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Nosferatu Begins with a True Story
In 1916 during World War I a Serbian farmer told Albin Grau, a soldier in the German army, that he believed his father was a vampire. To be clear, the Serbian belief of vampires and the undead is different than our own.
To quote Monstrous, the website that is working hard to be the encyclopedia on monsters and cryptids:
“In some parts of Serbia, there is or was a belief that, unless they are destroyed first, vampires reach a stage in their unlife after thirty years from their death and burial where they no longer need to periodically return to the grave but can in fact pass as ordinary mortal human beings even in the day time. They then travel far away to some country where they will not be recognized and often marry a mortal human and have children. “
It makes one wonder exactly what this farmer’s father did to appear to be a vampire. We don’t really know, but we can guess by all the uproar that occurred over a present-day sighting of Sava Savanović, thought to be one of the original Serbian vampire.
The Serbian farmer made quite an impression on Grau who was 22 years old at the time. It stuck with him, and he yearned to make a vampire movie.
After the war Grau became an artist and architect -and he followed his occult beliefs and joined The Brotherhood of Saturn (Fraternitas Saturni) a German magical order.
In January of 1921 he founded Prana Film (named after the Buddhist breath-of-life), a German silent movie studio with Enrico Dieckmann. It was their intention to produce several supernatural movies, the first about vampires.
The Cultural Influence Creates the Atmosphere
Grau and Dieckmann hire screenwriter Henrik Galeen to write the screenplay. Galeen had already made The Student of Prague in 1913 and The Golem: How He Came Into the World in 1920, both with director Paul Wegener who also starred in the silent films. These movies were considered Dark Romantics, a genre where the world is seen as dark and sinister and mankind as possessing a fallen nature, incapable of reform, bent on destruction no matter how hard they might try to improve. The perfect setting for a vampire movie. (Isn’t it interesting how much Nosferatu resembles Golem?)
At this point in history, the Expressionism movement was at its peak in Berlin. Galeen was well-known as an Expressionist for his first two films and he wrote the screenplay for Nosferatu with that rhythmic flow, rich symbolism and emotional angst. In Expressionism it is the writer’s vision of the film that is most important, so Galeen produced sketches and handwritten notes for the setting, camera positions, lighting and blocking (actor’s movements) to correspond with the script to create a stylized and symbolic picture. Director F.W. Murnau used a metronome to control the pacing when filming, which further enhanced the flow and sense of poetry in this style.
The Storyline Seems Vaguely Familiar
Galeen took a famous vampire story – Dracula, a novel written in 1897 by Bram Stoker – made a few changes and presto-chango had a screenplay. (If you’d like to read the book to see how close the two storylines are for yourself, it’s free on Kindle.)
First, he changed the character names – for instance, Count Dracula became Count Orlok. He changed the setting to a fictional German harbor town called Wisborg. Nosferatu means “plague bearer”, a focus on a little plot change that Galeen added. When the sailors opened Orlok’s coffin they saw dirt and rats. When people started dying on the ship and then in towns along the coast of the Black Sea they thought it was a mysterious plague carried by the rats, one that left marks on the neck. The vampire was able to go unnoticed due to this plague – at least until Ellen reads the Book of Vampires and sacrifices herself to save humanity. Another plot change was that Nosferatu’s bite didn’t create more vampires like Dracula, his victims all died.
Grau influenced some changes in the film too. He added the occult Enochian, Egyptian hermetic and magic alchemical symbols that can be seen. It was also his idea to make Nosferatu look rat-like, as a plague bearer.
Director F.W. Murnau added his touch too. The last 12 pages of his working copy of the script was missing, so he rewrote the finale where Ellen sacrifices herself and Orlok dies in the first rays of sunlight.
Nosferatu was released on March 4, 1922 with all the pomp and glory of a high society event called Das Fest des Nosferatu (Festival of Nosferatu). There was an impressive campaign in the magazine Bühne und Film with photos of the production, a synopsis of the movie and even an article on vampirism by Grau.
Nosferatu was one of the first films to have an original score, which was written by Hans Erdmann (and played by a full orchestra). Unfortunately most of it has been lost.
The Movie About the Undead Just Won’t Die!
It was blatantly obvious what had been done. Someone wrote a letter to Stoker’s widow to inform her of the copyright infringement and included a handbill from the premiere that said it was “freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
The British Incorporated Society of Authors sued on her behalf since she didn’t have the money herself.
It took years, but eventually she won. In July 1925 Prana Film was ordered to hand over all copies of the film to be destroyed. However copies of the movie had already been distributed around the world so not all copies were destroyed.
Prana Film declared bankruptcy and never did pay for the copyright.
Florence Stoker was able to stop the premiere of the movie in London in 1925, but it was shown in New York City and Detroit in 1929.
Want to See the Movie Now?
Just hook your device for surfing the internet to the TV and everyone can watch at the same time.
Please note that this was made before the “talkies” so everyone has to be able to read what is on the screen or you must have a designated reader.
[iframe src=”http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/rcyzubFvBsA?rel=0″ width=”100%” height=”480″]
It is available from Amazon as an Instant Amazon Video – free to Amazon Prime Members, $2.99 for everyone else.
See More Nosferatu Party Ideas
Did this information help you?
Nosferatu: the Classic Silent Film by Kally Mavromatis
Nosferatu at Wikipedia.
Photograph of Serbian billboard by Darko Vojinovic/AP
All other photos are in the public domain.
*Please note that these are affiliate links and we will receive a small payment from Amazon if you make a purchase – for which we thank you.
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Subscribe today & don't miss a thing!
Once a week we'll tell you the upcoming daily celebrations & the articles you may have missed.