Apparantly Max Schreck is this actor’s real name. The surname meaning “terror” in German would suggest itself to be an appropriate pseudonym for someone portraying horrific characters. His film output actually crosses several different genres, but without sufficient information about his work in the theatre where he seems to have spent most of his career, it is difficult to dispute the point. Some sources suggest that Max was really actor Alfred Abel, but this is certainly untrue. Abel, a distinguished performer who appeared in Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse (1922) and Metropolis (1926) amongst others, is chronicled in some detail and when both actors are viewed together it becomes obvious that their physiques fail to match.
Max Schreck was born 1879 in Berlin and died during 1936 in Munich. Although he began his working life in an apprenticeship, his attentions were soon drawn to the theatre and he embarked on stage training at the Staatstheater in Berlin. He made his stage debut in Messeritz and Speyer before touring the country for two years appearing at theatres in Zittau, Erfurt, Bremen, Lucerne, Gera, Frankfurt and finally joining Max Reinhart’s celebrated troupe of performers back in Berlin. Many of Reinhart’s members were to cut their acting teeth in his company before making a huge contribution to the cinema.
From 1919 to 1922, Max Schreck divided his time between working at the Kammerspiele in Munich and making his film debut in DER RICHTER VON ZALAMEAadapted from a six act play by Calderon and directed by Ludwig Berger for Decla Bioscop. In 1922 he was employed by Prana Film for their first and only production Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens. The company declared themselves bankrupt after the film’s release to avoid paying copyright infringement costs to an irate Florence Stoker, the widow of “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. Despite numerous portrayals of Dracula-like vampires including Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, the image of Schreck as Count Graf Orlock remains the most haunting. The character’s bald, rat shaped head and long spidery fingers has never been equalled, not even in Werner Herzog’s remake of 1979 starring Klaus Kinski. So much has already been written about Nosferatu, that very little needs to be added, but for the curious sound remake Die Zwolfte Stunde that appeared in 1930. No credit for director is claimed, but a reference to “artistic adaptation” is given to Dr. Waldemar Roger who apparantly re-edited the original film with some of Murnau’s discarded footage and then added a dance scene and a death mass. The censors later cut the death mass due to religious objections, but unlike the original, the film ended on a happy note. Mysteriously the actors were given different names. Max Schreck became Furst Wollkoff and a new cast member named Hans Behal is added who appears as a young priest.
It is highly probable that Murnau learned of the film’s existence through his contacts in Germany while he was in Hollywood, but it is unlikely that he ever saw this unauthorised adaptation.
In 1923, Max Schreck appeared as a blind man in the acclaimed film DIE STRASSE directed by Karl Grune for Stern Film. A young man, (Eugene Klopfer), yearns to enter into the world of the dark streets where possibilities seem endless, but finds them full of shady characters, gambling, prostitution and murder. He returns from his nightime ordeal back to the safety and security of his wife and home. Max appears in a significant role as a bewhiskered blind man who uses the eyes of a child to navigate the area. In one scene the child runs from his grasp to find herself stranded on a traffic island while a policeman halts the flow of vehicles to rescue her. Meanwhile the blind man is left to wander the streets where he discovers a dead body. A charitable man then takes him home.
DIE STRASSE is sadly one of the few Max Schreck appearances available to us today, but one production that was recently screened at an annual film festival in Northern Italy is DIE FINANZEN DES GROSSHERZOGS (The Finances of the Grand Duke), a poorly made comedy filmed in the former Yugoslavia to which even the director, Murnau expressed his repugnance. Max appears as an evil conspirator in a story concerning a disreputable financier who wants to transform an idyllic paradise into a profitable sulpher mine.
Unfortunately this seems to be all the information available on the career of this ambiguous personality, although it is certain that in 1926 Max returned to the Kammerspiele in Munich and continued to act in films right through the advent of sound until his death in 1936. He was married to an actress named Fanny Normann of whom there seems to be no material available.
One source that might be able to shed more light on Max’s career is the Film and Theatre Archives, Frankenthaller Str.23, 8000, Munich, but for now I have to be content with what little remains of his film output, in particular his exceptional casting by Murnau as the pestilent vampire Graf Orlock. Most of the information unearthed does seem to suggest that Max Schreck only made a brief foray into the horror genre, but it is this one role that makes him stand out in film history.