Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide, Part 3

Surviving Prints and “Public Domain Version”

  • Casting light on the shadows of Nosferatu’s greatest myth: that only one print survived
  • There are lots of early copies but they’re all damaged and incomplete
  • Fittingly, the film’s unholy rebirth began in the country that originally spawned it
  • Despite hundreds of variations, there is only ONE original “public domain version
  • Its constant screening and duplication led to the film’s present day popularity
  • It’s also the source of every bargain basement copy seen around the world today

This series of articles covers everything Graf Orlok and is designed to be read sequentially. They detail the film’s history, many different versions and home video releases, and I suggest you start reading from Part 1, unless you want to skip straight to the restored DVD and Blu-ray reviews.

Nosferatu (1922) poster by Chris Weston, 2013

Poster by Chris Weston, 2013; FacebookTwitter


Contents


Surviving prints

More often than not, you’ll find a lot of outdated or incorrect information regarding Nosferatu’s known extant original prints. In particular, the much-repeated myth that only one illicit copy survived, smuggled out from under Florence Stoker’s nose, following her succesful petition to have the film completely destroyed. It may make for a juicier story but the truth is far more mundane. This is the latest inventory of prints, correct as of November 2015.

B&W French print from the late 1930s/early 1940s and in very good condition overall. A copy of a Czechoslovakian export print from the 1920s that was seized by the Nazis and is now lost. The background of this print has only been unravelled in recent years (see below), hence many sources still refer to it as a 1926/27 “second French version” or similar. The Czech intertitles had already been replaced with German ones and it was shipped like this to the Cinémathèque Française. At the French archive the German intertitles were then replaced with French ones, after which the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) got a copy. This is the basis for the 1981 restoration negative and thus indirectly for the 1984 and 1987 restorations, since they improved on that. Also, via MoMA’s copy, the source of all “public domain versions. Preserved at the Cinémathèque Suisse.

B&W 1962 safety copy of the original 1922 German version. Incomplete and in poor shape but retains all the original German-language intertitles, except for those denoting the beginning and end of each act. Preserved at the former East German Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR, incorporated in 1990 into the Bundesarchiv (BArch or German Federal Archives).

B&W early 1940 safety copy of the previously mentioned Czech print, almost identical to the shorter French print held by the Cinémathèque Suisse. For the 2006 restoration Berriatúa used this German print rather than the Cinémathèque Suisse print to fill in missing scenes, as he found it to be of better quality. Also at the Bundesarchiv.

B&W 1930 German sound reissue, re-edited and retitled Die zwölfte Stunde (The Twelth Hour). Contains some newly shot footage and had sound-on-disc accompaniment of music and sound effects only: no dialogue. Contains some missing and better condition shots than the above prints. At the Cinémathèque Française.

Tinted original 1922 French release print (1,900m), identified by Luciano Berriatúa at the Cinémathèque Française on 8th October 1984. In generally good condition and used as the basis for the 1995 and 2006 restorations, with the other prints used to fill in missing scenes. Though much faded, it is the only surviving print with original tinting and allowed the restoration teams to ascertain exactly where each colour had been applied.

B&W Spanish print of Die zwölfte Stunde from 1930, with the Spanish title of Nosferatu. In poor condition and incomplete, it’s held by the Filmoteca Española.

Unidentified prints: the Cinémathèque Française has another print not mentioned above, as does the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. Their provenance is unconfirmed but it’s possible both are copies of the Cinémathèque Suisse print.

Max Schreck (L) and Gustav von Wangenheim in Nosferatu (1922) aka Die zwölfte Stunde (1930)

Max Schreck (L) and Gustav von Wangenheim in Nosferatu (1922) aka Die zwölfte Stunde (1930)

Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia begun in 1938, the Nazis confiscated a Czech print which then came into the possession of Reichsfilmarchiv, the Nazi era state film archive. In 1945 its stock was either destroyed or seized by the Soviet army, explaining why so many western films are now held in Russian archives. Prior to that at least two copies were made that are still extant. One is now at the Bundesarchiv (the longer of the German prints) and the other was sent to the Cinémathèque Française in 1942 or 1943. The latter print is the B&W, shorter French version from which MoMA got a copy in 1947. For some reason this French print eventually ended up in the Cinémathèque Suisse, where it still resides today.

To simplify, the mostly complete copy obtained by MoMA in 1947 is derived from the Cinémathèque Suisse print, which is in turn a copy of a Czech export print. On acquisition, MoMA replaced the then-new French intertitles with English ones in anachronistic Futura font and, as per Nosferatu’s first US release in 1929, all the character names were reverted to the ones in the original novel. Count Orlok becomes Count Dracula, Ellen and Hutter become Nina [sic] and Jonathon [sic] Harker, etc. These intertitles have been translated via each other – the immediately preceding set – from the original German into Czech, back into German, then into French and (almost) finally into English… Yet somehow they still make sense!

Both the Bundesarchiv prints were only used for the 2006 restoration, even though its supervisor, Enno Patalas, was familiar with the shorter version and used it to recreate the original intertitles in 1995. Where possible, Luciano Berriatúa chose to use the original intertitles directly in 2006.

In this series of articles, for the first time anywhere, I’ve included examples of every set of intertitles pertaining to all restored releases. There are, of course, other variations absent from the lineup: most of those from the film’s original releases of the 1920s–30s. Those include English, French, Czech and Dutch translations. Then there are the German intertitles added to their plundered Czech print during World War II, and the early 1940s French ones added to it by the Cinémathèque Française upon their acquisition of the print. Several of these are missing in action, not in any surviving prints held in archives, and unlikely ever to be seen again. But if anyone has any images of intertitles from pre-1960s prints, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

Nosferatu (1922) poster by Phantom City Creative, 2014

Poster by Phantom City Creative, 2014


“Public domain version”

Television première of 1965 Atlas Film version: Germany 23.6.69, broadcast on ARD. New classical/synth score by Peter Schirmann.

First off, Nosferatu is not in the public domain and is fully copyrighted worldwide. It was public domain in the US only, between 1922–1995, but since the 1st January 1996 has been copyrighted there too. How and why this came to be is explained here and here. Henceforth, I’ll refer to the “public domain version” or “PDV”, only to distinguish a particular, unrestored B&W copy long known by that monicker, from the various restored versions. Its nickname does not refer in any way to its legal status.

The mostly-complete 1947 MoMA print described above had a leading role to play in Nosferatu‘s resurrection. Believe it or not, it’s the source of every single one of the unrestored PDVs and their proliferation over the past six decades has played the largest part in perpetuating the film’s mainstream popularity. In 1991, with new tinting and intertitles, it was also the source of the first high quality home video release. You can read a script of the MoMA print, including intertitles, here and here.

However, the first high quality, widely distributed copy of the MoMA print came courtesy of German distributors Atlas Film in 1965. They legitimately aquired their own copy directly from MoMA and as well as retaining its English intertitles, translated them yet again, back into both German and French. In case you’ve lost track, that means at minimum, they’d now gone from original German-Czech-German-French-English to German or French, with each step being a translation of the one before. Incroyable.

Atlas also commissioned an atmospheric classical/synth score from prolific German composer Peter Schirmann for their three copies. They left the film in its untinted B&W state and transferred it at the too-fast sound speed of 24fps (63min). The MoMA print more correctly runs at 18fps (84min). Atlas Film’s German version was first broadcast on national television in 1969 and released there on VHS video in 1981. English and French broadcasts and VHS releases followed.

Though far from perfect – after all, this was the early days of renewed silent film appreciation – the Atlas version is still artistically appealing and worth at least one viewing by any fan of the film. Bear in mind that for at least three decades, it was the only way most people came to know the film, and still is, via its many bootlegs.

"Your wife has a beautiful neck..." Orlok is filled with unholy lust for Hutter's spouse. Max Schreck (L) and Gustav von Wangenheim in Nosferatu (1922).

“Your wife has a beautiful neck…” Orlok is filled with unholy lust for Hutter’s spouse. Max Schreck (L) and Gustav von Wangenheim.

Atlas had a generous 20-30-year window in which to exploit their version, as since the emergence of Nosferatu‘s comprehensive restorations from the 1980s onwards, they’ve become the de facto licensed versions, supplanting all others. Therefore, the Atlas version will now never be issued in any other format, making some of its countless bootlegs important documents of this significant chapter in the film’s history.

The first and still-best quality transfer of the English Atlas version was on Elite Entertainment’s DVD (2000), with the Atlas ident cut off, natch. Elite’s disc was later copied for the Hollywood Classics [sic] DVD (2003) from opportunistic public domain company Madacy, who recycled it again on their four film (!) Cult Classics Collection DVD (2004). It’s also in much lower quality on YouTubeThe ubiquitous DVD from Alpha (2002) does slow it down to the correct 18fps/84min, but they also re-edited and looped Schirmann’s 63min score to stretch it out and it no longer synchronises with the film as intended. Naturally, there’s no honour among thieves and Alpha’s bootleg has itself been heavily bootlegged by other labels – ha! As with the majority of boots and “PD” releases, all these DVDs are playable worldwide.

Nosferatu has almost certainly had more legitimate, restored releases than any other silent film. But via copies of the Atlas version, there are a vast number – likely in excess of a thousand – of cheap home video editions, also making it by far the most bootlegged silent of all. Many of the el cheapo copies are slowed down or sped-up even further and have ersatz intertitles and scores, with little or no attempt made for the latter to synchronise with the action onscreen. It would be impossible, not to mention pointless, to discuss those in any depth. But note there is at least one quality audio-only score recording synced to the 63min Atlas version. As you’d expect, wherever and however it’s to be found, the PDV is in much poorer visual quality than any of the restored versions and almost invariably only in improper, untinted B&W. It’s also severely cropped on all sides, but especially so on the left edge, where Atlas added their optical soundtrack. Heads are also constantly cut off in all its zoomed-in copies, most notably in the case of Orlok when he rises from his coffin.

To represent the intertitles for every high quality version of the film, I’ve chosen perhaps the single most memorable one – and my favourite. It’s the first page of the unknown narrator’s journal, which appears just after the opening credits. Note that the corresponding intertitle from MoMA’s 1947 print, and the translations it spawned, uniquely conflate the first two original German titles, and he is identfied as “Johann Cavallius”.

Nosferatu (1922), 1947 MoMA print English opening intertitle, public domain version

1947 MoMA print English intertitle created on film. 2000 Elite Entertainment DVD

I’m missing the 1965 German intertitle created on film by Atlas Film, which presumably looks similar to their French one below. Can anyone help?

Nosferatu (1922) French intertitle by Atlas Film, 1969

1965 French intertitle created on film by Atlas Film. This screenshot is via a French bootleg video transfer.

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


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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.

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