Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

The original Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors premiered at the Marble Gardens in the Berlin Zoological Gardens, March 1922. A Prana-Films production, this thinly veiled adaptaion of Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula was directed by F.W.Murnau and starred Max Shreck in the starring role as the undead "Graf Orlock".

This film was, in fact, the second screen appearance of Dracula. The first was a European short film in which a psychotic actor thinks he truely is Dracula, and goads on a person to shoot him to prove him right. The film is called Dracula's Death, and as one can glean, the actor was quite wrong. Nosferatu was and continues to be to the only Dracula film to convey the same sense of disgust and repulsiveness that Stoker originally intended for the character (the only others are the 1979 remake of Nosferatu and 1993's Bram Stoker's Dracula, where the repuslive old man-beast occupies the screen with the same seductive nobleman we've come to know and love). This time around, Orlock/Dracula is a rat-like plague carrier, as repugnant as the beasts he controls.

Unfortunately for Prana, this film was too thinly veiled, and Florence Stoker, widow of the late Bram Stoker proceeded to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors, whose lawyers then took up the case for her. Stoker was seeking restitution since Prana neither asked permission to adapt Dracula, nor paid her any money for it. However, Stoker and the BISA were not the only people persuing Prana-Films: Prana was a financial sinking ship and was being hunted down by creditors as well. Just as the BISA sued Prana, it went into receivership and all materials and debts were taken over by the Deutsch-Amerikansch Film Union. The BISA then persued the Film Union and demanded that all copies of Nosferatu be handed over to Florence Stoker for destruction. In July 1925, the issue was settled and all known copies of Nosferatu were handed over to Stoker, and destroyed.

Or so Stoker thought. In October of that year, the Film Society in England asked her to endorse a classic film festival, and first on the list was the infamous Nosferatu. Stoker was furious and demanded that the Society give her their copy so that she could destroy it as well. The Film Society refused and the legalities followed. By 1928, Universal Pictures owned the copyright for Dracula, and therefore, all adaptations of it, including Nosferatu. Initially, Universal allowed the Film Society to keep the print, but after pressure from Florence Stoker, they aquired the print and it joined its kin in 1929. Then came a sudden spurt of American copies of the film, under the name Nosferatu the Vampire, but Universal had them all destroyed in 1930. It finally seemed as though this pesky film had met its end.

This was not the case though. Following Florence Stoker's death in 1937, various copies of the film cropped up. Nosferatu truely regained its popularity in 1960 due to the program Silents Please, which showed a condensed version of the film under the title Dracula. This version was re-released on video by Entertainment Films as Terror of Dracula. In 1972, Blackhawk Films released the uncut original to the collector's market as Nosferatu the Vampire, and the condensed version to the general as Dracula.

It was at this point, in 1979, that Werner Herzog's remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre was released. This German language (though American versions have sub-titles or dubbing) film was a remake of the original film, keeping the setting of Bremen (though it is Wismar in the dubbed version) and the plague, but honored its debt to Dracula by using the original character's names. This version has just recently become available on video in a widescreen format.

Finally, in 1984, a complete and final copy of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors was restored and has since become commonly available. Nowadays it is popular fodder for modern soundtracks, some good (like the Silent Orchestra's) and some being little more than marketing opportunities for bad Gothic bands.

Contrary to popular opinion, the word "nosferatu" does not mean "vampire", "undead", or anything else like that. The term originally came from the old Slavonic word "*nosufur-atu", which itself was derived from the Greek "nosophoros". "Nosophoros", in the original Greek, stands for "plague carrier". This derviation makes sense when one considers that amongst western European nations, vampires were regarded as the carriers of many diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases, TB, etc.

The confusion began when Emily Gerard used the term to mean vampire in her book The Land Beyond the Forest (1885). From there, Bram Stoker used it in Dracula, abiet less prominately. Leonard Wolf finally compounded Gerard's mistakes in his The Annotated Dracula, where he said that "nosferatu" meant "not dead".

Dispite that though, the undead Graf Orlock acts with menacing precision. Nosferatu is a tour-de-force of horror cinema. So much so that it was even recognized by Entertainment Weekly as #80 in the top 100 movies ever made - one of only two silent films to be on the list.

Further Articles:
  • German Expressionism. An analysis of the genre that includes Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Vampire Lore as it is in the Nosferatu mythos.
  • The Treatment. What happens when Goths get their hands on classic silent films?
Off-site Links:

To Silent Movie Monsters films