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Out of the Shadow of ‘Nosferatu’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steven Katz admits he libels famed German director F.W. Murnau “horribly” in his screenplay of “Shadow of the Vampire,” the recently opened quirky comedy about the making of Murnau’s 1922 vampire classic “Nosferatu.”

As portrayed by John Malkovich, Murnau is an obsessive taskmaster who, in his dogged pursuit for reality, actually hires a creepy real vampire named Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) to play the title role of the blood-sucking Count Orlock.

The truth be told, says Katz, Murnau “was apparently extremely polite, an unfailingly polite gentleman. I made him more manipulative than he really was.”

As for the real Schreck (his name is German for “shriek”), little is known about him--but no, he was not a vampire. “There seems to be conflicting information about him,” says Katz. “Some people claim that that was a stage name concocted for the film. I just kind of hijacked this man’s biography.”

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Surprisingly, Katz has read in Internet chat rooms that fans of the Murnau film aren’t happy he’s transformed Schreck into a real vampire. “People have been writing they have been quite disgusted--how dare I tell a fictional story using real characters,” says Katz. “It’s a bit idiotic since it is the thrust of literature since Homer. I made no apologies.”

The Lions Gate release plays off the real life and legends of Murnau and Schreck. In the film, Murnau is a man so devoted to his art that even death won’t stop him from bringing his vision to the screen. Schreck is the ultimate Method actor, who, Murnau informs his cast and crew, is so into his part he only will do his scenes at night and refuses to be seen out of makeup.

The film’s premise, though, is that Schreck is the genuine article--a bloodthirsty vampire whom Murnau has promised the neck of the film’s leading lady (Catherine McCormack) as his “salary.” But Schreck also ends up being a most demanding star, one who snarls if he doesn’t get his way and is not above sucking the life out of several crew members.

The facts about Murnau and Schreck aren’t quite as colorful, but still the stuff of film legend. Here’s a look at these two icons of the silent cinema.

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F.W. Murnau

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, Germany, on Dec. 28, 1888, Murnau studied art and the history of literature at the University of Heidelberg. He took the name Murnau from a town in Germany.

During World War I, he was a combat pilot. “He crashed his plane twice and damaged one of his kidneys so badly, he was never able to drink alcohol for the rest of his life,” says “Vampire” director E. Elias Merhige. “I think he took some painkillers and some of the opiates that were developed in World War I in order to help with some of the pain at times.”

Murnau began his artistic career as an assistant to noted theater director Max Reinhardt and started making movies in Germany in 1919. He quickly developed into one of the most influential directors of the silent era due to his innovative, Expressionistic use of camera, lighting, sets and editing.

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He was also able to elicit tremendous performances from such actors as Schreck in “Nosferatu”; Emil Jannings in 1924’s “The Last Laugh”; and Janet Gaynor, who won the first best actress Oscar for Murnau’s exquisite 1927 drama “Sunrise.”

“Murnau is someone who has inspired me a great deal,” says Merhige, “like the camera movement when you met the woman from the city for the first time in ‘Sunrise.’ It is just fantastic. And ‘The Last Laugh’ with its moving sets and camera movements.”

Hollywood took notice of Murnau, and in 1926 he came to Los Angeles with a five-picture deal at Fox. “Sunrise” was a huge hit, but his next two, “Four Devils” and “City Girl,” didn’t match its success.

Merhige says that Murnau established himself “quite well” in Hollywood. “He was an amiable person,” says the director. “He wasn’t too eccentric and too weird that he didn’t get along with everybody. He was liked and deeply respected. I think that is a great combination for establishing longevity in a business that is very social and necessarily so.”

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Murnau left Fox after the three pictures and teamed with documentary film director Robert Flaherty (“Nanook of the North”) to make the South Sea islands drama “Tabu,” which would be his last film.

After completing “Tabu,” he signed a contract to work at Paramount, along with another German emigre, Ernst Lubitsch.

Murnau was a closet homosexual, but his “secret” came out with his death in a car accident at age 42. Kenneth Anger wrote in his book “Hollywood Babylon”: “Murnau’s death in 1931 inspired a flood tide of speculation. Murnau had hired as valet a handsome 14-year-old Filipino boy named Garcia Stevenson. The boy was at the wheel of the Packard when the fatal accident occurred.”

Gossip spread through Hollywood that Murnau was having sex with the boy when the car went off the road. Though Stevenson and another passenger weren’t injured, Murnau was thrown from the car and cracked his head open on a pole. Because of the scandal surrounding his death, only 11 people, including Greta Garbo, attended his funeral.

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Says Anger: “Garbo commissioned a death mask of Murnau, and the solitary Swede kept this memento of the German genius on her desk during all of her years in Hollywood.”

Both Merhige and Katz believe that Murnau had a bright future in Hollywood. “ ‘Sunrise’ was certainly an extraordinary achievement, and who knows what he would have gone on to do?” says Katz. “Why couldn’t he have been another Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder?”

Note: The Silent Movie Theater, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., will be paying tribute to Murnau with a four-film festival starting next week. It kicks off next Thursday with “Faust” (next Thursday) and continues with “Nosferatu” (Jan. 12-14, 19-21), “Sunrise” (Jan. 18) and “The Last Laugh” (Jan. 25).

Max Schreck

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Schreck is described in “Shadow of the Vampire” as “an actor of no distinction.” In reality, he made 20 films before his death of a heart attack in 1936 at age 57.

It is known that he began his stage training at the Staatstheater in Berlin, making his stage debut there in “Messeritz”’ before touring Germany for two years. Eventually, he joined Reinhardt’s company in Berlin. From 1919 to 1922, Schreck worked in the theater as well in film.

The crowning achievement in his film career was “Nosferatu,” in which he gives a truly terrifying performance as the bald, ratlike Count Orlock.

Very few of Schreck’s other films have survived. There are copies floating around of 1923’s “Die Strasse,” in which he plays a blind man. And a dreadful comedy, “Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs” recently surfaced at an Italian film festival.

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Tim Burton paid tribute to Schreck by naming his villain, played by Christopher Walken, Max Schreck in “Batman Returns.”

“What I found out about him is that his career seemed to decline quite a bit when sound came in,” says Merhige. “I surmised that as sound came in his voice was unpopular and not as pleasing as some of the other actors. As a result, it killed his career as a screen actor.”

During his life, Katz says, no one thought Schreck was a real vampire. “ ‘Nosferatu’ was a film I always loved,” says Katz. “I have been very much struck by this oddly realistic quality it had to it.

“The principal view of the vampire then was of the late romantic European nobleman--the sort of Byronic vampire. I was always struck by that weird juxtaposition. One day this little spark happened in the back of my head and I said, ‘Hey, maybe he’s really a vampire.’ ”

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