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How Nosferatu Stole Everything from Dracula and Became a Perfect Example of Plagiarism

How Nosferatu Stole Everything from Dracula and Became a Perfect Example of Plagiarism
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Palina Dolia

Haven't you ever thought that the classic horror film "Nosferatu" looks too much like a classic novel about Dracula? Of course, you have. They are literally twin brothers! Stories of mysterious earls in dark castles and clerks who accidentally reveal their sinister secret. It seems obvious. Is "Nosferatu" an adaptation of Bram Stoker? It's not all as easy as it sounds. Today, we will figure out how Dracula changed his name and face and what came of it in general.

Early cinematography is mesmerizing. Black and white, silent, with text inserts and dramatic overacting in every scene – it is a timeless classic that still looks great today, albeit a little funny. On March 4, 1922, one of the first horror films broke into the history of cinema. It was “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”.

The concept is simple, clear and relatable to any lover of the supernatural. The main character, a young and unsuspecting real estate agent, arrives at a castle deep in the mountains in order to visit the count who lives there and advise him on buying a house in Wisborg. In the end, aristocratic status is not a reason to lock yourself up in an ominous castle in the mountains. So, Count Orlok decided to chill out. However, it turns out in the process that he is not an ordinary person at all and practices some weird things. For example, feeding on human blood and sleeping in a coffin. Rich people have the strangest habits.

It sounds familiar, doesn't it? The audience thought so too.

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However, Count Orlok became the first incarnation of a vampire on the big screen and immediately struck a chord with everyone in his unusual way. Moreover, "Nosferatu" gave rise to further clichés and tropes characteristic of films and books about vampires – a long ominous shadow crawling along the wall, a sharp reaction to sunlight and other trifles. This film opened the way for a huge number of thrillers and horror movies. But all this does not change one simple fact: "Nosferatu" stole everything from Bram Stoker, and that nearly buried the film.

"Nosferatu" producer Albin Grau claimed that the idea came to him during the First World War when he was in Serbia. There, the locals shared amazing stories about blood-sucking creatures that definitely attack the village under the cover of night. According to Grau, one farmer even claimed that his own father was such a monster and that he himself was a half-monster, taking after his father. An impressive story, which is hard to forget, indeed. He had to shoot "Nosferatu".

However, the producer did not deny borrowing from Stoker either. In fact, Grau took the most popular vampire story of the time, "Dracula" of 1897, for the script of his film. The public was still raving about the book, which meant everyone would love the film based on it! Therefore, Grau teamed up with another producer Enrico Dieckmann, founded Prana Film and began to look for employees to shoot the film. There was only one problem: no copyright.

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Bram Stoker by that time had been already ten years dead, his book became public domain (solely due to confusion with copyrights – we wrote about this earlier) in the USA, but in Germany, where all the cinematic action took place, Stoker's widow, Florence still successfully owned the copyright. When asked to borrow some rights to shoot the film, Mrs. Stoker answered "no". What would the producer have done then?

There were four options:

  1. Beg Florence Stoker to sign a contract with the company (failed).
  2. Leave the country and shoot everything in the USA (too expensive).
  3. Wait until the 1960s for the book to reach the public domain in Germany (too long).
  4. Shoot without copyright and hope no one notices.

Of course, the brave Albin Grau chose the fourth option and started filming. To make the similarities with "Dracula" less obvious, some adjustments had to be made to the script:

  • the action moved from London to a fictional German town;
  • instead of Jonathan Harker, the main character was dubbed Thomas Hutter;
  • Count Dracula became Count Orlok.

The new scenario is ready! Awesome!

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For real, that is where the big differences from the original plot end. There is, however, another interesting innovation: Count Orlok does not turn his victims into vampires but kills, and therefore the locals are sure that the plague is to blame for all the deaths. Otherwise, the similarities are obvious.

However, when “Nosferatu” premiered, Prana Film almost got away with the theft. German critics praised the film's visuals and unsettling atmosphere. But the audience was less delighted.

Advertising campaign "Nosferatu" was very ambitious as Grau invested a lot in it. The film was all over the news in Germany. But the film didn't show good results at the box office, didn't pay off, and the unfortunate Prana Film was going bankrupt. Then, Florence Stoker found out about the release and hurried to batter the last nail in the coffin of the company.

They didn't really hear about this film in London, but an anonymous source sent Mrs Stoker a leaflet announcing the premiere of "Nosferatu". Unfortunately for Grau, the leaflet very honestly read "A free adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel 'Dracula'." Of course, Florence was furious: after the death of her husband, she became his literary executive, and royalties from the book sales were her main income. And, suddenly, such impudence! It was time to sue those who tried to profit off of the glorious name and writing of the late Bram Stoker.

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Mrs Stoker quickly found a lawyer and sued Prana Film for copyright infringement. It was easy, even too easy: all the leaflets literally read a frank admission of plagiarism. Although justice was on the side of Mrs. Stoker, the company was already bankrupt; therefore, it could not pay her legally authorized royalties.

There was no financial victory, but Florence Stoker decided to get at least moral satisfaction and directed all her efforts to ensure that no living soul would see "Nosferatu" again. The court fully upheld her decision, and all copies of the film were confiscated in Germany and solemnly burned.

“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” was supposed to sink into oblivion, as often happened with other films of those times. But! One copy survived and was found in the United States. It was absolutely legal there and did not violate anyone's rights! "Nosferatu" reappeared at the box office, this time for the American audience. Everyone was delighted, except for Florence Stoker, of course.

Thus, "Nosferatu", almost 100% consisting of "Dracula", gained legitimacy and became extremely popular. This inspired directors to create an official and initially fully approved film adaptation of the iconic novel, and in 1931, "Dracula" was released with Bela Lugosi in the title role. Ironically, this film had much less in common with the original source than the ill-fated "Nosferatu". Why so? It's all about copyright again.

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Florence Stoker was very zealous of the rights to the writings of her late husband; that’s why it was expensive to acquire them. So, "Dracula" director Tod Browning took a detour and bought out the rights to Hamilton Dean's play, which in turn was an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, fully approved by Florence. In general, it was more legal and further from the original. Here Dracula is an attractive man in a tuxedo and with styling, Renfield is not Dr. Seward's patient, but a real estate agent himself, Jonathan Harker is a casual acquaintance from the theatre box. In general, there is much less "Dracula" in "Dracula". But he's handsome.

So, although the new film turned out to be commercially successful, it still could not destroy the glory of "Nosferatu", because the latter was the very first and, oddly enough, the most accurate film about Count Dracula. It survived the bans and the burning, pressure from Stoker's widow and financial problems because there were connoisseurs who sincerely fell in love with this sinister and strange count performed by Max Shrek. A hundred years later, the film still resonates with cinemagoers.

Returning to the topic of the article. “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” is a perfect example of plagiarism. After all, it managed not only to meticulously retell the original source but also to survive in history, influencing literally all film adaptations of stories about Count Dracula in the future – including the very first one. Dracula is the literary character who has received the largest number of on-screen incarnations, and none of them avoided the influence of "Nosferatu".

Isn't it perfect plagiarism?

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