominant form of mass entertainment. And actually, Schreck is the only one who does any real acting in the movie, probably because Murnau had no experience yet in getting the best out of his actors – like he did in “Faust” five years later.

Schreck who was more or less unknown when he accepted Murnau’s offer and starred in more than 30 movies afterwards until he died in 1936 at the age of 56 of a heart attack, mostly in supporting roles, sometimes even in comedies, often in social and anti-war dramas and he continued to appear on stage. But besides Murnau’s revolutionary filming techniques and realisation of his expressive imagination, it was Max Schreck who made “Nosferatu” unforgettable. And no one after him managed to epitomise the uncanniness of the undead, without playing the demon lover, by transporting the grotesque into a subtle form of scariness (in German: “Schreck”) and setting up an unrivalled archetype of the genre.