Max Schreck made film history with his creepy portrayal of a vampire in F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922).
A German character actor, Max Schreck was born on September 6, 1879, in Berlin. He appeared in hundreds of theatrical productions in Berlin and Munich and in German films. Schreck is best known for his portrayal of Count Orlok, a vampire based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Schreck died on February 19, 1936.
With a last name that can be translated as “terror,” Max Schreck is the actor behind one of film’s most famous vampires. His life off-screen, however, remains somewhat of a mystery. Some reports indicate that his father was a civil servant. He started out as an apprentice, but abandoned learning a trade for acting. Schreck studied his craft at a Berlin theater and toured in some regional productions. Eventually, he joined Max Reinhardt’s famed theatrical group in Berlin.
Beginning the late 1910s, Schreck worked with a Munich theater company, appearing in productions by such famed writers as Bertolt Brecht. He also started to land film roles in silent movies. In 1921, Schreck was cast in his most famous role by director F.W. Murnau.
Most Famous Vampire
Schrek was cast as Count Orlok, a gruesome vampire, in Nosferatu, which was based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The lead character’s name and a few other details of the story were changed because of the filmmakers were unable to obtain the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow. With his tall stature and gaunt physique, Schreck amplified his already unsettling appearance with long nails, makeup and fake ears to become one of film’s most terrifying monsters.
Murnau also helped heighten the terror of Nosferatu by using real locations in Eastern Europe for shooting the film. Unfortunately, not everyone was won over by Murnau’s spellbinding horror film. Bram Stoker’s widow sued the film company, and the court later ordered that all copies of the film were to be destroyed. Fortunately for horror film history, the movie had already been released. Several copies survived.
The film proved to be a big success in the United States and helped launch a career in Hollywood for its director. But Schreck did not receive much of a boost from his appearance in the movie.
Later Career and Legacy
Schreck reportedly never made another horror movie after Nosferatu. While remembered for his turn as a vampire, he actually worked in a variety of genres. Schreck continued to work in German films and on the stage for the rest of his life. He was playing the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos in a 1936 Munich production when he became ill. Schreck died on February 19, 1936.
Remembered for the first film portrayal of Dracula, Schreck inspired the actors who followed in his footsteps, such as Bela Lugosi and Klaus Kinski. He himself became a character in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which told a fictionalized version of the making of Nosferatu. Willem Dafoe played Schreck in the movie, with John Malkovich portraying Murnau.
In Shadow of the Vampire, Schreck was a real vampire hired to play Dracula, playing on a rumor that had circulated for years. Some had suspected that Schreck really was a vampire because of his mysterious background and his convincing performance.
Schreck was married to German actress Fanny Normann.