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Max Schreck: Gespenstertheater - Introduction (English version)
"The ghostly light of the evening seemed to revive the shadows of the castle again." From this intertitle follows for the lead actor perhaps the richest scene in Nosferatu: fade in.Max Schreck in the role of Count Orlok, the Nosferatu, sits hunched at a table over plans. He reaches hastily forward and grabs a document that is a little bit farther from him. It is as if he grabs from the screen into the theater auditorium. His guest Hutter stands beside him, ready to assist. Orlok hectically scans the documents spread over the table for a paper that he does not find. Then he pauses, asking Hutter. As he pulls something from his knapsack, an amulet with a picture of his wife Ellen falls on the table, directly in front of Orlok's nose. He is spellbound by it, no longer cares for the papers Hutter refers to him, and grabs it. He regards the picture of the woman on the amulet, drawing it up formally. "Who is that?" He seems to ask Hutter. Hutter tells him. "Your wife has a beautiful neck!" answers Orlok. The dried up looking host is now seen in close-up. He turns to Hutter and points at the amulet. The slim, contracted lips reveal a mesh of pointed teeth. With a demonic smile, he returns the amulet and signs the document at the spur of the moment, which promises him that the woman in the picture will next be his. Hutter is deeply disturbed and begins to stow the papers back into his knapsack. He breaks his action once again and looks frightened at at all of the exaggerated politeness of his extremely menacing host. Orlok notices it and his gaze remains stuck in a mixture of threat and his own startlement at Hutter's.
This culmination of absolute domination by one's physical urges, of a captivating single-mindedness of its surroundings, and longing for redemption characterizes Schreck's design of the Nosferatu. As far as acting is concerned, he balances between an artificial stylization and naturalistic approach. It is therefore more than a clever mask which constitutes Schreck's effect in the film. In fact, of all the collaborators of the movie, he was the one with the most experience and not in the least dependent up until that point on directors or make-up artists at portraying bizarre characters. Similar to that scene, Schreck had acted as a “miser” in 1915 in Moliere's play on the stage.
Nosferatu was in 1922 rather condescendingly referred to by a critic as a "children's atrocity". His special kind of exaggerated ugliness didn't give quite the unusual impression that it does today, as a figure in film history standing absolutely unique. One knew of comparable depictions of eccentric characters, grossly excessive and aged, as naive expressions of danger in children's books, satirical drawings, and from the stage. Lotte Eisner asserts in her Murnau book that the chalky-faced, aquiline-nosed mask of Henry George in the 1920 Expressionist drama "Platz" (Uhruh) that premiered in Frankfurt is comparable to them. A similarity can also be found in the mask and the coat of the eccentric Ernst Gronau in the movie Genuine (1920), and the ghost in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Prästänkan (1920), that must scare an undesirable old woman out of the house, already does this using similar elongated, claw-like fingers, with rat teeth and glued on ears.
Werner Herzog, director of the remake of Nosferatu – with a similar mask but contrasting interpretation of the title character by Klaus Kinski as a vampire with human anguish – once appropriately likened the Nosferatu, as Schreck played him, to an insect. Film historian Christopher Frayling also emphasizes the closeness of the figure to the animal kingdom and to the more original image that would die out in the subsequent, romantic depictions of the Dracula figure. He further calls Max Schreck's Nosferatu a "classic example of Expressionist actor art in the film.” In Expressionism -- much languished, regarded as an “immature” art style which had just before the film Nosferatu been turned to as the last art form – lies perhaps one of the keys to Schreck's fascination in the role; in the childlike original notion of a horror figure, the consistently grotesque exaggeration of expression, and the stress of emotional perception to the detriment of objectivity.
Nevertheless Schreck certainly can not be classified as purely Expressionist actor; moreso, he was influenced by the naturalistic stye, but could already effectively utilize his special physiognomy and sense of the inner workings of grotesque characters on the stage in expressionistic productions. Schreck is a traveler between pre-modern and modern presentation styles, between naturalism, Expressionist reduction, exaggeration and simplification of new objectivity.
This book puts an emphasis on Schreck's work in the theater, because there was his principal place of work. Like so many actors in the 1920's, he's made films on the side. In both media, Schreck has only played a few lead roles. The starting point of this study about Max Schreck is Wolfgang Petzet's investigation of Otto Falkenberg and the Munich Kammerspiele, whose history Schreck has a permanent place in. The quest for material was difficult. Initially because of the incomplete archives. Many documents, they were not kept together in the past. Theaters fell victim to fire, and were destroyed in the bombings of the second World War. Max had no offspring; there exists no estate. No one lives any more who knew him. There are no personal accounts. And interviews done in the early 1920's were with the stairs, rarely with the supporting cast, the group to which Schreck belonged, even if they were well respected and often counted among the celebrities.
Although Max Schreck has worked on many important historical theater performances and with virtually every major German theater artist of his time, he is not mentioned in the autobiographies of his contemporaries, to all of whom he was undoubtedly an aspect. There are apparently no anecdotes about him. Only Rudolf Frank, director of Max Schreck greatest success in the theater, "The Miser", mentions it in his memoirs, "Spielzeit meines Lebens" (“The Season of my Life”.) But Frank describes therein many other theater people he has met in far more detail. And when Rudolf Forster, in his autobiography “Das Spiel – Mein Leben” (“The Game - My Life”), will mention his famous colleague at least in a list, his name appears misspelled.
The few references that people could give me, people whose parents had worked with Schreck, indicate, however, that he was a "very valued" and by no means forgotten colleague, but with one was not so friendly as with others.
There was nothing more to learn from the reference by Otto Falckenberg of the "remote, incorporeal world" in which he lived. There are many indications that his life revolved around his fanatically beloved profession. Private, modest, and withdrawn, striving simplicity at work, but not without stubbornness and occasionally a frankly absurd seriousness about the day's schedule, he made a lasting impression on his colleagues as often quirky and cranky. Nature was his retreat, refuge, and inspiration.
Since Schreck's love of nature has been noted, it seemed important to me to weave in some scenery - and the city history of the places where he worked - in order to convey something of the environments in which he navigated. This book could therefore also be referred to as a "topographical biography of the actor". Also, it was important to me to list the names of the less prominent colleagues of his earlier engagements. Schreck was known for his loyalty, which includes human and collegial loyalty even to those who have not like him managed to succeed at the nation's first stage.
Schreck's career as an actor is a straight-up exemplary artistic career, led by the touring company and small state theaters to the Munich kammerspiele and the Prussian State theater in Berlin. His career is also shaped by a never-ending hunger for roles and metamorphosis. His repertoire of theater roles was great. In addition to the many stage roles in which he has appeared, he has rehearsed many roles that he got no chance or only one to play. Since the beginning of his career, he had an engagement in every season to a theater. It was in those days by no means normal. Eduard von Winterstein wrote in his memoirs, many which illuminate aspects of the operation of theaters around the turn of the century, that a permanent position at that time was only for actors who had an extensive repertoire of roles that they could use at any time. Requirements for this position included mostly self-made costumes and of course the ability to do their make-up with knowledge of periods and role types.
Since Schreck, alongside being an actor, was not an intellectual, a writer, a director, or someone who emerged in society, and because the upscale Berlin Theater critics of the 1920's, Herbert Ihering and Alfred Kerr, wrote little about him or his roles, those who began to take interest in him quickly came to the conclusion that he wasn't particularly significant.
“Schreck brings the finest character figures with the most inconspicuous nuances, and charged with discreet humor," writes Bernhard Diebold in 1919, who was regarded as the most important critic outside of Berlin and who should have seen him at the Frankfurt Schauspielhaus the previous seven years much more often and in larger roles, as later in Berlin Herbert Ihering speaks in the end of a scribbled note about his death of his "nuanced art". The nuanced quality and diversity of roles of character actors like Schreck is a further subject of this book.
Max Schreck has taken his theatrical figures with him to the grave. He lives still in some film roles, most of which gave him just little possibility to develop his roles. But there are additions to the grandiose. Nosferatu (1922), his likewise haunting peddler-spy in At the Edge of the World (1927), his Spanish Grande in Doña Juana (1927), grotesque corpse-trader in The Favorite of the Queen (1922), his begging musician in The Son of Hagar (1927), his Salarino and his doges in The Merchant of Venice (1923). Also in the Russian grand principality in Rasputin's Love Affair (1928), the Indian rajah in The Damned (1921) and the brief appearances as a valet in The Old Fritz (1928) are vivid impressions of his art, preserved. And not the least experience was it, almost as private and full of carefree joy of playing, as the enemy of cats, Biersack, in The Battle of Tertia (1928). The traces of what he left behind should be shown in this book.
The three major texts, written just after his death in February 1936 by colleagues who worked daily with him at the Munich Kammerspiele, attempt to join the artists and people closer to Max Schreck, to secure the traces of his life's work, and to appreciate, to introduce.