Book lifts lid on star of eerie first Dracula film

BERLIN Fri May 9, 2008 2:52pm EDT

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in a scene from F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic ''Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror''. The first screen portrayal of Dracula was so eerie, some critics asked whether the actor himself could be a vampire. But since his death, little has been done to resurrect Schreck's reputation -- until now. REUTERS/Handout/File

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in a scene from F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic ''Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror''. The first screen portrayal of Dracula was so eerie, some critics asked whether the actor himself could be a vampire. But since his death, little has been done to resurrect Schreck's reputation -- until now.

Credit: Reuters/Handout/File

BERLIN (Reuters) - The first screen portrayal of Dracula was so eerie, some critics asked whether the actor himself could be a vampire. But since his death, little has been done to resurrect Max Schreck's reputation -- until now.

Schreck is best remembered for playing the cadaverous vampire Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror," the first, unauthorized cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula."

The rest of his career has been largely forgotten -- unjustly, in the view of German author Stefan Eickhoff, who has written what he says is the first biography of Schreck.

"Whoever hopes to discover a vampire will be disappointed, but they will find an actor of real skill and versatility," said Eickhoff. "Yet he himself remains somewhat shrouded in mystery."

"Nosferatu" failed to make its lead a star, but achieved such cult status that some film scholars speculated his name -- Schreck means "fear" or "fright" in German -- was a pseudonym.

In 1953, Greek-born critic Adonis Kyrou mischievously asked in his book "Le Surrealisme au Cinema" whether the actor was a vampire. The idea caught hold and later inspired a film.

Despite years of research, Eickhoff found there were virtually no anecdotes featuring Schreck, nor any references to him in the memoirs of the many people he had worked with.

Instead, Eickhoff's biography provides a detailed chronicle of the career of Schreck, a civil servant's son who appeared in around 800 stage and screen roles. Glimpses into the man behind the actor's mask remain few and far between.

Only in death does Schreck's character begin to come alive. The most revealing descriptions of the Berliner come from tributes paid to Schreck after he died suddenly in 1936.

Eickhoff's biography, "Max Schreck -- Gespenstertheater" (Ghost theatre) is due to be published later this year.

LONER

Contemporaries remembered Schreck, who was married but had no children, as a loyal, conscientious loner with an offbeat sense of humor and a talent for playing the grotesque.

One recalled how he lived in "a remote and strange world" and would spend hours walking through dense, dark forests.

"Nosferatu" helped propel Murnau to a brief but successful Hollywood career, but Schreck faded from the limelight.

The haunting film, which critics later saw as a metaphor for the collective trauma Germany suffered after defeat in World War One, changed the names of Bram Stoker's characters because the filmmakers failed to get permission to adapt his novel.

After the release, Stoker's widow sued the production company for breach of copyright, and won a court order to have all prints of the film destroyed. Since it had already been distributed worldwide, this ultimately proved impossible.

Over time, "Nosferatu" became seen internationally as a landmark of early German film and the horror genre -- while Schreck's other work has languished in relative obscurity.

Schreck died of heart failure aged 56, and was buried in an unmarked grave near Berlin, where he was born in 1879.

In the years that followed, his name has lived on in filmlore, thanks to the undying appeal of his most famous role.

In the 1992 sequel "Batman Returns," Christopher Walken plays a villain called Max Shreck, while in 2000, E. Elias Merhige's movie "Shadow of the Vampire" cast Willem Dafoe as Schreck the real-life bloodsucker hired to star in "Nosferatu."

Unlike Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, stars of later Dracula adaptations, Schreck never reprised the role and spent most of his subsequent film career in small, non-horror parts.

But as an actor, he was the equal of both, said Eickhoff.

"Their Draculas were refined creatures, whereas Schreck's was a more ancient, nightmarish vision," he said. "In a way, he resembled Lee a bit in that he tested himself in the most varied of roles. And funnily enough, both of them sang too."

Reuters/Nielsen

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