Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu –one of the most iconic and influential horror films ever made. One of the finest examples of the genre known as German Expressionism. A masterpiece by one of early cinema’s most skilled directors. And, of course, a prime example of…copyright infringement?
Yes, Nosferatu is indeed all of the above and more. Arguably, the story behind the origin and making of this seminal film is almost as interesting as what we see onscreen.
It all began with Albin Grau, an artist, architect, and occultist who was a member of the German magical order Fraternitas Saturni (no kidding). During World War I, he served in the German army, and was deeply affected by the horrors he had witnessed (later in life he called WWI a “cosmic vampire”). He was also affected by an unusual incident where he met a Serbian farmer who claimed his father had been an actual vampire and had to be killed with a stake through the heart. This startling tale stuck in Grau’s memory, and he felt it was somehow connected with the bloodlust of war. Perhaps the theme of vampirism could be explored further one day.
After the war, Grau returned to his occult activities and made a fortunate acquaintance: film director F.W. Murnau. Murnau, a rather serious, icy individual, had been obsessed with theater and films since his boyhood. He was also a fellow veteran of WWI, having worked in the German army’s Flying Corps as a gunner, and he had survived no less than eight plane crashes with only minor injuries. Murnau told Grau that he dreamed of making a film version of Bram Stoker’s famed novel Dracula. Grau loved the idea – no doubt feeling it was destiny – and decided to work with Murnau to bring his dream to life.
Grau already had connections in the German film industry, having designed posters and such for many of the small studios prevalent at the time. Along with businessman Enrico Dieckmann, he founded the equally small Prana-Film studio – “prana” being a Hindu term for “force of life,” and the studio logo being a version of the yin yang symbol.
With a working studio and a skilled director all ready to go, there was only one problem – Prana-Film didn’t have the rights to Dracula. Grau and Dieckmann, perhaps acting from a blend of recklessness and poor legal advice, decided to simply “adapt” the novel by changing the characters’ names. For this task, they hired talented screenwriter Henrik Galleen, who had worked on The Golem (1920) and specialized in dark, Gothic tales. He obliged by changing Dracula’s name to Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker’s name to “Hutter,” Renfield to “Knock,” and so on, and switching the locations from England to Germany. He also came up with some creative additions, such as having the vampire travel with plague-carrying rats and making sunlight fatal to vampires. And significantly, he substituted the word “vampire” for “Nosferatu.”
Why “Nosferatu”? Galleen had studied Bram Stoker’s research notes and found a travel article that mentioned a bloodsucking “nosferatu” of Romanian folklore. Impressed with the sinister sound of the word, he decided to use it. What Galleen didn’t know is that “nosferatu” doesn’t actually appear in the Romanian language. It’s likely that the word “nesuferitu,” meaning “the devil” or “unclean,” had gotten mistranslated at one point. But despite this, “Nosferatu” turned out to be a perfect fit for the strange new film.
Gustav von Wangenheim, an actor in Max Reinhardt’s Berlin theater, was chosen to play Hutter, and Greta Schröder, another Reinhardt alumni, was cast as Hutter’s wife Ellen. But the most interesting casting choice by far was Max Schreck as Nosferatu. A hardworking but obscure actor who had appeared on stages all over Germany (and, yes, worked with Max Reinhardt), Schreck specialized in grotesque characters. His surname even meant “fright” in German, believe it or not. Although he would be in hundreds of stage and screen roles, details about his life are largely unknown even today, and Nosferatu would be his most famous film.
Nosferatu was filmed in the late summer of 1921, taking advantage of the cheapness of location shooting in the German port cities of Wismar and Lübeck. The famous scenes of Count Orlok’s new home were filmed at the historic Salzpiecher (salt storehouses) in Lübeck. Built during the 16th-18th centuries, these buildings are still standing and appear exactly the same as they did in the 1922 film.
Grau was responsible for the Expressionist look of the film, as well as the design of its haunting posters and other advertising materials (he also added real occult symbols onto a paper Count Orlok is shown reading). Once Nosferatu was in the can, the studio embarked on an expensive promotional campaign and hosted an equally expensive grand premiere on March 4, 1922, at the Berlin Zoological Garden (guests were encouraged to wear early 19th-century clothing).
Unfortunately for the reckless filmmakers, Bram Stoker’s widow Florence got wind of the new picture and quickly sued Prana-Films for copyright infringement. It took several years, but in 1925 she won her case, whisking away what was left of the studio’s money after its pricey ad campaigns and fancy premiere. She also attempted to have all copies of Nosferatu destroyed, although fortunately for history some prints managed to be preserved.
Prana-Films had originally planned to get started with three motion pictures: Hollenträume (Dreams of Hell), Der Sumpfteufel (The Devil of the Swamp), and finally, the Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror). But in the end, Nosferatu would be their only picture. But what a picture it was–a film that stills admires and chills to this day, considered by some to be one of the greatest works in all German cinema.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.