Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide, Part 3

by Brent Reid

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 archived extant early copies but they’re all damaged and incomplete
  • Fittingly, Orlok’s unholy rebirth began in the country that originally spawned him
  • Despite hundreds of variations, there’s only ONE original “public domain version’’
  • Its constant screening and duplication led to the iconic film’s present day popularity
  • It’s also the source of every bargain basement copy seen around the world today
  • For the first time: every set of intertitles is illustrated and described in detail

This is one of a series of articles covering everything Graf Orlok and best 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


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More often than not, you’ll find a lot of outdated or incorrect information regarding Nosferatu’s known extant original prints.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 successful 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 June 2020.

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 translated 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 Twelfth 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 (the date on its new introductory intertitle) is derived from the Cinémathèque Suisse print, which is in turn a copy of a Czech export print. On acquisition, MoMA (probably then film curator Iris Barry) replaced the then new French intertitles with English ones in anachronistic 1927 Futura font and, as per Nosferatu’s first US screenings 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 new German intertitles added to their plundered Czech print during World War II, and the early 1940s French ones added by the Cinémathèque Française upon their acquisition of the same print. Several of these are missing in action, not in any surviving copies 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

The mostly-complete 1947 MoMA print had a leading role to play in Nosferatu’s resurrection. Believe it or not, it’s the source of every single unrestored public domain version and its 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.

Despite its original legal issues, as a European film Nosferatu was always subject to full copyright protection worldwide,  with the major wrinkle that no one ever actually came forward to claim it. Therefore, it was mistakenly assumed to be in the public domain and always treated as such. One exception was the US, where it actually was public domain between 1922–1995; how and why this came to be is explained here:

Things have become a lot simpler since, to all intents and purposes, Nosferatu finally lapsed into the public domain worldwide at the end of 2019, 70 years after principal co-creator Henrik Galeen’s death. Once more, the US is an exception as it almost certainly became public domain there (again) at the end of 2017.

However, note über-blogger Ethan’s alternate take in his thoroughly researched article, Nosferatu and the Public Domain, where he asserts that as the film was never officially published in the US, it may still be protected there until 2041. Here’s film historian Nick Cooper’s take on that:

“2041 is based on the speculation that the term would be 120 years from creation, and obviously it means to the end of 2041. That is, though, a bit of a red herring, as there doesn’t seem to be any reason to apply the creation + 120 years term, as opposed to publication + 95 years. I think the blog is right to assert that the film was never officially released in the US, but I don’t think it automatically follows that it therefore gets creation + 120 years. The problem would be whether the original German release constituted a valid publication. While we know Stoker’s widow got a court order to destroy all the prints, it’s not clear what judgement it made on the copyright itself. Even if it wasn’t explicit, it could be inferred that as she owned the copyright to the book, she also by default owned the copyright to the film, even if she didn’t want it. I think that means that the US term was 95 years from the 1922 Germany publication, and hence it expired at the end of 2017, leaving the European copyright to expire at the end of 2019.”

It can’t be stated enough: whatever the actual copyright expiration date is, it only applies to the direct derivatives of the completely silent 1947 MoMA print. As US copyright on its English-translated intertitles was not renewed after 28 years, they too are public domain. You can read a detailed synopsis of the print, including intertitles, here and here. All subsequent restorations and recorded scores retain their own individual copyrights and are not fair game for copying, selling or redistribution.

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

The first decent quality, widely distributed copy of the MoMA print came courtesy of German distributors Atlas Film in 1965. They legitimately acquired their own print 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 film and TV composer-arranger Peter Schirmann (1935–2021) for their three language variants. They left the film in its untinted B&W state and transferred it at the too-fast sound speed of 24fps (63min). Their German version was first broadcast on national television in 1969, with international broadcasts soon following, and released domestically on VHS video in 1981.

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 for any fan of the film. Bear in mind that for at least three decades it was the only way most people came to know Nosferatu and still is, via its many bootlegs. Because of this, among literally thousands of live and recorded scores the film’s had over the years, Schirmann’s is by far the most recognisable and best known. It is also, of course, anything but public domain and won’t become so until 70 years after his death.

"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 their emergence from the 1980s onwards, Nosferatu’s much more comprehensive restorations have become the de facto licensed versions, supplanting all others. Therefore, the Atlas version will now never be officially issued in any other format, making the most faithful of its countless bootlegs important documents of this significant chapter in the film’s history.

Nosferatu has almost certainly had more restored releases than any other silent film. But via illegitimate copies of the Atlas version, there are a vast number of budget home video editions, likely in excess of a thousand worldwide, helping make it by far the most bootlegged silent of all. Many 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 the latter in too much depth but there are still one or two notable quality audio-only score recordings synced to the 63-minute Atlas version. As you’d expect, wherever and however it’s to be found, the public domain version 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.

Nosferatu (1922) US Elite Entertainment bootleg DVD

Elite Entertainment bootleg DVD

Atlas had various 35mm prints and 16mm rental copies in circulation, and these eventually found their way onto numerous film and home video bootlegs. Perhaps the most notable of these were US Republic Pictures’ 1991 VHS and LaserDisc, the latter of which states:

By day, he sleeps in a coffin containing the unhallowed earth in which he was buried. By night, he seeks the life-sustaining force that can only come from human blood!

Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror is the film’s full title – and that’s exactly what this silent era scream classic is. Director F.W. Murnau shot one eerie image after another to build a veritable crescendo of horrors that makes most film versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (including the 1931 Bela Lugosi film) seem tame.

The terror begins when a young man sets out on a business journey, unaware that his client is the dreaded Count himself. It ends when the man’s brave wife lures the blood fiend to a night of love… and detains him until the dawn’s deadly rays bring his doom. In between are a series of shocking jolts, not the least being actor Max Schreck’s astonishing performance as one of the most loathsome beings ever seen on screen. His body bent, his skull-like head misshapen, his fingers long and claw-like, he’s the incarnation of evil and menace – a nightmare in wizened flesh.

Production highlights: A legal battle nearly deprived the world of one of its enduring movie classics. Nosferatu was clearly based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel about blood-thirsty Count Dracula, but the filmmakers had not secured the rights to the book. The film’s new title, storyline and setting did not prevent Stoker’s widow from noting the similarities to her husband’s work. She sued and all prints were ordered destroyed. However, as years went by, prints of Nosferatu emerged, vampire-like.

The stylized distortion of Expressionism was in vogue in Germany when Nosferatu was made. But director F.W. Murnau chose to place the grotesqueries of his story within natural settings, creating jarring juxtapositions that heightened the terror. Murnau also employed macabre camera effects, using fast-motion filming and negative film stock for one sequence.

With this chilling masterpiece, Murnau served notice that he was one of the world’s great filmmakers. His renown grew with the releases of The Last Laugh and Sunrise. But the full range of his remarkable talent would never be known. Murnau died tragically in 1931 in an automobile accident.

The first fully digital transfer of the Atlas English version was on Elite Entertainment’s 2-DVD Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema (2000), with the Atlas ident cut off, natch. A different transfer appeared on the Hollywood Classics [sic] DVD (2003) from opportunistic, supposedly public domain company Madacy, who recycled it again on their four film (!) Cult Classics Collection DVD (2004). The Elite is at times sharper, but also seems to have its contrast boosted and some sharpening, giving it a harsher look. It is also slightly more cropped. Madacy’s transfer sometimes looks softer but more film-like, with more shadow detail due to the lack of contrast boosting. It’s also in even lower quality on YouTube.

The ubiquitous Alpha DVD (2002) does slow the film down to the correct 18fps/84min, but they also clumsily re-edited and looped Schirmann’s 63-minute score to stretch it out. Now, of course, it no longer synchronises with the film as intended, as this YouTube upload amply demonstrates. Naturally, there’s no honour among thieves and all these bootlegs have themselves been heavily bootlegged by other labels – ha! As with the majority of boots and “public domain” releases, they’re all playable worldwide. These are all the earliest US DVDs:

  • 63 minutes
  • Elite (January 2000)
  • Diamond (July 2002) – replacement pipe organ score
  • Madacy (March 2003)
  • Madacy (August 2004)

To reiterate then, the only home video releases anywhere which are actually public domain are those issued in the US prior to 1996, when they signed up to the same copyright laws as the rest of the world. Pre-1996 US releases include VHS, V2000 and Betamax tapes but obviously not any DVDs, as the first of those didn’t appear until 2000. No early releases with Atlas Films’ 1965 score can be counted as public domain either.

Nosferatu’s many versions and restorations are particularly notable for their plethora of distinct intertitles which, throughout this series of articles, are all detailed and illustrated for the first time. To represent them, 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 identified 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 lo-res French bootleg video transfer.

Nosferatu: History and Home Video Guide, Part 4

Grateful thanks to Aitam Bar-Sagi, David 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

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Killer Meteor
Killer Meteor
24th April 2020 11:42

This 1984 VHS uses a different set of English intertitles. The comments suggest these are from the 1929 US print but I’m not aware of any such print surviving.

Christy V.
Christy V.
17th September 2020 01:39

Do you know if Peter Schirmann has an email? I cannot find that much information on him other than the links that you provided (and they don’t provide any contact info when translated). The link to his website leads me nowhere. Or do you know anyone else who is currently affiliated with Schirmann?

12th December 2020 20:29

Hi Brent,
I’m a graduate student at NYU doing a research paper on Nosferatu, and I’m very glad to have come across your site! I’m wondering what print was sent to the U.S. for its first 1929 screening? Was it the print preserved by the Cinémathèque? Maybe this is on your site and I just haven’t been able to uncover it. Any help would be appreciated! Thank you!

Christy V.
Christy V.
17th January 2021 06:27

Holy cow! I had no clue you responded this fast. My apologies. I tried emailing one of the studios he worked for; I haven’t received anything (shocker). Thank you for your response though. I do have to ask though: where did you obtain all of this information? I ask because the silent era notoriously has very little information documented about it compared to today’s films.

Paul W Urbahns
Paul W Urbahns
10th August 2021 15:39

As to the US copyright, I would think the 1929 public showings of the film would constitute grounds for claim of copyright.. whether or not official paperwork was filed by the distributor or approved by the copyright office. Even though you wrote: ” I think the blog is right to assert that the film was never officially released in the US.” In your own words, “On its initial US release, the film played as Nosferatu the Vampire for a combined total of just three weeks at two small art house cinemas. English intertitles: Benjamin de Casseres (70min). Then you list… Read more »

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