This week, we’ll explore the myths surrounding German actor Max Schreck, best-remembered for playing the vampire Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). There’s a lot of misinformation about Schreck, some of it repeated by writers that should know better, which persists to this day. Apparently, some film buffs find it hard to believe that a little-known character actor could inhabit the rat-like Count Orlok.
Born September 6th, 1879 in Berlin to a Prussian military officer, Schreck was mocked in school for both his abnormal height and his surname, which translates into English as “fright” or “scare.” Despite his father’s disapproval, Schreck studied theater in Berlin and in the early 1900s began performing in regional and touring companies, including a stint with legendary director Max Reinhardt. Schreck’s gangly features inhibited his chance to score lead roles, but he excelled at character performances, particularly those which utilized make-up and elaborate disguises: his comedic performances in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Moliere’s The Miser earned particular acclaim. In 1904 he met actress Fanny Normann during a production of Faust, and married her six years later.
In 1919, after serving in the First World War, Schreck gained his major breakthrough at the Munich Kammerspiele, where he spent three years. He befriended Bertolt Brecht through their mutual friend Reinhardt, and starred in Brecht’s early play, Drums in the Night. Schreck cemented his reputation as both a prolific actor and a ladies’ man; his most notable lover was actress Anny Ondra, the future wife of boxer Max Schmeling, with whom Schreck remained lifelong friends. (Fanny Schreck, it appears, knew about and tolerated her husband’s infidelities.) He also indulged in photography, filming both standard landscapes and erotica featuring Munich artist’s models.
Schreck also, however, gained a reputation as an eccentric introvert. He described himself as inhabiting “a remote and incorporeal world” that made it difficult to connect with others; one writer offers the plausible, if unproven suggestion that Schreck suffered PTSD or other trauma from his military service. He had few close friends, most of them women or fellow actors. He usually declined interviews with reporters; when not performing he took long walks, wandered through forests alone and told strange jokes that his acquaintances never seemed to understand.
In 1922, Schreck met with Albin Grau, producer of Nosferatu, a loose (and un-authorized) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula being prepared by F.W. Murnau. Schreck, who’d only appeared in two films before this, was initially reluctant to interrupt his tight theater schedule. Still, after Grau explained the movie’s premise, Schreck relished the opportunity to show off his transformation skills. After a meeting with Murnau, Schreck and the perfectionist director found their visions for Count Orlok in accord. Thus Schreck invented the ghastly, rat-like appearance of Orlok, a ghoul so unlike the standard movie vampire, largely from his own imagination.
Film historian Rolf Giesen describes Schreck’s transformation: the actor created “an artificial hook nose, heavy eyebrows [and] carved rat-like teeth held in place by his upper lip.” He sported a bald cap, false ears, talon-like claws and “gravedigger-esque” shoulder pads, his skin slathered in grease paint. Schreck was hardly a Method actor; between takes he chatted amiably with reporters covering the production and spent time with his wife Fanny, who played a minor role in the film. Still, Schreck couldn’t well remove the elaborate make-up between takes, and his vampiric appearance couldn’t help unnerving crew and costars.
After filming wrapped, Schreck told a reporter that he was both “happy that the part was finally finished” and deeply proud of his work. Indeed, his performance was instantly praised as one of the most unique characterizations in cinema history, even as the movie became mired in a costly lawsuit from Bram Stoker’s widow. In March 1922, Schreck appeared at a promotional gala dubbed “The Feast of Nosferatu” (this time, not in costume) along with Murnau and his co-stars in Berlin’s Zoological Garden. There, the usually reclusive actor met with fans, fellow filmmakers and Berlin notables before attending the film’s premiere. It was the crowning moment of Schreck’s career.
Still, a strange thing happened as Nosferatu languished in legal limbo. Whispers began that Max Schreck wasn’t Max Schreck at all, but that he was an unknown plucked from obscurity, or a better-known actor hiding behind a screamingly appropriate pseudonym. It’s unclear how these rumors started (an irresponsible publicity flak? a reckless journalist?), but soon German tabloids spread stories that the quiet theater star from Munich hadn’t really portrayed Murnau’s vampire. The publicity surrounding its premiere dispelled these claims, at least within Germany; abroad, where Schreck forever remained a rat-taloned shadow on screen, it was another story.
Schreck, nonetheless, became a prolific performer. He re-teamed with Murnau on one of his worst films, The Grand Duke’s Finances (1924), and collaborated frequently with Karl Grune, notably as a blind beggar in Grune’s Expressionist drama Die Straße (1925). Most of his films were comedies or period dramas, like Paul Czinner’s Dona Juana (1927), William Dieterle’s Ludwig II, King of Bavaria (1929) and Max Ophüls’ musical The Bartered Bride (1932); he costarred with Gustaf Gründgens, later director of Herman Goering’s Prussian State Theater, in Curtis Bernhardt’s The Tunnel (1933). Although Schreck provided capable performances, they populated mostly unmemorable movies; certainly, none matched Nosferatu‘s brilliance.
Like Brecht and Reinhardt, Schreck was a leftist whose theater roles grew more political as the Nazi threat loomed. He collaborated with Erika Mann (Thomas Mann’s daughter) on several antifascist cabaret shows, staged in Munich as late as January 1933 – just weeks before Hitler came to power. But Schreck didn’t follow his friends into exile; he kept working under the Third Reich, though his film roles grew increasingly smaller (whether due to his politics, his “difficult” personality, or both is unclear). He died in February 1936, soon after completing a stage performance of Schiller’s Don Carlos. Although he had no children, Schreck’s niece Gisela Uhlen became an actress, appearing in films like R.W. Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978).
Despite Florence Stoker’s lawsuit, which bankrupted Grau’s Prana Studio and ordered that all prints of the film be destroyed, Nosferatu received an international release through loopholes in copyright law. There was even an sound version, entitled The Twelfth Hour, produced in 1930 by one Waldemar Roger. An independent producer based in Vienna, Roger claimed to receive a work print of the movie from Grau with permission to recut it. Recut Roger did, shaving the movie’s 94 minute run time to 80 minutes, adding alternate takes discarded from Murnau’s version, stock footage of rural life and even filming original scenes with different actors. Most egregious are a new happy ending, and additional shots of Count Orlok featuring “an actor who wasn’t Max Schreck in vaguely similar vampire make-up.”
The Twelfth Hour received release in Austria, Germany and Spain in the early ’30s, with Roger claiming that it wasn’t actually Nosferatu but an entirely new film. Grau and Murnau, having shirked copyright themselves, could do nothing to stop it, though countries with stricter copyright laws (Sweden, for instance) blocked its release, while dreadful reviews (most critics found it choppy and incoherent) discouraged moviegoers anyway. Decades later, the negative was acquired by the Cinémathèque Française, who refuses to release it on video. Nonetheless, Roger’s Twelfth Hour still periodically airs on European television and at international film festivals, generating a curiosity value that transcends its apparently marginal quality.
Perhaps The Twelfth Hour explains why the story that Max Schreck wasn’t the “real” Max Schreck persisted beyond the early ’20s. Certainly, whoever played Orlok in its added scenes wasn’t Schreck (his identity appears to be a mystery of its own, as he isn’t credited in Hour‘s press kit), though this has no bearing on Murnau’s version. That, and the general unreliability of information about silent movies, where gossip and rumor frequently become “fact.” The Fake Schreck Myth becomes a case study in how difficult it is, particularly in writing about film, to separate fact from fiction.
The myth crystallized through Greek filmmaker Ado Kyrou, who wrote several decades later that Schreck’s credit was “a deliberate cover-up…No-one has ever been willing to reveal the identity of the extraordinary actor whom brilliant make up renders absolutely unrecognizable.” Why Kyrou believed this isn’t clear, nor does he name an alternative performer (only guessing that Orlok might have been Murnau himself), although his conclusion suggests that he’s pulling the reader’s leg. “Who hides behind the character of Nosferatu?” Kyrou wonders. “Maybe Nosferatu himself?”
Other writers did supply a name: Alfred Abel, the actor best-remembered for Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and Metropolis (1927). Indeed, for decades the idea that Abel played Orlok under a pseudonym became an item of faith for British and American historians. Thomas G. Aylesworth, in Monsters from the Movies (1972), comments that the movie credits “a German actor named Max Schreck, but who could believe that? Schreck, after all, means terror in German” – apparently, all the evidence one needs! James C. Robinson’s 1989 book The Hidden Cinema claims that Nosferatu “starred legendary actor Alfred Abel” without even mentioning Schreck. At least as late as 1994, when the Video Watchdog credited Abel as Orlok, the myth persisted.
The problem with the Abel theory is simple: there’s no evidence. Nor does it make the slightest bit of sense. Even if the studio hid Abel’s identity to drum up publicity, why keep the secret for years (decades) after the fact? Why hide the presence of a popular actor in a popular movie? Why hold a public premiere with Schreck as guest of honor? For that matter, why would Abel allow another actor to take credit for his acclaimed performance? Nor do purveyors of this theory explain Abel’s presence in Murnau’s The Grand Duke’s Finances, in which Abel costars with…Max Schreck. We needn’t debate the obvious: yet decades of writers denied Schreck credit for his greatest role.
Over the years, the story took even stranger forms: that Murnau cast an unknown actor as Orlok under a pseudonym, or that Schreck was real, but Nosferatu was his only performance. Filmmaker E. Elias Merhige combined the various rumors in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), with Willem Dafoe portraying Schreck as a very real vampire feasting on crew members and costars alike. Of course, that movie (which more closely resembles Werner Herzog’s feud with Klaus Kinski than Schreck’s relatively amicable relationship with Murnau) is entertaining fiction, with no pretense to accuracy. Film historians have no such excuse.
Max Schreck, admittedly, remains something of an enigma. Even his biographers have struggled to find anecdotes about his personal life, as Schreck mostly avoided interviews and press contacts, preferring a small circle of family, friends and lovers. Knowing the pride Schreck expressed in Nosferatu upon its release, he likely would have objected to this misinformation. On the other hand, given his bizarre sense of humor, he probably would have found the story of Max Schreck, Actual Vampire funny.
Note: This article draws mostly on Rolf Giesen, The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors and Its Enduring Legacy (2019) along with the above linked articles. Brent Reid’s series of articles on Nosferatu’s production and release history were particularly helpful.