Nosferatu (1922)
October 13, 2022 5:58 PM - Subscribe

Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter's wife.

Trivia: the film production company failed to license Dracula, attempted to file off the serial numbers, then lost a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Bram Stoker's widow. All copies of the film were ordered destroyed, and the film is only available today because copies of it were found in countries where Dracula was already in the public domain.
posted by johnofjack (12 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As I understand it, Max Schreck was one weird dude.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:19 PM on October 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

One of my most cherished college memories was getting to play theremin accompaniment to this movie when it was screened in the university library. Coolest gig of my life.
posted by potrzebie at 9:19 PM on October 13, 2022 [18 favorites]

Ah, the window in question, Florence Stoker, was such a BAMF. I recently learned she was engaged to Oscar Wilde briefly.

It's worth noting the film was only made like 25 years after the release of the book, and Fanny went after the production company for royalties the year it was released. They could have just paid her, but the film company had a history of making unauthorised film and just blew her off, so she sued. The case dragged on for years.

The survival of the film isn't so much that it was public domain at the time of the order, because it was a two year old film at that point. It's just the order was erratically enforced, and the film survived in pieces and was eventually restored to a whole.
posted by Jilder at 12:57 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

As for the film itself, I've seen it dozens of times, mostly projected onto nightclub walls. It's truly eerie, and it benefits from the darkness and dancefloor smoke of your average goth night.
posted by Jilder at 1:11 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

A masterpiece, although one with troubling antisemitic iconography.

A couple of notes, since there is a lot of misinformation floating around about this film: Prana films did not have a history of making unauthorized films, since they only every made one film (admittedly unauthorized). There are stories that Max Schreck only appeared in this film, which is not true -- he was a moderately successful stage and film actor. He tended to play monstrous characters, which may be where his "unnatural" reputation comes from -- I guess there is one recollection of a coworker that he was off-putting, but I'm not sure that's enough to hang the man's reputation on.

Prana films was set up (in part) by Albin Grau, an artist and occult enthusiast, to make occult thrillers. The film has some easter eggs (Orlock's contract is written in a variety of magickal scripts). Sadly, Grau was a better occultist than businessman, and we never got to see his other film ideas. Interestingly, Grau seems to have been a very early user of storyboards in film, drawing out scenes to make sure his vision was folowed even if he wasn't present.

While the film is definitely inspired by Dracula, Stoker's case has always seemed pretty flimsy to me, and I wonder if it would fly today. It's lacking the gang of vampire hunters and diverges pretty sharply after the first half. Maybe I just want to see what Prana would have come up with.

It's partly an artifact of the camera speeds and technology, plus the still theater-based acting style, but the whole film has this kind of frenetic gaiety that is challenged by the more somber sequences, which helps the film still give a shudder when some of its iconic scenes (like Orlock rising form his tomb) could easily read as comic to modern audiences.

Lastly, while I don't have any evidence that Grau was particularly antisemitic*, it's worth noting that Orlock is definitely in the camp of "demonic Jew," at least visually. The reading doesn't make much sense with the story, where Orlock is, like Dracula, an Easter European nobleman of some sort, but it's impossible to ignore the visual message his appearance, which, although one of the "horror greats" always films me with a non-genre shudder when I see his image.

* I wish there was a good English-language biography; he had a complicated and interesting life.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:41 AM on October 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

For a chaser, watch Shadow of the Vampire (only currently available to stream at that Vimoe link), which works from a premise where Max Schreck is an actual vampire and the shoot is memorably chaotic as a result.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:51 AM on October 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

At 35 min into the first episode of Brian Fuller's new Queer For Fear documentary series on AMC+/Shudder, it's claimed that all existing copies except for one were destroyed as a result of the lawsuit:

Narrator: The court ordered every print of Nosferatu destroyed.

Fuller: One print survived the massacre of Nosferatu prints, and that one print gave birth to every print that has been circulated around the world. If it were not for one person who hid that print, we would not know Nosferatu the way we know it today.

posted by mediareport at 9:14 AM on October 14, 2022

Probably hyperbole to say only one copy survived, but the bones of that story are pretty much true.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:30 AM on October 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

While the film is definitely inspired by Dracula, Stoker's case has always seemed pretty flimsy to me, and I wonder if it would fly today.

This reminded me of Dan Harmon saying that he didn't ask Ice T to do the voice on Get Schwifty because he couldn't have proceeded with the script as written if Ice T said no (skip ahead to 19:45 or so), so the safer choice was to imitate the voice without getting an official "no thanks." (Harmon goes on to state that there also would have been legal liability if they had, e.g., attempted to license "The End" by The Doors, balked at the cost, then imitated the song without licensing it.)

According to an opinion and order in the second suit Neil Gaiman brought against Todd McFarlane, according to Nimmer on Copyright, "[A] work will be considered derivative only if it would be considered an infringing work if the material that it has derived from a pre-existing work had been taken without the consent of a copyright proprietor of such pre-existing work."

So probably it ruined Pran's defense that the film's program from the Berlin premier stated directly that it was adapted from Dracula?

(Incidentally, I also remember Gaiman talking about attempting to license a brief quote from "Under the Boardwalk," balking at the price, then paraphrasing it instead, apparently without issue. Conclusion: copyright is complicated, and I am glad not to be a lawyer.)

In other news, the NPR story points out that March marked the 100th anniversary of Nosferatu.
posted by johnofjack at 3:47 PM on October 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Yes, do watch Shadow of the Vampire. One of my favourite movies.
posted by jouke at 10:51 PM on October 14, 2022

Somewhere in the range of 75% of silent films are lost forever usually just because of studio neglect, not because of copyright issues. Once talkies came in, they couldn't show silent films in theaters and there wouldn't really be a resurgence in interest in them until the 1960s so studios just left them in the vaults to rot or recycled them for the silver.
posted by octothorpe at 7:01 AM on October 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think that people are talking about copyright here because it was central to Stoker's widow's case, and because (as a result) a judge ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. That people decided to preserve the film anyway speaks to its quality--and yes, obviously that's a privilege which not all silent films share.

The importance of film preservation in general is something which Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, and Robert Flaherty all could attest to for their own reasons. I know that Scorsese in particular was making efforts to preserve film history and that both nitrate films and vinegar syndrome were particular concerns. I'm not sure how much progress he's made or how much interest the government or various figureheads in the industry have taken in it, though you'd think that Buster Keaton's career be a strong argument for the need not to rely on any particular era's critical judgement when deciding whether something is worth preserving.

Some works (like Nosferatu) survive against all odds; the majority are forgotten. It's a bit disheartening; when I get too in my feelings about it I just go listen to "Dust in the Wind" again.
posted by johnofjack at 9:35 AM on October 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

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