It is an iconic movement, an action in vampire films re-created many times. The motion pictures “Fright Night” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” both had their versions. For many, it remains one of the most memorable events in the first great film of one genre–as well as being a landmark in at least two others. Graf Orlock (a poor attempt at a pseudonym for “Count Dracula” for which the filmmakers had not secured legal rights) rises from his coffin aboard ship. He does not sit up or float. Neither does he burst out of its confines by brute strength. No, he rears up, straight as a wooden plank on a hinge–his form rigid (with rigor mortis?) and his movement utterly unnatural. The poor sailor searching the ship’s hold for the source of so many strange deaths goes mad at the sight, fleeing above and hurling himself into the waves.
The film? “Nosferatu” (aka “A Symphony of Horror”), a still-remembered masterpiece from the a short flowering called German Expressionist Cinema–a period of furious creativity born out of Prussian defeat, a new medium and the collapse of the mark, forcing German studios to produce their own motion pictures since they could no longer afford to get them from overseas. It was also the first filmed version of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel. It spurred a lawsuit by his widow, who won. The court ordered every single copy destroyed. Fortunately for posterity (if not perhaps Mrs. Stoker’s blood pressure) copies survived.
And the star? The vampire himself? A deeply secretive man with the evocative name Max Schreck.
Various dictionaries define the word “schreck” as meaning fear, scariness, a jolt, scariness and simply terror. Little wonder many assumed it to be a stage name.
No other actor playing the famous Transylvanian has been so identified with this role. Even Bela Lugosi is also remembered as Ygor, as a host of mad scientists in a variety of increasingly low-budget films. Within the public consciousness, though, Schreck is known only as the walking cadaver of “Nosferatu,” bald and pointy-eared with talons for fingers and rat-like teeth. Small wonder! By any measure his performance is mesmerizing. Clutching his hands together like the folded wings of a bat, his every gesture seems strangely deliberate–as if his body doesn’t move naturally and must be made to act by a conscious effort of will. One imagines cold emanating from him like a huge chunk of walking, talking ice. He probably smells of dust. When he speaks, his breath probably reeks of the charnel house, his voice a whisper that seems to come from a thousand worlds away. No elegant nobleman out to seduce lovely virgins, Orlock is an avatar of disease and hunger. He is and remains a nightmare.
Bela Lugosi became a character in a film horror movies, the quirky dark comedy “Ed Wood” which won Martin Landau an Academy Award. Yet “Shadow of the Vampire” about the making of Murnau’s film takes a bizarre premise to heart–assuming that Max Schreck wasn’t an actor at all, but an actual vampire!
Most portrayals of vampires build upon Lugosi’s white tie and long cape, his accented intonation and the slick hair coupled with imperious gestures. Not all, however. One doesn’t have to look far to find Orlock’s clones. The first adaptation of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” re-imagined the king vampire Barlow as very much like Orlock–a far cry from the articulate sadist of the novel. Werner Herzog tried to recreate Shreck’s appearance slavishly in his version of “Nosferatu” using Klaus Kinski. Anyone who has seen the little-known Anthony Hickox movie “Waxworks 2” can see Drew Barrymore threatened (albeit briefly) by an Orlock-esque vampire. For that matter the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade had an entire clan of vampires called Nosferatu, described as hideously deformed by their change. Want to guess what image the writers initially used to represent this clan? In the television series based on the game, it was even more explicit. Nosferatu were all bald, with pointed ears and protruding fangs. Other films such as “Vampegeddon” and to some extent “Blade 2” (with its reapers) clearly are sibling undead to the first screen Dracula.
Despite all this, Max Schrek himself remains a man of mystery. Stefan Eickhoff wrote the first (and so far only) biography of the man, “Max Schreck: Gespenstertheater (Ghost Theatre).” It proved no easy task, no simply because of the time gone by but because evidently Schreck really was that mysterious. People said he lived in his own world, loving to go for long walks in woods. Yet he was a prolific actor, becoming a member of the prestigious Rhinehardt Company in Berlin. “Nosferatu” was not his only film performance, although one can be forgiven for not recognizing him–the makeup for his most famous role did indeed change his appearance considerably. No doubt this would be good news for his wife! Yes, he was married. To another actor, named Franny Norman (1877-1951). She played a nurse in Murnau’s film. Schreck himself played something like 800 roles before his sudden death from a heart attack in 1936 (he was born in Berlin, 1879). His biographer found few anecdotes about the man, although the few who still knew him evidently agree he was loyal, conscientious and with an odd sense of humor. He was the son of a topographer, studied at the Berlin Royal Theatre, In terms of style, he showed a broad range including Naturalism and Expressionism, Political Theatre and broad comedy. One can, as Stefan Eickhoff did, trace his career and end up impressed with its scope as well as the quality of the performances. But he was evidently a loner. Childless, he remained a very private person his entire life. Like another great horror icon, Boris Karloff, his private life remains exactly that. Interestingly, his obituary spoke especially not of his famous take Dracula but his performance in a Moliere comedy.