Nosferatu and the fangs of copyright infringement

Bram Stoker’s widow set precedent in going after unlicensed German production of film

When Count Orlock celebrates the centenary of his big screen debut, cinephiles won't bat an eyelid. After all, the wild-eyed star of Nosferatu is a vampire. Since the film premiered in Berlin on March 5th, 1922, it has earned its place in the honour roll of early German expressionist cinema alongside Metropolis and Dr Caligari.

But, by rights, Count Orlock should not be alive at all given the fearless vampire killer who tried to finish him off a century ago: Florence Stoker, widow of Dracula author, Bram Stoker.

While the film’s credits – and its shooting script – described Nosferatu as based on the Irish author’s horror classic, the German producers neither sought nor were granted a licence from the Stoker estate.

As a result, the world’s first vampire film turned into one of the first major cases of film industry copyright infringement.

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Looking for answers, I contact the estate of Bram Stoker and, when I reach his great grandnephew Dacre Stoker, he is also trying to piece together the century-old puzzle for an upcoming edition of Scream magazine.

”I’m still trying to figure out why these people would have felt they could go ahead and just do this so brazenly,” says Stoker, a US-based author.

So who were “these people”, and why were they interested in ripping off Dracula?

Nosferatu is not just a cult classic, it is perhaps the world’s first occult classic. The film’s director, FW Murnau, an actor and artist turned film director, had a life-long interest in the occult and in the 1920s was drawn into a Berlin circle led by Albin Grau. Listed as producer of Nosferatu, Grau was responsible for much of the film’s look, feel, sets and costumes. He said later he got the idea for the film when he was a soldier in the first World War, and a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire.

Grau was also known to his close friends as Master Pacitius, a leading figure in the Fraternitas Saturni cult, and set up a film production company with the aim of producing a series of occult films.

Murnau rip-off

But for Prana Films, named after the Hindu word for life, Nosferatu was the company’s first and last picture.

But it wasn’t Murnau’s first rip-off: in 1920 he lifted the Jekyll & Hyde story for The Head of Janus, starring Conrad Veidt, without securing the rights from the estate of Robert Louis Stevenson.

For Nosferatu, Grau and Murnau engaged Henrik Galeen, best-known for his previous work on two films about the Golem legend.

Interiors were shot in Berlin, while exterior shoots took the team to Slovakia’s Tatra mountains as well as the northern German cities of Lübeck and Wismar. Most of the original locations remain largely unchanged and are as popular with film buffs as Murnau’s innovative use of magnifying lenses and backlit Biedermeier sets.

Though many audience members in 1922 were shocked by Murnau’s stark vision, backed by a huge marketing campaign, and his undead anti-hero, the reviewers were in awe. One Berlin critic praised Nosferatu’s acting and cinematography as “very, very good” and described the film as a visual “masterpiece”.

But the team of Prana Films had little time to celebrate, after a Berlin-based lawyer filed a suit.

Before Bram Stoker died in 1912, he had been careful with the copyright for his novel. Eight days before Dracula was published in 1897, he even organised a dramatic reading in London’s Lyceum Theatre to secure the stage rights. By 1922, however, the writer’s widow – though the holder of all rights – was far from being a wealthy woman. Her husband’s vampire novel had yet to become a pop culture sensation and the idea of a legal challenge in a foreign country was an expensive and risky endeavour. After much haranguing, she convinced the British Incorporated Society of Authors to take on the case and find a local lawyer in Berlin.

“Florence was a person of principle, just like Bram, and I think she knew that what was right was worth fighting for, but she needed help,” says Dacre Stoker. Once they got to court, their case was simple: Dracula was under copyright and, as the author’s widow, she was the rights holder. Prana Film had ripped her off.

Print destruction

“We have found nothing to say she was ever approached and no licence fee was dangled in front of her,” said Mr Stoker.

Just what happened exactly in the court case is unclear – no records appear to have survived – but when Prana went into receivership, a new case was filed with its legal successor. After about seven years of action, including an appeal, the Stoker side won the case.

No damages appear to have ever been paid but, as part of the settlement, all copies of Nosferatu were ordered to be destroyed. That this never happened is because so many prints had already been distributed across the world. With legal action in each territory impossible, Nosferatu lived.

Dacre Stoker dismisses online claims it was his great grand-aunt’s idea to demand the burning of all nitrate prints.

“Letters from the lawyers engaged by the Incorporated Society of Authors suggest it was they who said they should be destroyed,” he says.

The case comes with an ironic coda: within a few years, the Nosferatu creators looked on helplessly as bootleg copies and unauthorised re-edits of their work began circulating around Europe.

Meanwhile, Hollywood’s Universal Studios, undeterred by the Berlin legal squabbles, bought the screen rights for $40,000 – roughly $584,000 today – allowing Florence Stoker to live out her days in comfort. Three weeks after Universal’s Dracula had its Hollywood premiere in February 1931, 43-year-old Murnau died in a car accident in nearby Santa Barbara.

Despite Murnau’s premature death and years of legal battles, Dacre Stoker suggests the centenary of Nosferatu is a relatively happy ending for all.

“Nosferatu remains and Florence got her money for stage and film rights,” he says. “But most importantly, she set an important, symbolic precedent. Every author, artist and musician should thank Mrs Stoker for the precedent she helped set.”

In celebration of the centenary, Nosferatu will be returning to cinemas in the UK and Ireland throughout 2022. Screenings will be announced via nosferatu100.co.uk