Before Bela Lugosi ever donned his Dracula cape, there was Max Schreck’s gaunt, pointy-eared, and nimble-fingered Count Orlok. As the iconic villain of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Orlok represents the earliest surviving attempt to put a vampire onto the silver screen. He is also the product of intellectual theft.
Universally recognized as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Nosferatu has a complicated legacy because it shamelessly plagiarized Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And yet, without this seminal motion picture, the vampire genre that’s found success in every medium, from television to Young Adult novels, might never have taken off. So today, join us as we take a bite out of a truly terrifying classic.
1. THIS WASN’T THE FIRST FILM TO BE BASED ON BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.
Stoker’s famous novel earned him some welcome praise, but very little cash. A gothic thriller, Dracula first hit the shelves in 1897. Most reviews were favorable: “Persons of small courage and weak nerves should confine their reading of these gruesome pages strictly to the hours between dawn and sunset,” gushed The Daily Mail.
Further praise was heaped on by the incomparable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who told Stoker, “I think it is the very best story of diatribe which I have read for many years.” Alas, such esteem did not turn Dracula’s author into a wealthy man. Although the book sold around 30,000 copies per year for the next three decades, most of its profits bypassed Stoker and went directly to his publisher. The writer’s longstanding debts and poor health kept him in dire financial straits until he passed away in 1911.
Ten years later, Stoker’s most notorious character made his big screen debut. Released in 1921, Dracula’s Death was the earliest attempt to convert the 1897 novel into a motion picture. Mildly put, it was a loose adaptation. Filmed in Hungary and directed by Karoly Latjay, Dracula’s Death tells the story of a young woman who gets a terrible nightmare after she crosses paths with the eponymous villain. Strangely, Dracula himself is an insane musician in this version, rather than a suave aristocrat. No copies of the silent film survive today. Were it not for some recovered publicity photos and newspaper reviews, movie historians might not know that it ever existed.
2. IT BRAZENLY RIPPED OFF THE NOVEL.
In 1921, German artist and architect Albin Grau joined forces with Enrico Dieckmann to establish a new movie company called Prana-Film. A World War I veteran with a keen interest in the occult, Grau’s military service brought him into contact with a Serbian farmer who claimed to be the son of a vampire. The soldier never forgot this story and later jumped at the chance to put one of these legendary creatures into a feature film. Grau felt that an adaptation of Dracula would be the perfect maiden project for Prana. There was just one problem: copyright laws. For whatever reason, Grau was either unwilling or unable to secure the necessary rights from Stoker’s estate.
Undaunted, Prana-Film went ahead with its vampire movie anyway. Somewhat naively, Grau believed that he could avoid a lawsuit by tweaking Dracula’s plot in a few key places. In his film, the setting was changed from Victorian London to 17th century Germany. Completely omitted were the book’s original ending and the character of Van Helsing, a vampire hunter who plays a big role in Stoker’s novel. Moreover, most of the key players were renamed—thus, Count Dracula became “Count Orlok.” The full title, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, was inspired by a term that appears twice in the movie’s source material: Stoker mistakenly thought “Nosferatu” meant “vampire” in Romanian.
3. THE LOOK OF THE MOVIE WAS INSPIRED BY ARTIST HUGO STEINER-PRAG.
To direct Nosferatu, Prana-Film tapped F.W. Murnau, a filmmaker renowned for his expressionistic style. At his side was Grau, who served as the movie’s artistic producer and designer. In this capacity, Grau designed everything from the sets to the costumes to Orlok’s makeup. Throughout the process, his guiding light was The Golem, a classic horror story by Gustav Meyrink.
Originally published as a serial in 1914, the tale was released in novel form the following year. Included in the book’s second edition were 18 illustrations created by Hugo Steiner-Prag. Grau claimed that these atmospheric, black-and-white images had a huge influence on Nosferatu’s concept art and storyboards. According to some accounts, this Golem sketch directly inspired the physical appearance of Count Orlok himself.
4. THE VAMPIRE WAS PLAYED BY A MAN WITH AN APPROPRIATELY SPOOKY NAME.
Little is known about Max Schreck’s life and film career, a fact to which his biographer, Stefan Eickhoff, can attest. According to Eickhoff, the actor’s colleagues regarded him as a “loyal, conscientious loner with an offbeat sense of humor and a talent for playing the grotesque.” The star of over 40 motion pictures, Schreck is best remembered for his haunting portrayal of Orlok in Nosferatu.
Fittingly enough, the man’s last name is the German word for “terror.” Schreck’s performance was so effective that some viewers wondered if the mysterious thespian was an actual vampire in real life. Film critic Ado Kyrou popularized this idea in 1953 when he wrongly claimed that the name of the actor who played Murnau’s monster had never been revealed. “Who hides behind the character of Nosferatu?” Kyrou wrote. “Maybe Nosferatu himself?” That suggestion was subsequently used as the premise of Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which features John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as a bloodsucking, coffin-loving Max Schreck.
5. SOME OF THE SPECIAL EFFECTS WERE ACHIEVED WITH STOP-MOTION PHOTOGRAPHY.
At one point, Orlok’s coffin closes by itself after the lid levitates off the ground. An early form of stop-motion animation made this possible. By rapidly showing a sequence of still images in which the lid moves closer and closer to its final resting spot, Murnau was able to trick the viewer into thinking that the inanimate object was flying around under its own power. This same technique was also employed during the scene in which Orlok uses his magic to open the hatch of a ship.
6. ORLOK’S ABODE IS REALLY THE ORAVA CASTLE IN SLOVAKIA.
Nosferatu was mostly filmed on location within the German cities of Lubeck and Wismar. However, the Transylvania scenes were shot in northern Slovakia—a place that was significantly closer to home for Murnau and company than Romania would’ve been. With one exception, all the exterior shots of Orlok’s palace really depict the 700 year-old Orava Castle that sits above a fishing village called Oravsky Poozamonva. The very last scene in Nosferatu is a shot of our vampire’s Transylvanian home, which has collapsed after his death. To shoot this footage, Murnau traveled to Starhrad, a long-abandoned Slovakian castle that’s been decaying since the 1500s.
7. NOSFERATU ESTABLISHED A TIME-HONORED VAMPIRE TROPE.
The idea that vampires burn up when exposed to direct sunlight is traceable to this movie. In Dracula, the villain casually walks around outside in broad daylight. According to the novel, solar rays can slightly weaken a vampire, but Stoker never implies that they could kill one. Yet for the sake of a more visually compelling climax, Grau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen decided to make the sun’s light utterly fatal to poor Count Orlok, who disappears in a puff of smoke when he’s lured into a well-lit room. Thus, a resilient horror cliché was born.
8. A COSTUME PARTY FOLLOWED THE MOVIE’S PREMIERE.
In the end, Prana-Film spent more money promoting Nosferatu than actually making it. Grau launched an ambitious, multifaceted marketing campaign that included newspaper ads, expressionist posters, and a steady stream of press coverage. After months of hype, the picture had its premiere at the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens on March 4, 1922. The screening itself was preceded by a brief stage show, which consisted of a prologue delivered by an orator and then a huge dance number. Once Murnau’s film ended later that evening, the guests took part in an ostentatious costume ball rife with gowns and frock coats. Perhaps the whole event was a little too lavish for its own good: Many of the reporters who attended Nosferatu’s premiere later wrote more extensively about this great, big party than the movie itself.
9. STOKER’S WIFE SUED THE STUDIO.
If she’d gotten her way, this movie would have joined Dracula’s Death in the dustbin of film history. Shortly after Nosferatu premiered in Berlin, Florence Stoker—Bram’s widow—received an anonymous package containing one of its promotional posters. Displayed upon this placard was the inflammatory line “Freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
An outraged Mrs. Stoker immediately took legal action. Upon receiving the poster, she joined the British Incorporated Society of Authors, which hired a German lawyer to go after Prana-Film. At first, the plan was to sue Grau’s company for copyright infringement. However, a string of terrible business decisions—not the least of which was Nosferatu’s recklessly expensive marketing campaign—had already bankrupted the studio.
When it became clear that Stoker would never make a dime off of Nosferatu, she did everything in her power to have all copies of the film destroyed. In 1925, a German court sided with her and ordered that every copy within that nation be burned. And yet, just like Count Dracula, Nosferatu proved very difficult to kill. Over the next few years, surviving copies made their way to the U.S. and UK. Thus, the undead picture haunted Florence Stoker until the end of her days. Before she died in 1937, a handful of screenings took place—usually in the United States. Stoker relentlessly tracked down wayward copies of the movie and incinerated those that she got her hands on. But despite her best efforts, Nosferatu lived on in the form of pirated bootlegs.
10. MANY DIFFERENT SOUNDTRACKS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN FOR NOSFERATU.
This sort of thing often happens to silent films. When Nosferatu premiered in Berlin, it was accompanied by a live, orchestral score composed by one Hans Erdmann. No recordings of this original soundtrack are known to exist, although a few restorations have been made. Over the years, Nosferatu has also received several alternative scores spanning a wide array of genres. Various home video editions of the film now include jazz, electronic, and classical background music.
11. IN 2002, NICKELODEON SHOWED THE MOVIE A LITTLE LOVE.
Readers of a certain age might remember Nosferatu not as a classic horror film but as the subject of a particularly strange SpongeBob SquarePants gag. The season 2 episode “Graveyard Shift” sees SpongeBob and Squidward trying to survive their first 24-hour workday at the Krusty Krab. Things get eerie when the lights start to flicker on and off—seemingly all by themselves. At the end of the episode, who should they find playing around with the switch but that mischievous rascal… Count Orlok?!
Even by the show’s own absurd standards, this joke is a real non sequitur. Jay Lender, one of the cartoon’s longest-serving writers, conceived the bit as an “out of left field” ending for the episode. In 2012, Lender told Hogan’s Alley magazine “I’ve had several people say to me that [it’s] the all-time funniest SpongeBob moment.”
From a technical standpoint, the most difficult aspect of this joke was finding a useable image of Max Schreck in full vampire regalia. “I drove all over town looking for books with scannable pictures of Count Orlok; I searched what little there was of the Web back then,” says Lender. “Hours and hours of my life [were spent] over four seconds of screen time because it made me laugh.”