This movie should not exist. All copies were ordered to be destroyed by law. By all rights, it should not have been produced in the first place.
And yet, if you go by the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s the second best reviewed horror movie of all time. Personally, I question everything about that site, and that list as a whole. Truly, I take issues with most internet lists just because everyone has one, and they’re always subjective. But I do completely agree that this movie belongs near the top of the list of classic monster movies in terms of quality and legacy. There are so many movies from the silent era that are now lost to us for one reason or another, and to think that this might have been one of them due to a legal squabble is just unimaginable to me. Thing is, I can see both sides of the argument too. After all, somebody in another country was trying to make money on the hard work of a dead man. I’d take offense at that too if I were related to that guy, wouldn’t you? I suppose it’s easy to say that’s subjective too, given the sheer number of Dracula translations out there today.
The film studio that made Nosferatu, Prana Films, didn’t last long. It was designed to produce horror and occult-themed films, but it only made this one film. Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, and Stoker’s widow quite literally sued the company into oblivion. The novel wasn’t as well-received as Stoker would have liked, and a decade after his death, his widow was content with letting the book lie as a testament to her husband’s efforts. There was some kind of potential loophole in the copyright due to international law of the time, but the courts favored the Stoker estate. By judicial mandate, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. It shouldn’t have been a problem. Due to the costs of starting up the company in the first place, there was only one camera, and therefore only one original negative of the film. But the press was all over this film from its initial release, and a single copy saw worldwide distribution. That one extant copy was duplicated time and again by those who understood what a masterpiece of cinema this film was.
Had Florence Stoker any kind of business sense, and had the producers at Prana been willing to cut her in for a share of the profits rightfully due, things might have turned out differently. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and it may be that both Dracula and Nosferatu have the legacy they do precisely because Stoker fought to keep them buried. Nosferatu was not only a runaway success in its own time, but because of the legal battle, the scandal surrounding it drove it to the top of the must-see list for generations to come. The producers at Universal Studios used their extant copy of Nosferatu as their blueprint when figuring out how to translate their script from stage play to silver screen a decade later, which then turned Stoker’s novel into a bestselling juggernaut that hasn’t been out of print since. In other words, because of an unauthorized foreign film about a story of the undead, Stoker received the fame and generated financial windfalls in death that he never achieved in life. Funny how things work out sometimes. It’s the time-honored theme of many great monster classics: no matter how you try to kill something, some things simply refuse to stay dead.
In their bid to circumnavigate the copyright issues, director F. W. Murnau had the novel loosely adapted, with all of the character names and locations changed. Count Dracula became Count Orlok, Harker became Hutter, and so on. There were enough deviations that you can make the very technical case that Orlok and Dracula are two completely different characters. Those differences have been spotlighted time and again, especially by modern storytellers and role-playing game franchises, to create different lines of vampires with different abilities. Some scenes were extended, most notably the scenes aboard ship, while others were severely shortened or removed outright. The original script was mapped out in storyboard in the meticulous manner commonly used today, but was rare for its time. Lighting, camera position… everything was accounted for, and Murnau kept close to those storyboards when filming. There was even a complete score written specifically for this film, which any film historian can tell you is almost unheard of at this time. The score was intended to be performed by an orchestra during projection (in those upper scale movie houses that could afford such luxuries as an orchestra), but sadly most of that score is lost today. Many different scores have been arranged since, attesting to the devotion this film has inspired over the decades. My personal DVD copy of this has two different scores, one for orchestra (which is beyond cheesy), and one for organ (which is awesome!). Even so, I will always be left wondering what that original score sounded like.
As with any great monster movie of this era, or the next one that Lugosi kickstarted, I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is a scary movie. It’s not. Most monster movies aren’t. But I will say that it’s haunting. There’s a creepy majesty to this, if there can be said to be such an idea, and it’s at such a level that the only competition I’ve been able to find are the equally majestic efforts of “the man with a thousand faces,” Lon Chaney, Sr. All creepiness is owed to Count Orlok’s performer, a man known as Max Schreck. Ironically, Schreck is German for “terror” (among other things), and yes, that is his real name. Schreck is one of those extreme character actors who took everything so far beyond the pale that it creeped out his coworkers. As a result, the reactions you see from them on screen are real. By arrangement with Murnau, Schreck appeared on set only for filming, and only at night, never out of costume, in character at all times, with the demand to only be called by his character’s name, and with a special diet that was kept secret so as to trump up the notion that maybe he really was a vampire. This story may or may not be urban legend designed to add to the publicity, but such things were not unheard of in that time. Regardless, the anecdote would later inspire the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire. Jon Malkovich plays Murnau, and Willem Dafoe plays Schreck. The conceit of the film, which is brilliant, is that Schreck really is a vampire, and Murnau is in league with him from the start.
Only a handful of years before that, there was another film character named “Max Shrek.” dubbed in honor of this silent era actor. He can be seen portrayed by Christopher Walken in 1992’s Batman Returns.
So you see, this is one of those screen gems that continues to give and give, especially in regards to the legacy of Stoker’s vampire. While I shouldn’t endorse the idea of piracy, just remember… this movie shouldn’t exist. We’re able to enjoy it today, and Dracula enjoys its unimaginable popularity — and all that implies — because somebody broke the law to make it and someone else did so to preserve this treasure. I suppose it’s just human nature to recognize art. Or perhaps it’s just human nature to ignore when somebody says they can’t do something. We as a species just don’t seem to react well to the word “no.”