How the Classic Vampire Movie 'Nosferatu' Cheated Court-Ordered Death

Death by sunlight ... or Florence Stoker's lawyers?
Death by sunlight ... or Florence Stoker's lawyers? / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Thousands of films from the silent era have been written off as lost. You will never see A Study in Scarlet (1914) or Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle (1926) or Treasure Island (1920) starring Lon Chaney. But one early horror flick managed to cheat death. 

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The debut movie of the small German studio Prana Film, Nosferatu premiered at the Berlin Zoological Garden on March 4, 1922. Nine days later, the picture opened in German cinemas and thrilled audiences with its tale of the skeletal Count Orlok, an undead, blood-sucking monster played to terrifying effect by the mysterious actor Max Schreck.

It was not the first vampire film, but it is (arguably) the oldest surviving one—which is ironic, because someone was actively trying to kill it. 

Shadow of the Vampire

That person was Florence Stoker, whose late husband Bram Stoker was the author of Dracula. And Nosferatu had “Dracula” written all over it.

Because the 1897 novel was still under copyright, Prana Film couldn’t legally adapt it for the screen without permission from Florence, who was her husband’s literary executor. But the company had never asked her for it

“We have found nothing to say she was ever approached and no license fee was dangled in front of her,” her great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, told the Irish Times.   

Instead, Prana Film had simply changed character names and parts of the setting and kept the primary story intact.

After the picture debuted, someone sent Mrs. Stoker a program from Nosferatu’s Berlin premiere, on which Prana claimed its film was “freely adapted” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She also received advertisements showing Count Orlok in all his ghoulish glory. 

Florence sued Prana for copyright infringement and won, but the studio couldn’t pay damages because it had gone bankrupt. The legal battle that followed dragged on for years until, in 1925, a German court ordered that all negatives and prints of Nosferatu be destroyed. 

Easier said than done. 

The Monster Escapes

By then, Nosferatu was no longer confined to Germany; copies of the movie had already crossed international borders when the court issued its ruling. “As early as 1922, Stoker learned of showings of Nosferatu in Budapest, Hungary and Paris, France,” writes Carl L. Bankston in Great Events from History: Modern Scandals—Volume I

Max Schreck in 'Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens'
Much like this scene of Max Schreck rising from a ship's hold, pirated copies of 'Nosferatu" kept turning up in Europe and the U.S. / United Archives/GettyImages

Another obstacle was the movie’s growing fan base. In October 1925, Stoker learned that a London group called the Film Society intended to screen Nosferatu for its members. Event organizer Ivor Montegu had gotten a copy from an unnamed importer, who had tried and failed to sell it elsewhere. 

“He admits the film was purchased in Germany, but would not say from whom, or whether it was already in this country,” Stoker wrote in a letter to the secretary of an authors’ union.

After a volley of cease-and-desist requests, the Film Society agreed to turn over their copy of Nosferatu. “[The] record is silent on the exact fate of the film, but presumably the English print of Nosferatu was consigned to the flames around the first of April, 1929,” writes David J. Skal in Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. Then the lawyers working on Stoker’s behalf asked Montegu, who had an interest in film preservation, if any other Nosferatu prints were still at large.  

“Montegu alluded to one copy in use in France—he had no direct knowledge of it, but had seen advertisements in Parisian newspapers,” Skal writes. “As for America, yes, he believed it had traveled there as well, by way of an organization called the International Film Arts Guild. At least one copy, and very likely more.” 

“Extreme Weirdness”

Nosferatu had indeed crossed the Atlantic. Universal Pictures bought an illegal print, much to Stoker’s frustration, and went on to produce its own (properly authorized) Dracula movie, starring Bela Lugosi, in 1931. (The studio paid Stoker $20,000 for the rights, or about $320,000 in today’s dollars.)

A scene in 'Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens'
"Horrible, spooky, terrible": a scene from 'Nosferatu' / United Archives/GettyImages

In 1929, Count Orlok popped up in theaters in New York City, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.. The reviews were mostly negative, with the New York Herald Tribune calling Prana’s movie “jumbled and confused.” The New York Daily News dismissed the performances “except that of Max Schreck, title roleist, who is as horrible, spooky, terrible as this ghastly, ghostly part requires.”

“The action of the picture is so disconnected as to make the continuity confusing,” the Daily News added. “However, this one certainly holds interest for its extreme weirdness and its unusual photography. The scenery is quite enticing, while props consist mostly of coffins, coffins, more coffins and dark, dim, dreary cellars.”

Harsh words? Maybe. But it’s possible that American audiences and newspaper critics who went to these early screenings didn’t see Nosferatu in its original form. Some historians think they could have been watching a 1929 recut of the film that added substantial new footage (and changed the characters’ names around yet again). 

Not much is known about this revised take on Nosferatu—but the original just wouldn’t die. Illegal copies kept turning up after Florence Stoker passed away in 1937, and the movie was eventually broadcast on television. 

Viewers who had been raised on the Universal vampire films couldn’t wait to sink their teeth into this one. In 1950, an advertisement for Nosferatu’s run at a Los Angeles Theater called it “the famous original German Dracula classic,” while a 1954 Arizona Republic column lauded the picture as “the forerunner of Dracula and about the most frightening film imaginable.”

From Silent Film to 'Salem's Lot

Today, most horror fans and critics embrace the silent movie that started it all. While no single original print of Prana Film’s Nosferatu exists, film preservationists have pieced together fragments from the earlier prints to arrive at a more or less authentic copy.

Prana’s vision has influenced a century of vampire depictions, from the Bela Lugosi films to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) starring Klaus Kinski and even Bram Stoker'’s Dracula (1992). It clearly informs What We Do in the Shadows, the ‘Salem’s Lot miniseries, and countless other vampire projects. Because it’s in the public domain in the U.S., Nosferatu is freely available on YouTube and it’s easy to find a hard copy on DVD. 

Florence Stoker did everything she could to vanquish Count Orlok, but Nosferatu rose from its legal grave—and haunts us to this day.    

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