Happy Birthday, Nosferatu! (A.K.A. Max)

On this day, 136 years ago, an actor was born who would one day embody the idea of brooding, creeping, sinister evil in a way that no film actor ever had before–or arguably ever did since. His last name even translates to “terror”–I kid you not (get thee to Google Translate!). Here’s a brief overview of the life of this remarkable presence:

Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck, known today as Max Schreck, was born in Berlin-Friedenau in 1879. His father, unfortunately, instantly disdained young Max’s ambition to become an actor, but fortunately his mother secretly gave him money for acting lessons.

After his father passed away Schreck pursued his love of the stage in earnest. He studied at the State Theatre of Berlin and was soon touring Germany in “legit” productions. Eventually he had the honor of joining Max Reinhardt’s talented troupe–the same Reinhardt whose über modern plays and excellent actors would so strongly influence German Expressionism. As Germany become reknowned for its artsy filmmaking, the only thing left for Schreck to do was debut in moving pictures.

His first film role was in Der Richer von Zalamea (The Mayor of Zalamea), 1920, starring Lil Dagover (who had also acted in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) After several other films he was cast in one of the most iconic roles of the silent era: that of Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). He nailed this otherworldly character so well that when critic Adonis Kyrou jokingly asked if Schreck were actually a vampire a few people started to wonder if it could be true.

Schreck would continue his oncreen acting in multiple genres up until his death from a heart attack in 1936. Many of these films are unavailable, although he can be seen as the blind man in Die Straße (1923).

Max Schreck is remembered today as a film actor, but the stage had been his main career–his credits include an impressive 800 roles. He had been married to Fanny Normann, who made an uncredited appearance as the nurse in Nosferatu, and they did not have children. Schreck is buried in the Wilmersdorfer Waldfriedhof cemetery in Berlin, apparently in an unmarked grave.

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10 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Nosferatu! (A.K.A. Max)

  1. Wow seems like a great actor. The “seems” here being my own ignorance about that era of filmmaking. Would like to check out a movie but as you said might be hard to come by a copy. Thanks for writing about this great writer!

  2. I’ve only seen one photo of Max Schreck before, and in that one, I thought he looked disturbingly similar to Nosferatu, even out of character! So it is a relief to see him rather more human looking, if austere. I wonder how tall he was. His height and thinness seem to be such an integral part of character; I can’t imagine a person of normal height playing the count.

    • If anyone was born to play a vampire, it was certainly Schreck. Wonder if his natural, gaunt facial features helped inspire the look of Nosferatu, or if Murnau already had a visual in mind…

      • That’s an interesting speculation. I’ve read that Murnau had very definite and specific ideas about what he wanted, but at the same time was open to suggestion. My guess is it may have been a little bit of both.

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