Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide

Genesis of a Vampire

  • Nosferatu , the original onscreen Dracula tale, is one of the most iconic horror films ever
  • They tried to kill it but failed: despite the myth of there being only one print, many survived
  • There are more versions, with more different scores and sets of intertitles, than any other silent film
  • Beware: watching the wrong version can kill it more surely than a stake through the heart
  • Its entire history, along with every version and home video release, is now laid bare, to quote Orlok, like “a beautiful neck…”

Nosferatu – Tönt dies Wort Dich nicht an wie der mitternächtige Ruf eines Totenvogels. Hüte Dich es zu sagen, sonst verblassen die Bilder des Lebens zu Schatten, spukhafte Träume steigen aus dem Herzen und nähren sich von Deinem Blut.“

Nosferatu – Does this word not sound to thee like the midnight call of the Bird of Death? Take care in saying it, otherwise the images of life will fade to shadows, and ghostly dreams will rise from your heart and nourish themselves on your blood.”

Nosferatu (1922) Count Orlok by Kurt Goldzung

Nosferatu (1922) Count Orlok by Kurt Goldzung


Contents


Enter Count Orlok

“Ahh, there you are. Won’t you please come in? Don’t be frightened, child. If you’re sitting comfortably, I shall begin…”

When it comes to home video releases, Nosferatu rises time after time. You just can’t keep a bad Count down. Its latest resurrection in HD, courtesy of the British Film Institute (BFI), is their second kick at the can. They’ve updated their 2002 DVD but the film’s already very well served, both on DVD and Blu-ray – so was it worth it? If you can’t wait to find out, fly to my review. But we have all night until the cock crows, so why rush? Before we get to that, consider the following:

Nosferatu (1922), alongside The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Metropolis (1927), is foremost among the ‘warhorses’ of silent cinema. That is to say, out of all silent films in circulation today it is one of the most…

  • …famous: replete with iconic imagery, it is often known to those who have never even seen a silent film.
  • …often screened: it’s always playing somewhere. A vampire’s not just for Halloween!
  • …often rescored and accompanied live. As well as respected, established silent film musicians and composers, seemingly every week anyone who can play an instrument takes it upon themselves to create a new score. From piano to choral and electronica to goth rock, the success of the results are a matter of personal taste. Or lack of it.
  • …often restored and reissued on home video. A mind boggling number of times in fact, as you’ll see below. From Betamax and VHS, via LaserDisc and DVD to Blu-ray and digital, Count Orlok’s seen ‘em all. He may be ancient but he does like to keep up with the times, you know.

As Lady Macbeth might say, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Nosferatu (1922) poster for live screening, 2012


A vampire’s tale: birth, death and resurrection

Nosferatu is the first true vampire film and though they both share the same source, it predates Dracula (1931) by nearly a decade. It’s a loose, unauthorised adaptation of the classic 1897 novel by Bram Stoker (1847–1912) and the first – and last – release by fledgling German outfit Prana-Film. At the helm was 6’11” (210 cm) tall, ex-World War I fighter pilot Friedrich Wilhelm ‘F. W.’ Murnau. Using unauthorised source material was nothing new for him: his earlier horror, Der Janus-Kopf (The Head of Janus, 1920), was a plagiarism of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Regardless, Murnau was already well on his way to becoming one of the best regarded directors of the silent era. Following Nosferatu he fashioned further masterpieces like The Last Laugh (1924); Faust (1926) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), a winner of several awards at the first Oscars. Tragically, when only 42 years old and at the peak of his powers, Murnau died in a car accident shortly after completing his final film, Tabu (1931).

Friedrich Wilhelm 'F. W.' Murnau, German silent film director

F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), Nosferatu’s director

Though often overlooked in favour of Murnau, the real key player in the film’s creation was co-producer and production designer Albin Grau (1884–1971). He co-founded Prana-Film with businessman Enrico Dieckmann, initiated the project and appointed all the creative roles, including Murnau himself and noted fellow filmmaker and occultist Henrik Galeen (1881–1949), who penned the screenplay. Galeen’s shooting script, with annotations by Murnau, can be read here and here. As well as being a talented artist and architect, Grau was a lifelong follower of the occult and responsible for the look and feel of the entire project. He designed the sets and costumes and drew all the storyboards, posters and other promotional artwork. He even even wrote the occult symbol-laden letter seen in the film itself and executed the fine intertitle calligraphy. Phew. Though the film will always be synonymous with Murnau, it is undoubtedly Grau who casts the longest shadow over Nosferatu.

Albin Grau self portrait (1918) courtesy of Kantonsbibliothek Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Albin Grau (1884–1971), chief creative force behind Nosferatu. Self portrait (1918) courtesy of Kantonsbibliothek Appenzell Ausserrhoden.

The titular character himself was perfectly embodied by seasoned actor Max Schreck (1879–1936), whose name literally translates as “greatest fright” – you couldn’t make it up! Though he had many other stage and screen roles, he’s chiefly known nowadays for his turn as the creepy Count. Certainly the sheer brilliance of Nosferatu was no accident: many of the people involved both behind and in front of the camera went on to make some of the most enduring screen successes of Weimar era Germany. Nosferatu has been long acknowledged by critics and historians as an Expressionist masterpiece, alongside the likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the aforementioned Metropolis. Now approaching its first century, the adventures of Orlok continue to be revered by critics and academics everywhere, and enjoyed by film fans alike.

Nosferatu (1922) Max Schreck as Count Orlok rising from his coffin, UK Eureka-Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

All rise. UK Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray


Land of the undead: filming locations

Filming took place over three months between JulyOctober 1921, with the interiors being built by Albin Grau at Jofa-Atelier studios, Berlin-Johannisthal. For the exteriors, rather than go to the trouble and expense of travelling over 1,000 miles to the real former Transylvania, now part of Romania, Murnau and his crew shot much closer to home. Neighbouring Slovakia doubled for „das Land der Diebe und Gespenster“ (“the land of thieves and ghosts”), with Orava Castle providing the setting for Orlok’s lair. The north German cities of Lübeck and Wismar stood in for Wisborg; the former’s Salzspeicher (salt warehouses) gave Orlok the perfect vantage point from which to spy on Ellen. Nosferatu expert Martin H. Larsen recently travelled to all three places and posted two fascinating series of then-and-now photographs: Nosferatour 2014 – Lübeck and Wismar and Nosferatour 2015 – Slovakia. Also recommended are Martin Votruba’s excellent webpages about the Slovakian locations, here and here. There’s also this 2017 Orava Castle video tour with excellent then-and-now footage, but don’t follow the narration too closely as it drops a few howlers, including the old canard about there being only a sole surviving print.

Oravský Zámok (Orava Castle) in Slovakia, aka Count Orlok's lair

Oravský Zámok (Orava Castle) in Slovakia, aka Count Orlok’s lair


Shapeshifter: changes to the novel

Nosferatu, or to go by its full title, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror), makes many changes to its source, Stoker’s Dracula:

  • Firstly the title was changed, to something a little more oblique. In case you’re wondering, “Nosferatu” is possibly derived from the archaic Romanian/Transylvanian words Nesuferitu or Necuratu. These translate as “the insufferable/repugnant one” or “the unclean spirit”. In other words, a demon or devil. Alternatively it could be from the Greek nosophoros, meaning “plague carrier”. Aww, rats. Well, whatever it is, it’s not good.
  • Count Dracula, with his outward appearance of being a courtly, cultured gentleman (further refined by his depiction in the 1920s stage play), here becomes Count Orlok – a fearful, feral, ratlike creature.
  • All other names are changed too: Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, Mina becomes Ellen, Renfield: Knock and so on.
  • The story is more streamlined with many characters being dropped, such as Van Helsing, Dracula’s ‘brides’ and the leading couples’ friends. In their stead, a few new minor characters are added.
  • Unlike Dracula, Orlok does not create other vampires at will: he kills his victims outright. This causes the blame for the deaths to be shifted elsewhere.
  • Much of the action is transposed from 1890s Whitby in England to the fictitious German city of Wisborg in 1838. As for the rest of the film, the cast and crew never set foot in the real Transylvania.
  • Perhaps most importantly (I’ll avoid an outright spoiler, but…) in the original novel, Dracula’s ultimate fate is very different: sunlight only weakens him. Its effect on Orlok has since become an integral part of vampiric folklore.
  • Lastly, Nosferatu made two other profound changes to the story that weren’t assimilated into the accepted conventions of the bloodsucking undead. In restrospect, the course of 20th century vampire history may well have been more interesting if they had. In this take on the myth, religion offers neither succour nor protection against Orlok’s evil lust and the men are helpless and weak. They’re scared and unaware; completely powerless to prevent the terrible fate about to befall them. It is Ellen who is the strongest, most knowing character and it is she who proves to be the only worthy adversary of Count Orlok. Girl Power indeed.

These alterations were mainly made in an attempt to disguise Nosferatu’s origins and avoid accusations of plagiarism, but they weren’t enough. On its release Prana were sued by Stoker’s widow, Florence. The film had not been a financial success; failure to secure widespread distribution in their home country and the US had hurt Prana considerably. The ongoing litigation with Florence Stoker caused yet more more damage and by the time she eventually triumphed in July 1925, they had declared the company bankrupt. For more, see Nosferatu and the Public Domain, an excellent article detailing the court case and the film’s legal status. Florence was thus thwarted in securing the £5,000 she’d demanded in settlement, but wasn’t about to let it end there: instead she insisted on outright ownership of the film then, having obtained it, ordered that all copies be destroyed. She had never even watched it. Thankfully, various incomplete prints survived in safe hands and copies continued to be screened intermittently, especially after Florence’s death in 1937. Inexorably its reputation grew and those prints ultimately became the basis of all the fully restored versions we know today.

A tragic coda is that Prana originally planned to make nine more occult-themed films, with titles like Hollenträume (Dreams of Hell) and Der Sumpfteufel (The Swamp Devil) – imagine what we could have had!

Nosferatu (1922) Max Schreck as Count Orlok climbing the stairs, UK BFI Blu-ray

Up the stairs we go… UK BFI Blu-ray


Orlok’s legacy

Nosferatu’s cultural influence is inestimable and it’s the great-grandaddy of virtually every horror film that followed. It directly inspired a near-eponymous 1979 remake as well as Shadow of the Vampire (2000), in which the actor playing Count Orlok is an actual vampire, running amok behind the scenes during the making of the original 1922 film. Cartoons, comics, novels, plays, musicals and even operas – both rock and regular (in at least 2001, 2005, 20142016 and 2018) – have been based on the the Count’s misadventures. He’s been converted to 3DReincarnated in Sound and right now there’s yet another remake/reimagining in the works. Orlok continues to fire the imaginations of artists, authors and filmmakers everywhere, and is showing no signs of slowing down in his unfathomably old age.

Grateful thanks to Aitam Bar-SagiDavid ShepardLokke Heiss, Martin H. Larsen, and Patrick Stanbury for help with this series of articles.


If you like this, you’ll love:

Facebook: The Nosferatu Society | in-depth BD/DVD details: DVDCompare

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see the About page.

19 Comments

  1. Silents, Please
    November 21, 02:29 Reply
    My hat is off to you Brent - fantastic post! The amount of research done and time spent on this article is clear. Great, great job. Regarding pulldown patterns in the BDs. So, Eureka is converting 18fps to 24fps via a 1:1:2 ratio (i.e., frame pattern of 1233 4566 7899, etc ...), but Kino is doing 1:2:1:2:1:2:3 + a deletion (i.e., frame pattern of 122 344 566 777 <strike>8</strike> and so on)? Wow ... just terribly botched, and strangely so, because repeating every third frame would be so much more simple. I like what you've written about the BFI BD being less digitally clean, but per the <a href="http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film5/blu-ray_reviews_69/nosferatu_blu-ray.htm" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">screenshot comparisons at DVDBeaver</a> it does seem to be missing a lot of shadow detail ... a bit too high-contrast for my tastes. Hmmm. By the way, I always hated the Powerpoint-style English intertitles on the Kino Lubitsch DVD set I have, but I didn't realize that it was their overall (and continuing) strategy - outrageous! That said, from the comparison I linked above it seems that the BFI BD also has English intertitles. They look good, but I confess that I would have preferred the original German text with English subs.
    • Brent Reid
      November 21, 13:11 Reply
      Thank you for the kind words, Katherine; they're v much appreciated. The article began as a simple review of the new BFI BD, but while I was waiting for them to send me a copy I started writing some background context for it and it grew and grew! There's so much written about this film in print and online, but it's generally the same old repeated facts and misinformation. Anyone wanting to figure out any of the key points of its history, especially regarding the different versions, restorations and releases, would be left more confused than ever. Amazes me that even with all the weighty books on the subject no one's ever explained all the above clearly, once and for all. Good point on Photoplay's English intertitles, but bear in mind their version was originally funded by Channel 4 for TV broadcast two decades ago. You can't blame them for wanting to make it accessible to as many viewers as possible. Besides, they are <em>extremely</em> well done: as Patrick told me, they're very similar to the originals and the exact same length!
  2. Dave S.
    November 26, 17:17 Reply
    Thanks for such an informative web page! The 4th March, 1922 première version was 1,967m and the 2005/6 Berriatúa restoration is 1,914m. So 53 meters of 35mm film still missing. At 18fps, I believe that works out to 1 minute and 30 seconds of missing footage. Does anyone know what we are missing? Are there any surviving scripts or other documentation on what is missing? Anything significant, or is it just trimmings off existing scenes?
    • Brent Reid
      November 27, 07:28 Reply
      Thank you Dave, I'm glad you like it. I doubt for various reasons it's possible to be so precise about the amount of any missing footage, but I don't think it would be anything at all significant. I daresay it would be mostly, as you say, slight extensions of existing scenes and that the film is now more or less complete.
  3. Paul Bielatowicz
    January 25, 17:48 Reply
    Hi Brent, thanks so much for putting together such an in depth, thorough and fascinating read. I'm a musician interested in scoring for silent films. I'm currently writing a score for Nosferatu to be performed live with the movie later this year. I'm trying to get a definitive answer about which version of the film I can use without violating copyright. I'm planning a DVD release, so need to be careful not to infringe any copyright laws. Obviously I'll be adding my own soundtrack, but am also planning on replacing all the text, inter titles and credits. Am I right in presuming any restored versions of the film footage are under copyright (even if I use my own titles etc.)? Would you be able to point me in the right direction of a good quality version I can use without worrying about copyright infringement, or is there a way of getting permission to use a restored version? Thanks so much for your time & your fascinating website.
    • Brent Reid
      January 27, 19:09 Reply
      Hi Paul, Thank you and you're v welcome! You've asked some big questions that, properly answered, would need an article of their own. Briefly: <li>There's only one version you can use for free: it's linked to in the "Public domain version" footnotes. No matter how much you alter it, if you copy a restored version without licensing it first, that puts you in league with <a href="https://www.brentonfilm.com/articles/beware-of-pirates-how-to-avoid-bootleg-blu-rays-and-dvds" rel="nofollow">pirates and bootleggers</a>. The best way to license one of those restored versions is to contact the entities responsible for them; they're all named in the article.</li> <li>Technically (and morally), even for individual live performances you should be paying a fee to the rightsholder of whichever version you use. However, there are so many versions available and with no-one keeping track of which DVD or BD is being used for every performance, that's between you and your conscience.</li> <li>Personally, I would nix the idea of running off your own copies entirely. Despite what many think, even the authorised originals only sell in relatively small numbers and don't return much of a profit, if at all. Instead, why not record your score synchronised to a particular disc and make the audio available as a download?</li>
      • Paul Bielatowicz
        February 02, 03:03 Reply
        Thanks so much for the thorough reply Brent, that's really useful.
  4. Francis L.
    February 20, 16:02 Reply
    Quebec, Canada doesn't seem to be happiest place for those wanting decent Blu-rays of Nosferatu and Chaplin films :'( but your work was very interesting in all its aspects! Keep up the good work
    • Brent Reid
      February 20, 21:25 Reply
      Thanks Francis – I intend to! I do sympathise with you guys: you seem to get relatively few domestic releases of non-homegrown product and mostly have to be content with expensive US imports. Hopefully I can at least help make the process of choosing and buying simpler and cheaper!
  5. Steve
    July 13, 17:10 Reply
    This is an amazing review , I can't thank you enough for such a extensive article about this classic movie . I have the MOC bluray and been thinking about importing the BFI as well . Any more thoughts about when they may release the updated bfi blu since there has been more work done in 2016 ? What is DCP ? Thanks again .
    • Brent Reid
      July 20, 00:01 Reply
      Thanks Steve, I'm pleased you found it useful! Realistically speaking, don't hold your breath waiting for an upgrade to the current BFI BD. It will certainly be a long time, if at all, that the re-re-restored Photoplay version of <em>Nosferatu</em> sees the light of day (or dark of night!) on disc... <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Cinema_Package" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">DCP: Digital Cinema Package</a>. :o)
  6. Death Valley Nights
    July 16, 00:52 Reply
    Thanks for the great article on the different versions / history of Nosferatu! While I haven't heard the Type O Negative soundtrack that you mentioned for Nosferatu, I have heard a different semi-industrial soundtrack that I do like and feel modernizes the film for some viewers. It sounded very eerie and atmospheric. I may sync it with the blu ray for some future watchings. The dvd was called 'Cleopatra Presents Nosferatu A Gothic Industrial Mix'. My copy was a bonus dvd for a <a href="http://amzn.to/29SS9x5" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Gothik compilation CD set</a>), the music on the cds was mostly not my thing, but the music on the dvd itself really fit the film well. Apparently this version was scored with music from albums called Gothic Vampires from Hell, Vampire Rituals and others. Unfortunately, the set containing the dvd appears to be a bit overpriced on Amazon at the moment.
    • Brent Reid
      July 20, 00:27 Reply
      You're most welcome! The <a href="http://amzn.to/29LRz5A" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">DVD you mention</a> can also be had cheaply by itself. Unfortunately, though the actual music is good in its own right (not having been recorded for the film at all), the actual print used is the same old B&W, sped-up public rubbish detailed in the article. I'm afraid you'll never get the music to synchronise to any version of the film, as explained in Part 7. Just be happy with playing the albums over a restored copy!
  7. Brian
    July 25, 18:22 Reply
    Thank you Brent for this amazing article. Sadly I have the US Kino Blu-ray so finding this website has given me hope. I have ordered the BFI Blu-ray and look forward to enjoying the symphony of terror in a whole new light.
    • Brent Reid
      August 06, 09:26 Reply
      I'm pleased you found it useful, Brian and hope you enjoy your new Blu-ray!
  8. C. Terenzio
    September 04, 11:33 Reply
    Brent, thanks so much for bringing clarity to the Nosferatu release history and differences. You have done a remarkable job with this article. I just ordered the Eureka 2 DVD set from Amazon UK. I had no idea that the Kino bluray was so flawed. There's so many pieces to the Nosferatu jigsaw puzzle, that sometimes I wonder where Orlok's "curse" really is. Thanks again, from Boston, Massachusetts.
    • Brent Reid
      September 12, 23:17 Reply
      You're very welcome – am glad to be of service!
  9. Elijah
    January 06, 04:12 Reply
    Thanks for the helpful information! I've been searching for the 1993 Sci-Fi Channel version because of the fantastic and chilling score by Chris Rife. I even tracked down the composer (now going by "Christopher Rife"), but as far as he knows, it's dead and won't be resurrected. Too bad. I'd be embarrassed to show this movie to anyone even with the original Erdmann score. The creepiness just isn't there.
    • Brent Reid
      October 28, 07:35 Reply
      You're welcome! All the uniquely scored silents Sci-Fi aired sound fascinating and I'd love to see them. Incredible that recent, nationally broadcast versions and their scores should so easily disappear completely. Given that sort of track record, it's a wonder any century-old silents survive at all... These versions aren't even listed in Chris Rife's IMDb entry or <a href="http://www.christopherrife.com/ChristopherRife.com/Credits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow">his own website</a>. You've really put <a href="https://www.facebook.com/SYFYSILENTCINEMAMARATHON/" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow">some serious effort</a> into tracking them down and I hope one day you're rewarded. Heller's take on the Erdmann score is indeed too inconsistent, but I hope you'll check out some of the great alternatives <a href="#so-many-scores-but-which-is-best" rel="nofollow">listed above</a>.

Leave a Reply

You might also like