How Movies' Most Important Vampire Film Was Almost Lost
There are basically two schools of thought surrounding vampires and sunlight. One, based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, says that sunlight will only weaken vampires. The other, based on the 1922 silent German Expressionist film Nosferatu, goes full hardcore and kills blood-sucking creatures with the death rays of the sun. We’ll let you guess which one gave us What We Do in the Shadows and which one gave us the movies where old men are super into teenage girls.
But we’re not hating on Bram Stoker’s groundbreaking novel here, even though his estate didn’t want the world to have Nosferatu -- the first-ever vampire movie and arguably the first cult classic film. So okay, maybe we’re hating just a little. See, German artist Albin Grau got the idea of making a vampire movie while he was serving in Serbia during WWI. He would hang out with local farmers and listen to their tales of vampire lore that originated in their neck of the woods. The 1918 Flu pandemic may also have inspired Grau since Nosferatu involves a plague unleashed onto a German town by means of ship rats. We’d say that’s a better pandemic-inspired premise than ghosts on your Zoom call, but whatever.
Grau went back to Germany, founded his small video company Prana Film, and got to work on developing the movie. Even though there were many similarities to Stoker’s work, he made quite a few bold detours. For example, Count Orlok (a new name for Count Dracula) doesn’t create new vampires when he bites people; he just kills them. This was a significant change, one that would later influence Interview with the Vampire, where the severely anemic characters have a choice whether they kill their victims or turn them. The story also moved from England to Germany; there was no Van Helsing, no incessant letter writing, and the ending was completely different (what with the whole sun thing).
Grau’s work was regarded as an expressionistic retelling of the tale, but the Bram Stoker estate wasn’t having it. Stoker’s widow refused to sell Grau the rights, and when the movie was finished, the estate sued him for copyright infringement, claiming that Grau and director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau originally wanted to make a straight adaptation of Dracula. The German court sided with Stoker’s widow, ruling that all copies of the film be destroyed.
Luckily for us, one print managed to escape the hellfire and find its way to the United States, where Dracula was already in the public domain. This meant that the Stoker estate couldn’t touch it, and it could be distributed within the U.S. as much as it pleased people. And boy, did it please people. Audiences were mesmerized by the silent German film, and it soon found cult status among early cinephiles. Although we have absolutely no idea who or how the copy found its way to the States, kudos to whoever had a hand in it. They helped change vampire lore -- so much so that many Dracula movies now have to explain why the hell their vampires can walk around in the sun without spontaneously combusting.
Zanandi wishes she could sleep by day. Alas, she mostly lurks on Twitter. Follow her.
Top Image: F.W. Murnau