Max Schreck, born on this day in 1879

On the anniversary of his birthday, we tip our hat to Max Schreck, cinema’s original vampire count.

Samuel Wigley

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)

Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck, or simply Max Schreck, was born in Berlin 134 years ago today, in 1879. His surname means roughly ‘shock’ or ‘terror’ in German, but it wasn’t until 1922 that he earned it, after director F.W. Murnau cast him as Count Orlok in his gothic horror classic Nosferatu, subtitled ‘A Symphony of Terror’. A copyright-infringing version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film brought production company Prana Films to its knees when the Stoker estate sued for damages.

Subsequent incarnations of Dracula on screen would take the vampire count in a more charming, urbanely menacing direction. But with his bulbous, bald head, his rat-like front teeth, and his fearsome, long-clawed hands, Schreck’s Orlok remains perhaps the most unsettling. It only adds to the disquieting effect that watching the flickering, antiquated chills of Murnau’s 90-year-old film today feels like a séance with a now-distant past.

Schreck worked regularly as an actor during the 1920s and early 1930s (reteaming with Murnau for the 1924 adventure film Die Finanzen des Großherzogs), until his death from a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 56. Most of his films are now difficult to see, so we have to assume that he was a very able actor, but – with the passing of time – it’s a career (and a name) that might well have been forgotten. Instead, his turn as Orlok still casts a long and freakish shadow…

Four films that owe Schreck a debt

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (1979)

Klaus Kinski would do a feature-length impersonation of Schreck’s Orlok when Werner Herzog came to remake Murnau’s film in 1979.

Batman Returns (1992)

In his Batman (1989) sequel, Tim Burton – a Nosferatu fan – not only has a very Orlok-like Penguin (Danny DeVito, right), but also a nefarious businessman (played by Christopher Walken, left) called ‘Maximilian Shreck’.

Shadow of a Vampire (2000)

This fictionalised account of the production of Nosferatu plays on the mysteries surrounding Shreck’s life, suggesting that the actor (played by Willem Dafoe) was a real-life vampire hired by the director (John Malkovich) for authenticity.

Shrek (2001)

With a name like that and the same bulbous head, can there be any doubt where some of the inspiration for this postmodern fairy tale came from?

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