In this day and age of instant gratification, where the newest pop culture water cooler sensations appear across streaming platforms only to get swiftly replaced by the newest en vogue series or film, it’s nice to step back and appreciate something that’s been a part of the popular lexicon for so damn long. 96 years long, to be precise. F. W. Murnau’s German “adaptation” of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Nosferatu, was released this week, in the year 1922. Upon its initial release, Nosferatu was a raging success. That is, until the Stoker estate caught wind of the flagrant plagiarism. Despite their best efforts, it was too little, too late. Nosferatu was already deeply buried in filmgoers’ consciousness, and the haunting visage of Max Schreck as the title bloodsucker has long stood as one of the most terrifying incarnations of the OG vamp, Count Dracula…um, I mean, “Count Orlok.”
The film was the first for a newly founded company, Prana Film. Prana was started by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau. Grau was an occult practitioner, and as part of the Fraternitas Saturni (“Brotherhood of Saturn”), Grua took on the name Master Pacitius. The Brotherhood’s focus was “the study of esotericism, mysticism, and magic in the cosmic sense.” Though they adhered to Aleister Crowley’s “The Book of the Law,” they did not align themselves under Crowley’s leadership. Fraternitas Saturni still practice today and exist as Germany’s longest standing magical order. Given Grau’s occultist leanings, it was important for him that his films help spread his particular brand of gospel. Prana (the sanskrit word for “vital principle”) was set up with that sole purpose, geared solely at producing tales of the occult and supernatural. Basically, it was like the 1920’s German answer to Blumhouse. While Nosferatu was a special film that garnered a great deal of success, the road to get there wasn’t the easiest. Ultimately, it would be the nail in the coffin of fledgling Prana and cut short their loftier goals of propagating the occult via their cinematic endeavors.
Dieckmann and Grau had a great idea for Prana’s inaugural film. The duo just may have gone about it the wrong way, however. They specifically hired a writer to adapt Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” without any intent on obtaining the legal rights to do so. Written by Henrik Galeen, who was no stranger to the genre having written 1920’s The Golem, Nosferatu quickly went into production. The script was littered with technical directions regarding lighting, camera placement, and acting styles. All of which were followed closely by Murnau. Except for the ending, that is. For whatever reason, Murnau’s shooting script was missing the last several pages, so he created his own climax using intricate drawings to relay his vision. In fact, the well-established myth that vampires can’t stand a little bit of UV can be traced back to this very film. Murnau used Dracula’s aversion to sunlight and made it lethal for Orlok in an attempt to further separate his work from that of Stoker’s. Ultimately, the dumb luck of missing script pages helped give birth to one of the most integral pieces of vampiric lore.
That said, if one watches the film today, it’s quite clear most of Count Orlok’s scenes were filmed in broad daylight. The “fix” was to tint these moments in a dark blue hue upon the initial release. The music was performed live and composed by Hans Erdmann. While a recording was made of the score during a later screening, most of the original recordings have been lost. Nosferatu went on to garner mostly favorable reviews, though some took umbrage with the expressionistic style. And, despite Murnau’s best efforts to try and differentiate the film from “Dracula,” the marketing department must not have gotten the memo. One of the advertisements proudly proclaimed “Dracula” as the films inspiration.
This faux pas brought about swift and severe legal action from Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence. The Stoker Estate sued Prana films. The company declared bankruptcy to avoid the lawsuit as best they could. The judge, however, took a ruthless approach to the case, ruling in the Stoker’s favor and ordering every copy of Nosferatu to be destroyed! Yep, all of the original prints were burned, or so it seemed. One copy survived the celluloid witch hunt and managed to make it all the way to US shores. Of course, in the US, “Dracula” was already in the public domain. There was nothing that could be done as screenings of the German import began popping up across the country, terrifying audiences. Nosferatu would not soon be forgotten.
In a somewhat ironic fate, Nosferatu now exists in the public domain where any and everyone is free to use it how they see fit. There have been countless re-editions, including 1930’s The Twelfth Hour: A Night of Horror that used deleted scenes and newly shot footage. There have been releases using heavy metal scores, colorizations, an amazing 79′ remake by Werner Herzog, and even a making-of docudrama, Shadow of the Vampire, that sees Willem Dafoe take on the role of Max Shreck…except in that version, the mysterious actor is actually a real-life vampire. In spite of the dealings of an undead Count, Nosferatu has proven its legacy to be quite evergreen. The monster’s shadowy tendrils, always reemerging in the darkness of pop culture, are soon to be reimagined yet again with The Witch’s Robert Eggers behind the camera.