In 1916 during the first World War, a young producer named Albin Grau was serving in Serbia. Stationed in a rural region, he heard local farmers telling stories about supposedly real vampires. Amused by the lore, Grau decided that after the war was over he was going to make a vampire film. Within a few years, Grau had created a small production company, Prana Films, and hired a screenwriter, as well as director F. W. Murnau.
Then the fledgling production company ran into a huge problem. Grau really wanted to do a highly stylized expressionistic version of Bram Stoker’s novel DRACULA (written in 1897). Bram Stoker had passed away in 1912, so the estate was now managed by his widow, Florence Stoker. Though the novel was already in “public domain” in many countries, including the United States, in Germany where the film was being made the novel still required copyright approval and would not be considered public domain until fifty years after Bram Stoker’s death, so not until 1962. Prana Films had to get copyright approval before using anything from the book. It is not clear whether Florence Stoker refused to give approval or Albin Grau just refused to pay for it, but regardless, the situation was not pleasant and approval was not granted.
Completely unfazed by the copyright snafu and the threat of lawsuit if the movie was made without approval, Grau continued with pre-production, and by 1921, they began filming. Grau had the screenwriter make several changes to the vampire and his mythos to set him apart from DRACULA. The word “vampire” was changed to “nosferatu” (which means “vampire” in Romanian), and the name “Count Dracula” was changed to “Count Orlock”. They also changed all of the principal character names (like Lucy and Johnathan) and left out some of the secondary plotlines. And while sunlight kills Count Orlock, it only makes DRACULA weak. Orlock also became more animal-like and feral as opposed to the charming and refined Dracula character.
In 1922, NOSFERATU had a huge debut with a very lavish post-screening party. But NOSFERATU made a big mistake. On one of its publicity posters, the team included the phrase “freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s DRACULA”. An anonymous source sent the poster to Florence Stoker who promptly sued stating that NOSFERATU had knowingly stolen from DRACULA and that the deviations from the original plot were minor at best. Prana Films declared bankruptcy in order to escape the lawsuit. The courts sided with Stoker’s estate, and a judge ordered that every copy of NOSFERATU be destroyed, thus guaranteeing the copyright infringing flick would never been seen again. All prints were burned…except one.
Somehow a print of NOSFERATU made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. And since DRACULA was already public domain in the US, people began making copies of the print and showing it publicly. Several screenings took place in the United States and United Kingdom before Florence Stoker’s death in 1937, and while she was alive, she took legal actions against each screening to try to have the prints destroyed. But she was never able to get all of the copies, and NOSFERATU continued to rise from the dead. By the 1960s, the novel DRACULA fell into public domain worldwide, and NOSFERATU was finally able to journey home to Germany as well as to many other regions.
It is thought that because of the successful US screenings of the original NOSFERATU print, Universal saw the popularity of the vampire myth and decided to make their famous DRACULA movie in 1931. NOSFERATU went on to become a cannon of early filmmaking, the expressionistic art movement, and also a staple of vampire lore.