F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is a film historian’s dream movie. It is a foreboding and influential picture that helped define German Expressionism and set a precedent for a century of horror cinema. It also came very close to never seeing the light of day, only existing now thanks to the obsessive nature of cinephiles that led Nosferatu to become one of cinema’s earliest “cult” films.
Nosferatu was produced in 1921 by Prana Film, a silent-era German studio created by Enrico Dieckmann and an occultist/artist named Albin Grau. The studio was named after the Buddhist concept of “prana,” a Sanskrit word for “life force” or vital principle. In Hindu philosophy including yoga, Indian medicine, and martial arts, the term refers collectively to all cosmic energy, permeating the Universe on all levels. Prana Films was established with the primary goal of producing occult and supernatural films; somewhat of a silent-era Blumhouse. However, Nosferatu would be their only production. The studio declared bankruptcy after the creation of Nosferatu to avoid copyright suits from Florence Balcombe Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker, who sued the studio for ripping off Dracula, the seminal work of her late husband.
Nosferatu’s story follows a similar plot to Dracula, omitting many secondary players but keeping the core in tact with minor adjustments. The names were changed, with “vampire” becoming “Nosferatu,” “Count Dracula” becoming “Count Orlok,” and so on. The behavior of Orlok is also different from that of Dracula, and the film’s ending is different. Nonetheless, the similarities were rather obvious and Stoker’s widow won the lawsuit. The settlement contained a decree that all produced copies of Nosferatu be burned, which led to the film’s near-extinction and inspired people to find and maintain some version of the film in its original state.
As TCM elaborates, “The lawsuit over Nosferatu has haunted the film’s history. Wanting to distance themselves from the film, the producers of Nosferatu sold it to Deutsche Film Produktion who edited the film without Murnau’s consent. The film was then altered further for its 1929 American release, making the search for the ‘original,’ ‘uncut’ Nosferatu a film historian’s obsession.”
Obviously, at least one copy of the film had already been distributed before the burning was issued and survived the purge. It was duplicated and preserved over the years, kept alive thanks to its cult following that continues to exist nearly a century later. Various incarnations of the film can now be found. If any film could be defined as a cult film, Nosferatu is that title, as its entire existence owes thanks to those who protected it and kept it alive. That preservation provided the film with immortality as it’s reached the digital age, forever allowing Nosferatu to serve as a key entry in German Expressionist studies.
Now that Dracula has become a public domain story under American copyright law, remastered versions of the film exist with Dracula character names in place of Nosferatu’s altered character titles.