Nosferatu’s Shadow

EdFringeNosferatusmLife is often seen to be a joke, and how one is remembered after death is the biggest joke of all. Born near Berlin in 1879, Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck would not have been an actor had he obeyed the wishes of his father (“All actors, every one of them, are rogues and vagabonds!”), yet went on to become a celebrated theatrical performer with over eight hundred roles to his name, but it is only for a sole film which should not exist twice over that his name is remembered today, a role which itself denied death.

With the fictitious life of the Max Schreck portrayed as a real vampire by Willem Dafoe in director E Elias Merhige’s brilliant Shadow of the Vampire, set during the filming of F W Murnau’s Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, playwright and actor Michael Daviot’s principal interest is the man himself beyond the iconic images of that 1922 classic of German expressionism, and a remarkable life it was.

Tall and gaunt, all eyes, ears and cheekbones and pronounced teeth, yet speaking with the softest German accent as he relaxes in his tweed waistcoat and trousers on his country walk, there are recollections of being teased at school and his terrible temper, of the escape to the Berlin Theatre Royal Drama School where he learned both naturalism and expressionism.

Opening with a recreation of a savage cook in a music hall satire, the show is able to reflect the merest taster of his career in theatre and film, and as the shadow of Count Orlok hangs over the legacy Schreck so did the shadow of “the abominable Austrian” hang over his life; having avoided conscription during the Great War purely by chance, millions dying in the trenches, tens of thousands dying back home of starvation, in the rise of the Reich only “terrible tub-thumping roles” would meet the approval of the state.

Yet his life was equally blessed with long associations with theatre directors Max Reinhardt and Otto Falckenberg and the playwright Bertolt Brecht among others even through those troubled times, those who had not fled having to sidestep the attention of the authorities in order to survive in the increasingly repressive regime.

Daviot is both expressive and physically malleable in the role of Schreck, adopting the stooped posture and hand gestures of his inspiration, the stark lighting encouraging shadows on the backcloth which recall the role which should not have been. Unwilling to pay for the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula Murnau proceeded with the production without authority regardless; Florence Stoker sued and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed, but like the immortal undead, copies survived, arising at art festivals or on foreign soil.

A comparison with Shadow of the Vampire would be unfair for this does not attempt nor purport to be that, but while the life of Schreck is undeniably fascinating, Nosferatu’s Shadow is very much a linear biography with little structure or dramatic overtone and the whole feels disjointed and incomplete at times, but inhabiting the role as fully as Schreck did his own Daviot’s performance actually rises above to be better than his own astonishingly researched script and is reason enough to attend.

Nosferatu’s Shadow continues at Sweet Grassmarket until August 28th



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