Actor Max Schreck is best known in the English-speaking world for his very creepy portrayal of Count Graf Orlock in F. W. Murnau's classic film "Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens". His person seems shrouded in mystery; his surname means "terror" in German, and so rumours circulated that he was actually actor Alfred Abel working under a pseudonym. Abel appeared in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", among other movies, and if you watch it you can see for yourself that he doesn't look much like Schreck at all.

The real Max Schreck was born in Berlin in 1879 and was drawn to the stage at an early age. He worked in German theatre for many years, most famously as a member of Max Reinhart's celebrated troupe. His career seems to have been made on playing quirky characters with great skill and talent, and so he has been anachronistically referred to as the Gary Oldman of his day. He made his film debut in "Der Ricther Von Zalamea" (1921), and soon after was introduced to Murnau by Reinhart; Murnau was taken with the gaunt actor and cast him in the lead role of his 1922 movie plagiarized from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Schreck's vampire is truly horrifying, with a rat-eared bald head, long spidery fingers, and an eerie way of rising from a prone to a standing position without moving his body; it is the prototype of the vampire in the west, copied exactly by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's remake of "Nosferatu" and embellished by Oldman himself in Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula".

Sadly, Schreck was not able to reap the rewards of his seminal vampiric performance, for all copies of the movie were ordered destroyed after Stoker's widow Florence threatened to sue for copyright infringement; the copies we see today were not discovered and released until after World War II. Schreck did go on to appear in a number of German films, however, and died in 1936 in Munich of a heart attack. He was married to the actor Fanny Normann. You can find more information on the real Max Schreck at The Missing Link (

I would be remiss if I did not note that the Schreck legend lives on. In the movie "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000), an unrecognizable Willem Dafoe plays Shreck as a real vampire posing as a Stanislavskian method actor who always stays in character. Max Schrek is also the name of a villain (played, delightfully, by Christopher Walken) in "Batman Returns".