On March 4, 1922, spectators filtered into the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Garden to witness horror movie history. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror opens with a young clerk traveling to see a wealthy count at his castle in the mountains. Upon arrival, he is greeted by a tall man in black. Later on during the clerk's stay, he discovers that his host has been spending his days asleep in a coffin beneath the building.
For many viewers, the premiere of the silent film marked the first time they saw a vampire on the screen. The most memorable images, like Count Orlok's shadow creeping across a wall, or his fatal reaction to sunlight, are now tropes of the genre the film helped create. But all of Nosferatu's innovation didn't change the fact that the movie blatantly ripped off Bram Stoker's Dracula—a detail that nearly buried the film before it had a chance to earn its reputation as a cinematic masterpiece.
German film producer Albin Grau claimed he got the idea for Nosferatu while stationed in Serbia during World War I. There he met locals who shared with him legends of blood-sucking demons terrorizing the countryside. He was especially captivated by the story of one farmer who claimed his own father was a member of the undead. Unable to forget what he had heard, he decided to make vampires the basis of his next project upon returning home.
Even though Grau's inspiration for the subject matter came from personal experience, he was set on pulling the actual content of the film from the most popular vampire tale of the day: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. He partnered with fellow producer Enrico Dieckmann to form Prana Film in 1921 and hired Henrik Galeen to write the script and F.W. Murnau to direct. The only obstacle standing in the way of the production was the fact that they didn’t have permission to make it.
Dracula's Irish author had been dead for nearly a decade at this point, and his material was already in the public domain in the U.S. due to a copyright error (although this wouldn’t be discovered until later). But in Germany, where the book wouldn't become public property until 50 years after the writer's death, Florence Balcombe Stoker—the author's widow—held ownership of his work. The filmmakers were either unable or unwilling to get her to sign off on the project, so to make the movie they would either need to leave the country or wait until the 1960s.
They ended up choosing a third option: Going ahead with it anyway and hoping no one would care. The team rationalized this decision by tweaking some of Dracula's most identifiable elements. The main setting went from London to a fictional town in Germany; the protagonist Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter; and Count Dracula was changed to Count Orlock. But for the most part, the major characters and plot points remained the same.
Both stories start with a man signing away a house in his hometown to a man later revealed to be a vampire and end with that vampire preying on the man's wife. Even the word nosferatu, an Eastern European term for the undead, was lifted from the pages of Stoker's novel.
When Nosferatu premiered it looked as though Prana Film might have gotten away with its intellectual thievery. The film was warmly received by German critics, who praised its striking visuals and unsettling atmosphere. But the picture didn't perform as well at the box office as expected.
Following an ambitious promotional campaign that cost more than the production itself, Nosferatu's ticket sales were underwhelming, leaving Prana Film broke. And in case there was any chance of the company rising from the dead to make more movies, Florence Stoker arrived to hammer the final nail into its coffin.
The 63-year-old London resident learned of the unlicensed movie through an anonymous source. She received an envelope containing a flyer from Nosferatu's debut at the Berlin Zoological Garden; an explanation for why it had been sent to her wasn't needed. In clear writing it said, "Freely adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula."
If a legal adaptation had been made of her late husband's book, Florence would have known about it. In the years after Bram's death, she had acted as his literary executor and hadn't approved any feature films. Royalties from the novel were still a significant part of her income, and she wasn't about to let anyone make a penny from it without her consent.
With support from the British Incorporated Society of Authors, Florence got a lawyer and sued Prana Film for copyright infringement. The defendant, which credited Bram Stoker by name on both the promotional materials and in the opening credits of the film itself, was an easy target. But Prana had declared bankruptcy before getting to court, so even though Florence was in the right, there was no money there for her to collect.
Realizing there was no financial win to be gained, she shifted her efforts toward ensuring Nosferatu would never again be seen by human eyes. The judge ruled in her favor and swiftly deployed government agents across Germany to seize all copies of the film and have them burned. The movie was eradicated from its home country and Murnau's work was set to join other lost films of the silent era.
But it wasn't long before it resurfaced. The ordered destruction turned out to be not entirely thorough, and a surviving reel ended up in the United States. Overseas, the movie enjoyed an existence free from the legal reach that made it unlawful in Germany. Copies were made from the imported film, and Nosferatu found a new audience of admirers among American horror film lovers.
Florence, naturally, was furious. Back in Europe, she continued to round up any copies left floating around and had them set ablaze. She railed against every new screening she heard of, but failed to stop the film's growing cult status. Eventually she tried a different tactic: If the courts weren't able to kill Nosferatu, she figured a second vampire film might do the trick.
In 1931, Universal Pictures released its own take on Dracula, the first adaptation to receive Florence Stoker's blessing. Despite Bela Lugosi’s sexy portrayal of the title vampire—as opposed to Max Schreck’s vermin-like monster—and the film earning an impressive enough sum to encourage the studio to produce more monster movies, it was ineffective in wiping out Nosferatu for good.
Nosferatu endured the fight to have it forgotten thanks to early fans preserving the film and passing it along, making it not only the first true Dracula flick, but the first cult classic. Florence did everything she could to diminish its chances of survival until her death in 1937.
In the decades since, Dracula has returned to the movies again and again, reimagined as everything from a kids' cartoon to a 30th-century space vampire. He's currently the literary character with the most silver screen portrayals, with more than 270 cinematic appearances. But even with all the new competition, there's something about Nosferatu's non-Dracula Dracula that still resonates with viewers nearly 100 years later.
In a 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because Nosferatu inspired dozens of other Dracula films, none of them as artistic or unforgettable."