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The Copyright Battle that Gave Cinematic Life to Dracula

‘Nosferatu’ was an illegal adaptation, but the fight over it spawned a monsterous legacy.

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Still from 1922's 'Nosferatu'

F.W. Murnau’s silent vampire film Nosferatu, made in Germany in 1922, is very up-front about its resemblance to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula: it claims in its opening titles to have adapted it to film. This attribution was likely a token tossed in to avoid potential allegations of plagiarism, since Murnau and his creative team did not purchase adaptation rights to Stoker’s text at all.

When Nosferatu was released, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, had been dead for a decade. It was his widow, the London-based Florence Balcombe Stoker, who objected to the film’s apparent relationship to her husband’s bestseller. There is no evidence that Mrs. Stoker ever watched Murnau’s film, although she was certainly aware of the differences between them. Mrs. Stoker considered it a pirated version of her husband’s novel, which had been her primary source of income for ten years, and promptly launched a campaign against Murnau’s film company, Prana-Film, to halt its potential proliferation.

Even so, Murnau really only borrowed the skeleton of Stoker’s plot. In Nosferatu, the familiar characters (the few that remain, that is, from the novel’s robust cast) all bear new names, while the most effective weapon against the vampire is not a stake, but sunlight. The only character truly able to participate in the vanquishing of the monster is a sacrificial woman, a departure from the teamwork-heavy novel’s climactic and male-oriented group-slay. Most importantly, though, in Nosferatu, the villain himself, bearing the new patronym Orlok (and played by the actor Max Schreck), is not Stoker’s red-blooded (so to speak), reverse-aging Anglophile, but a creepy humanoid. Orlok looks like a werewolf, if instead of a wolf, the animal anatomy key to the transformation is a nocturnal primate. By broadly retaining the plot while changing the conventions of the body of the vampire and the atmosphere he inhabits, Nosferatu eschews many of the themes of the Dracula story, which include eroticism, masculinity, collaboration, and illumination—producing a vampire tale that is, as I have said in Public Books, “preoccupied with hunger, disease, loneliness, and darkness, Murnau’s vampire more invaded than invader.”

“You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.”

Nosferatu was a “schauerfilm,” a Weimar-era horror movie which repurposed Stoker’s story to tell one of, according to Siegfried Kracauer, “suffering” wrought by the symbolic vampire standing-in for “tyranny.” Kracuaer’s reading of German Expressionism runs deeper than this—he argues that the anguish wrought by the first world war left Germany broken and waiting for a master (one which would come in the figure of Hitler), and that this dynamic is uniquely revealed in the films of this period. Since Murnau and his team did wind up changing so much about Stoker’s story, it is indeed curious why they chose to adapt it in the first place. Lotte Eisner, whose summation of German expressionism supports Kracauer’s reading, suggests that Murnau’s adaptation of Stoker’s story corresponded to the values established by the German “autorenfilm” movement from the previous decade, which sought to commemorate the achievements of various writers, rather than the directors of the films they themselves adapted. According to this logic, in a common symptom of his own era, Murnau may have been subconsciously looking for a master to follow in Stoker, in his search for a story featuring a domineering master. The film, which was released at a sumptuous premiere at the Berlin Zoo, offered its viewers the chance to participate in an overwhelming fantasy not limited by the sheer artifice of film. One advertisement for the event played up the danger of the vampire, reading, “You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.”

The critics were blown away. Béla Balázs wrote that, watching the film was akin to feeling “a chilly draft from doomsday.” Other reviewers also spoke of it as if it were a mystical event; one reviewer disavowed its horror aspects, noting instead that it reawoke in him a latent understanding of the metaphysical world: “‘Nosferatu’ was now and then called a symphony of horror, but the horror seems to be in the second or third place; In the first place … the most primitive tendency of the unadulterated human soul towards the transcendental. This film play is a narrative from the childhood days of the usual poetry and fantasy, something quite unreal and fairy-tale-like.”

Florence Stoker was not interested in the artwork that had become of her husband’s novel. Her unrelenting, seven-year crusade began with a lawsuit, but Prana-Film soon declared bankruptcy, possibly to attempt to circumvent paying up. In 1924, the German court ruled against Prana-Film, but the company refused to hand over Mrs. Stoker’s desired amount, so the case went to an appeal—twice. In February of 1925, frustrated that she was not making headway, she devised a new plan, mandating that copies of Murnau’s film be ripped from their canisters and destroyed. Her wish was granted in July of that same year; the German courts sent agents to hunt down and eradicate copies and negatives of Nosferatu.

She also sent out registered letters to the organizers of any screenings she learned of, informing them of her new legal right to prevent such screenings from taking place and forbidding the dissemination of the film. Copies of Nosferatu still circulated after they were persecuted (in 1929, a copy surfaced at Greenwich Village’s Film Guild Cinema—although it is unknown, as far as I can tell, what happened to it afterwards) but they were also now challenged from surviving in centers which sought to protect them (canisters held by the London Film Society were hunted, for example). It is noteworthy that, in the midst of Mrs. Stoker’s policing, Murnau’s original negatives were indeed lost.

It is incredible, then, that the film collector Henri Langlois acquired a copy (specifically, a version released in France in 1926 or 1927) and included it in the cinematic stockpile that would become the archives of the Cinémathèque Français. It is unclear how he managed to acquire it, or when. The film was definitely among the inventory by 1943, after the organization received a large amount of films—copies of their own films which had been seized in 1940 by the Nazis in a massive confiscation, which were being returned after a negotiation facilitated by Germaine Dulac, as well as a plethora of very early Fantômas and Vampires films which were being sold by the then-bankrupted Gaumont studio. Nosferatu was among these masses of footage, but it is currently unclear if it had been in the collection, circa the Nazi requisition, or if it had been a new acquisition altogether. And there may have been more than one copy in Langlois’s archive as early as 1930, unbeknownst to him or the other collectors; in 1958, Lotte Eisner, who had been in charge of managing the Cinémathèque’s collections during the war (and did so in hiding, since she was wanted by the Nazis) discovered a second copy in their archives—a version retitled Die Zwolfte Stunde (The Twelfth Hour), recut by a man named Dr. Waldermar Roger, who had been planning on releasing his own version with music.

This copy nabbed and preserved by Langlois would become the definitive version screened in theaters and museums throughout the twentieth century.

But Langlois’s efforts were monumental, saving the film from demolition after two potential threats: from the angry English widow, and certainly from officials in Nazi-occupied France. This copy nabbed and preserved by Langlois would become the definitive version screened in theaters and museums throughout the twentieth century; it was sent to the Museum of Modern Art in 1947, where its intertitles were translated into English, and then sent to the National Film Archives in London and various other facilities throughout Europe.

It is almost funny that Nosferatu was denied an official affiliation with the novel Dracula for being not only too similar, but also likely too profane. According to David J. Skal in his book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen (which provides the best and most detailed account of this copyright battle), despite French and German praise, the current London film censor had actually banned theatres purchasing the film, on the grounds that it was simply “too horrible.” In 1928, when the London Film Society did manage to show it, there was little hype—the program itself even billed the film as “ridiculous.” In a 1931 review, the film critic for The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall, not only found the film barely scary, but mostly found it boring, writing: “it is the sort of thing one could watch at midnight without its having much effect upon one’s slumbering hours. In fact, yesterday at the Film Guild Cinema, where this production is now on view, there was at least one man who dozed audibly and another who was either terrified or was enjoying a forty or more winks.” The critic for The New York Herald Tribune, writing in 1929, called it “a jumbled and confused piece” and predicted that audiences would leave in “bewilderment.” Variety, which sent a critic to review the film in Germany shortly after its premiere in 1922, called it “not worth all the shouting—after all is said and done, a still-born Caligari,” comparing it to the famous Robert Weine film which came out the year before. When it premiered in the United States seven years later, Variety reviewed it again, calling it “confusing” and “depressive.” While the German critics, and French surrealists, often ignored whether or not Nosferatu was a compelling horror movie in favor of more relevant aesthetic readings, English and American audiences dwelled on these elements and reported that the film was not believable, in addition to diminishing its gloomier qualities precisely for being gloomy.

But mediocre press in the English-speaking world was not punishment enough. Mrs. Stoker had already launched another maneuver to finish off Nosferatu: a plan to divert potential fans to other Dracula adaptations, theatrical ones which she licensed herself.

Bram Stoker had, in his lifetime, a similar idea about the theater offering a certain kind of copyright protection. On Tuesday, May 18th, 1897 (at 10:15 am), eight days before the release of his novel Dracula, the Lyceum Theatre, where Stoker himself was the business manager, performed a theatrical adaptation of the yet-unpublished novel that Stoker had written, himself. This play, Dracula: or the Un-Dead, was only performed once. According to Sylvia Starshine, the editor of the first published edition of the play in 1997, Stoker had likely worried, upon the publication of his Dracula, that the more sensational concepts in his novel would quickly be borrowed and incorporated into a play by someone else, and so he decided to make his own stage adaptation before his book was released; if anyone did write a vampire play with similar themes after Dracula hit the bookshelves on May 26th, he would have already produced a stage version and could then legally claim copyright infringement. Starshine concludes from surviving Lyceum Theatre records that the play was not intended to sell tickets (just an amount, to friends and company members, to fulfill the audience quota that would constitute “public performance” enough to receive the copyright). She also hypothesizes that Stoker wrote the play very quickly. Giant monologues are full of exposition, and whole chunks of the novel’s text appear in dialogue; it is, simply, a faithful adaptation, and a bad play.

But Mrs. Stoker did not rely on this document, commissioning new, much less experimental or thematically-curious theatrical revampings of her husband’s novel. Skal explains that she transferred theatrical adaptation rights to the playwright Hamilton Deane in 1925. A successful stage run of his dramatic adaptation of Dracula in London led to overseas demand, so Deane’s already abridged play, co-edited in a new version with John Balderston, headed to Broadway in 1927, and starred an enigmatic Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, in the title role. And then Mrs. Stoker and Deane sold their film rights to Universal Studios. From Deane’s play, the 1931 Tod Browning-directed Dracula, with Bela Lugosi reprising his role as the Count, was produced. Thus, the complicated legal battle (that incidentally wound up resembling events in the novel Dracula at many points, especially the “hunt” for the foreign malefactor), that had been begun to retain control after Dracula was pirated (exactly what Stoker, himself, had feared), had made possible the surge of early Dracula film adaptations that would spur the vampire movie fad that would later engulf and forget the source text Mrs. Stoker had striven to protect, at the start. Indeed, most among the preponderance of Dracula adaptations often reawaken and revitalize the story from Deane’s play and the Browning film. The original book itself is, surprisingly, not a common source text, and not the story you might expect.

Nosferatu would soon reign as a half-lived forefather of the twentieth century vampire craze, which includes, most prominently, a multitude of specifically Dracula-branded films.

Interestingly, Murnau’s Nosferatu itself also features themes which would reflect—rather, predict—the strange duality of its twentieth century existence. The story explores the relationship between an unwanted being on the fringes of society, and the mainstream, domestic world that arrives in his. In a reflexive twist, the real-life film had been surviving in exile during and after Mrs. Stoker’s furious suit. Nosferatu would soon reign as a half-lived forefather of the twentieth century vampire craze, which includes, most prominently, a multitude of specifically Dracula-branded films.

Dracula movies and Nosferatu movies are fundamentally different. The Dracula tradition is romantic, urbane, exciting. Perhaps the most recognizable rendering of the Count on film is the tuxedoed, suave, thickly-accented xenophile Lugosi. Another generation, though, might pick Frank Langella, whose Count is handsome, sensitive, and chivalric—a lonely Byronic cavalier scouting for a soulmate. Another contender might be Christopher Lee, from the Hammer Dracula films. He began his seven such movies as a lordly, raptorial English grandee, but his character’s blue-blooded pretense faded along with (or perhaps due to) the quality of the film’s sequels, which eventually featured him as a tall, silent reaper with hot pink blood smeared across his bared fangs and a beautiful, unconscious woman draped in his arms.

The few Nosferatu films that exist draw attention to one another, linking themselves together, instead of vying with one another for salience or redefinition, as in the Dracula tradition. Werner Herzog remade it in 1979 with Klaus Kinski as an equally-batlike, bald vampire, and a prequel, Nosferatu in Venice, appeared in 1988. And of course, Shadow of the Vampire from 2000, with Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck as Orlok, is a re-imagining of the making of Murnau’s film, which posits that the obscure actor Shreck was a real vampire, to begin with. The Nosferatu tradition tells of hardship and solitude, but it offers a highly creative and meaningful cultural identity, allowing contemporary postwar concerns, questions, and ideas about sadness, horror, and death. Its decedents, rather than scatter in pursuit of hegemony, band together and feed on each other.

With the production of Universal’s Dracula, Mrs. Stoker had intended to slam the final nail into Nosferatu’s coffin, permanently displacing its position as a foundational adaptation of her husband’s novel. But this hardly worked; Nosferatu was billed constantly as being “based on Dracula.” That the illegitimate, illegal Nosferatu is truly responsible for its own, as well as Dracula’s, cinematic pedigree does not, as Mrs. Stoker may have anticipated, signify a warring relationship between them. Still, the copyright battle that led to the splintering, and enormous proliferation, of the Dracula story is a useful backstory to have when framing the two film traditions; Nosferatu interpreted, rather than simply adapted, Dracula to explore specific contemporary thematic and artistic concerns. Separating them allows Nosferatu, at least, to turn its former desolation into definition for later films which share investments in these themes. It provides Dracula adaptations of both types with more pertinent matter to use in the exploration, development, and expansion of the dynamics and potentials of the story. And, at the very least, gives the once-abandoned Nosferatu not one home, but two.

Olivia Rutigliano is an Editor at Lit Hub and CrimeReads. She is also a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. Her other work appears in Vanity Fair, Vulture, Lapham's Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, The Baffler, Politics/Letters, The Toast, Truly Adventurous, PBS Television, and elsewhere. She has a PhD from the departments of English/comparative literature and theatre at Columbia University, where she was the Marion E. Ponsford fellow.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published May 26, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.