Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)( Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens) more commonly known as Nosferatu, has long been held by many film historians as the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. However, it is recently been discovered that a film from Russia (1920) entitled Dracula may have predated Nosferatu by two years and evidence of a Hungarian film version of Dracula has also been found. Extensive research will be necessary to verify their existence and content. Very little is known about either of these films other than their name and approximate release date.
Nosferatu was produced by Prana Film which was founded in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau, Nosferatu would be their only production. Grau was inspired to make a vampire film by an experience he had had during World War I. In 1916 a Siberian farmer had told Grau that his father was a vampire and one of the undead. Inspired by the farmer’s tale, Grau and Diekmann decided to make an expressionistic film version of Dracula. However, Prana Film could not obtain the film rights from Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Stoker.

Due to an error in the copyright notice the novel Dracula had become public domain in the United States however in Germany the novel would not become public domain until 1962. Despite this fact Grau and Diekmann move forward with production which was of course based in Germany.

Grau and Diekmann charged Henrik Galeen with the task of writing a screenplay based on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. Galeen was no stranger to the horror genre, he had previously worked on The Golem(1915) and The Golem: How He Came into the World(1920) with Paul Wegener(the first horror actor). Galeen did change the names and some of the storyline for the novel but not enough to prevent a lawsuit from Stoker’s widow.
Nosferatu was shot in 1921 and released in 1922 with Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau directing. Murnau like Galeen was no stranger to the horror genre or filming unauthorized versions of novels. In 1920 Murnau directed an unauthorized film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde entitled The Head of Janus, (Der Januskopf) in 1920.
Before beginning his career as a director, Murnau had served as a German combat pilot during World War I. During his career as a pilot he crashed his plane twice, in one incident he damaged one of his kidneys so badly he was not able to drink alcohol for the rest of his life. During one mission flying through heavy fog he strayed off course and landed in Switzerland, where he stayed until the end of the war directing a play and compiling propaganda footage for Germany. He began directing films after the war in Germany in 1919.

Max Scheck was selected to play the role of Count Orlok. Schreck, whose last name means Terror in German, was born in 1879 in Berlin. He would appear in hundreds of theatrical productions in Berlin and Munich and in a number of German films.  Scheck’s father did not approve of his son’s ambition to become an actor. Schreck’s mother, however, secretly provided the young man with money to cover the cost of his acting lessons.  It was only after his father’s death that Schreck openly attended drama school. He graduated from the State Theatre of Berlin in 1902 and began his acting career which would last until 1936 when he died at the age of 56.  
While, Grau and Diekmann may have been excellent filmmakers they were not very good businessman, Prana Film spent an enormous amount of money promoting the film. Nosferatu’s premier was planned as a large social event called Das Fest des Nosferatu (Festival of Nosferatu), attendees were asked to dress in Biedermeier costume. Prana Film actually spent more money promoting the film than they did in producing it and when Brian Stoker’s estate acting on behalf of his widow Florence Stoker sued Prana Film for copyright infringement the company was forced to declare bankruptcy.
 When Stoker’s widow won the lawsuit, the court ordered that all existing prints of the film be destroyed. But one copy did manage to survive. That one print happened to be in the United States where the novel Dracula was already in public domain and there was no way for a German court to force the US to destroy the film. It is from this lone surviving print that numerous copies have been made over the years. Despite its dubious reputation and history, Nosferatu has gained a loyal cult following in recent decades. The film is noted by film historians for being an excellent example of German Expressionism.

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