The Destruction of Nosferatu

On January 31, 2018, the Rosenbach will host a screening of the classic horror film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, with Frederick R. Haas accompanying the movie on the organ at Macy’s. Conceived as a companion program to our Frankenstein and Dracula: Gothic Monsters, Modern Science, this spooky cinematic event will give us a chance to experience another gothic monster in this critically acclaimed and beautifully visualized–and, as it happens, plagiarized–vampire film.

Released in Germany in 1922, Nosferatu is considered a masterpiece of German Expressionist filmmaking. The screenplay was written by Henrik Galeen, whose work has been lauded for its dark imagination as well as its poetic rhythm. The director, F. W. Murnau, was well-known and established with ten films to his name; he employed distorted angles and shadows which, in concert with Albin Grau’s gothic-inspired production design, created a creeping, dreamlike atmosphere of horror. The film was meticulously story-boarded and filmed with only one camera; Murnau carefully followed handwritten instructions on camera positioning and used a metronome to control the pace of the acting. As the first release of a new film company (Prana Film, co-founded by Grau), Nosferatu was fêted with a lavish opening party including a costume ball, and the company sank no small resources into its press coverage and advertising campaign.

Nosferatu opens with a German man named Hutter who is sent to a Transylvanian castle to work with a mysterious client named Count Orlok. Hutter is repulsed by Count Orlok’s malformed appearance and eccentric table manners, and gradually realizes that Orlok is a ravenous creature out of legend (the titular nosferatu) who sleeps at day and kills at night. After finding Orlok asleep in a crypt coffin, Hutter is injured and knocked unconscious in his frantic attempt to escape the castle. When he comes to, Orlok is gone–to Germany, with plans to find Hutter’s wife. When the monster’s ship docks in Hutter’s hometown, its residents are horrified to find the ship’s crew dead.

Still from Nosferatu (1922)

Does this sound familiar? The premise of Nosferatu is lifted, almost whole cloth, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Meanwhile, across the sea in Ireland, Bram Stoker’s widow was struggling financially. After the Dracula author’s death in 1911, Florence Balcombe Stoker became his literary executor and eked out a small income from the rights and permissions to Stoker’s work. (Significantly for us, in 1913 Florence Stoker sold her late husband’s notes for Dracula to a New York book dealer named James Drake for an amount roughly equivalent to a few hundred dollars today. These notes passed from Drake’s hands through unnamed others until they were purchased by the Rosenbach in 1970–and here they remain today!) However, Florence had given no permission nor received any payment for this unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, and in fact had never heard of Nosferatu until someone anonymously sent her a poster of the expensive Berlin launch party and ball. In the film’s promotional materials, it was described as “freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula“–the final nail in the coffin, so to speak.

Stoker’s retaliation was sharp and swift. Not only did her estate sue Prana Film–causing them to declare bankruptcy after their first and only production–but the court ordered that all negatives and copies of the film be destroyed.

But despite the death sentence, Nosferatu returned. Somewhere in the world, a copy of the film was preserved, replicated, and released–not unlike the victims of Count Dracula himself. (As a weird aside, the similarities between fact and fiction don’t end there. Just a few years ago, Murnau’s grave was broken into and his skull was detached and removed. Perhaps a fan simply wanted a souvenir; after all, the actress Greta Garbo commissioned a death mask of Murnau to keep on her desk. But the resemblance to the preferred method of to Dracula‘s vampire hunters–decapitation–is unsettling.)

The film we will watch on January 22 is therefore a copy of a copy, with musical accompaniment that has also been reconstituted from the film’s original score, which is mostly missing. Yet the film’s impact remains authentic: if Nosferatu hadn’t found its way to American theaters in 1929, we likely wouldn’t have the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), not to mention countless other horror movies that redeploy Murnau’s Expressionist angles and shadows to chilling effect.

Still from Dracula (1931).

We hope you’ll join us in the Greek Room of the Wanamaker Building on January 31. We’ll do our best to warm you up with hot chocolate and popcorn, and a champagne toast for those who opt into the VIP experience. But the real attraction of the evening is a chance to view this remarkable film the way it was meant to be experienced: with the beauty and drama of live organ accompaniment. Incidentally, the Greek Room instrument is a 1929 Wurlitzer organ: in other words, it is an instrument specifically designed to accompany silent film, and was made in the same year that Nosferatu landed on American shores.

 

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