How Nosferatu Ripped Off Dracula and Became a Plagiarism Success Story

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 4, 1922, spectators filtered into the Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Garden to witness horror movie history. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror opens with a young clerk traveling to see a wealthy count at his castle in the mountains. Upon arrival, he's greeted by a tall man in black. Later in the clerk's stay, he discovers that his host has been spending his days asleep in a coffin beneath the building.

For many viewers, the premiere of the silent film marked the first time they saw a vampire on the screen. The most memorable images, like Count Orlok's shadow creeping across a wall, or his fatal reaction to sunlight, are now tropes of the genre the film helped create. But all of Nosferatu's innovation didn't change the fact that it blatantly ripped off Bram Stoker's Dracula—a detail that nearly buried the work before it had a chance to earn its reputation as a cinematic masterpiece.

German film producer Albin Grau claimed he got the idea to make the picture while stationed in Serbia during World War I. There he met locals who shared with him legends of blood-sucking demons terrorizing the countryside. He was especially captivated by the story of one farmer who claimed his own father was a member of the undead. Unable to forget what he had heard, he decided to make vampires the basis of his next project upon returning home.

Even though Grau's inspiration for the subject matter came from personal experience, he was set on pulling the actual content of the film from the most popular vampire tale of the day: Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. He partnered with fellow producer Enrico Dieckmann to form Prana Film in 1921 and hired Henrik Galeen to write the script and F.W. Murnau to direct. The only obstacle standing in the way of the production was the fact that they didn’t have permission to make it.

Dracula's Irish author had been dead for nearly a decade at this point, and his material was already in the public domain in the U.S. due to a copyright error (although this wouldn’t be discovered until later). But in Germany, where the book wouldn't become public property until 50 years after the writer's death, his widow Florence Balcombe Stoker held ownership of his work. The filmmakers were either unable or unwilling to get her to sign off on the project, so to make the movie they would either need to leave the country or wait until the 1960s.

They ended up choosing a third option: Going ahead with it anyway and hoping no one would care. The team rationalized this decision by tweaking some of Dracula's most identifiable elements. The main setting went from London to a fictional town in Germany, the protagonist Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, and Count Dracula was changed to Count Orlock. But for the most part, the major characters and plot points remained the same.

Both stories start with a man signing away a house in his hometown to a man later revealed to be a vampire and end with that vampire preying on the man's wife. Even the word nosferatu, an Eastern European term for the undead, was lifted from the pages of Stoker's novel.

When Nosferatu premiered it looked as though Prana Film might have gotten away with its intellectual thievery. The film was warmly received by German critics, who praised its striking visuals and unsettling atmosphere. But the picture didn't perform as well at the box office as expected.

Following an ambitious promotional campaign that cost more than the production itself, Nosferatu's ticket sales were underwhelming, leaving Prana Film broke. And in case there was any chance of the company rising from the dead to make more movies, Florence Stoker arrived to hammer the final nail into its coffin.

The 63-year-old London resident learned of the unlicensed movie through an anonymous source. She received an envelope containing a flyer from Nosferatu's debut at the Berlin Zoological Garden; an explanation for why it had been sent to her wasn't needed. In clear writing it said, "Freely adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula." If a legal adaptation had been made of her late husband's book, she would have known about it—in the years after Bram's death, she had acted as his literary executor and hadn't approved of any feature films. Royalties from the novel were still a significant part of her income, and she wasn't about to let anyone make a penny from it without her consent.

With support from the British Incorporated Society of Authors, Florence got a lawyer and sued Prana Film for copyright infringement. The defendant, which credited Bram Stoker by name on both the promotional materials and in the opening credits of the film itself, was an easy target. But Prana had declared bankruptcy before getting to court, so even though Florence was in the right, there was no money there for her to collect.

Realizing there was no financial win to be gained, she shifted her efforts toward ensuring Nosferatu would never again be seen by human eyes. The judge ruled in her favor and swiftly deployed government agents across Germany to seize all copies of the film and have them burned. The movie was eradicated from its home country and Murnau's work was set to join other lost films of the silent era.

But it wasn't long before it resurfaced. The ordered destruction turned out to be not entirely thorough, and a surviving reel ended up in the United States. Overseas, the movie enjoyed an existence free from the legal reach that made it unlawful in Germany. Copies were made from the imported film, and Nosferatu found a new audience of admirers among American horror film lovers.

Florence, naturally, was furious. Back in Europe, she continued to round up any copies left floating around and had them set ablaze. She railed against every new screening she heard of, but failed to stop the film's growing cult status. Eventually she tried a different tactic: If the courts weren't able to kill Nosferatu, she figured a second vampire film might do the trick.

In 1931, Universal Pictures released its own take on Dracula, the first adaptation to receive Florence Stoker's blessing. Despite Bela Lugosi’s sexy portrayal of the title vampire—as opposed to Max Schreck’s vermin-like monster—and the film earning an impressive enough sum to encourage the studio to produce more monster movies, it was ineffective in wiping out Nosferatu for good.

Nosferatu endured the fight to have it forgotten thanks to early fans preserving the film and passing it along, making it not only the first true Dracula flick, but the first cult classic. Florence did everything she could to diminish its chances of survival until her death in 1937.

In the decades since, Dracula has returned to the movies again and again, reimagined as everything from a kids' cartoon to a 30th-century space vampire. He's currently the literary character with the most silver screen portrayals, with over 270 cinematic appearances. But even with all the new competition, there's something about Nosferatu's non-Dracula Dracula that still resonates with viewers nearly 100 years later.

In a 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because Nosferatu inspired dozens of other Dracula films, none of them as artistic or unforgettable."

15 Facts About Rushmore On Its 20th Anniversary

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

On December 11, 1998, Wes Anderson introduced the world to his unique brand of whimsical comedy with Rushmore. Though it wasn't his feature directorial debut—he had released Bottle Rocket, which he adapted from a short, in 1996—it was his first major Hollywood movie. And kicked off his still-ongoing collaborations with a stable of talented actors that includes Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It was also the second film Anderson co-wrote with Owen Wilson.

To celebrate the quirky comedy's 20th anniversary, here are some things you might not know about Rushmore.

1. Rushmore Academy was the director's Alma Mater.

Wes Anderson sent location scouts across the United States and Canada to find the perfect high school to shoot the movie. He was having a tough time trying to find the school, until his mother sent him a picture of his old high school in Houston, Texas: St. John's School. Anderson thought it was the perfect location to make the movie.

2. Bill Murray wanted to make Rushmore for free.

Bill Murray in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Once Bill Murray read the screenplay, he wanted to be in the movie so badly that he considered appearing in it for free. Murray ended up working on Rushmore at scale with the Screen Actors Guild day rate minimum for smaller indie film projects. Anderson estimated that Murray made about $9000 for his work on the film.

3. Film critic Pauline Kael had a private screening.

Pauline Kael’s film criticism was a major influence on Anderson’s view of cinema. “Your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that," he once wrote to her.

Kael retired from The New Yorker in 1991, so Anderson arranged for her to have a private screening of Rushmore before the film came out in 1998. He wrote about the screening in the introduction to the published version of the screenplay, and shared what Kael told him about the film: "I genuinely don't know what to make of this movie."

4. It was Jason Schwartzman’s first film role.

Casting directors searched throughout the United States, Canada, and England to find a young actor to play the lead role of Max Fischer. Australian actor Noah Taylor was the frontrunner for the part when, on the last day of casting in Los Angeles, Jason Schwartzman auditioned. He was wearing a prep school blazer with a Rushmore Academy patch that he made himself.

5. Owen Wilson's private school experiences inspired some of the movie's plot points.

As a sophomore at St. Mark High School in Dallas, Texas, Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson was expelled for stealing his geometry teacher's textbook (the one that contained all the answers); he went to Thomas Jefferson High School to complete 10th grade. This was the inspiration for when Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy and is forced to attend Grover Cleveland High School.

Although Wilson doesn’t have a credited role in Rushmore, he does appear as Ms. Cross’s deceased husband, Edward Appleby, in a photo in Appleby’s childhood bedroom.

6. Wilson's Dad Inspired a Moment in the Movie.

Wilson’s father, Robert Wilson, was the inspiration for Herman Blume’s speech about privilege at the beginning of Rushmore.

7. Alexis Bledel was an extra in the film.


Getty Images

Before she starred as Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, actress Alexis Bledel was an uncredited extra—she played a Grover Cleveland High School student—in Rushmore. You can see her in the background in various scenes, including dancing with the character Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) at the end of the film.

8. Both Anderson and Wilson's brothers had parts in the movie.

Owen and Luke Wilson’s older brother Andrew plays Rushmore Academy’s baseball coach, Coach Beck. He also appeared in Anderson’s directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, playing the bully John Mapplethorpe.

Eric Chase Anderson, Wes's brother, plays the architect who designs Max’s aquarium.

9. The Movie's Editor Made a Cameo.

Rushmore editor David Moritz plays the Dynamite Salesman; he sells Max the dynamite and explosives for his stage play Heaven and Hell at the end of the film.

10. Producers Made a Deal to get a Bentley.

Producers needed a Bentley for Murray's character, Herman Blume, but Rushmore’s production budget was only $20 million and they couldn’t afford to rent one. A Houston resident was willing to lend them his Bentley if they gave his daughter a role in the film. Producers agreed; the man's daughter plays an usher who seats Miss Cross at Max’s play at the end of the movie.

11. Mason Gamble's role in Dennis the Menace almost cost him the part of Dirk Calloway in Rushmore.

Mason Gamble in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Wilson referred to the character of Dirk Calloway, played by Mason Gamble, as the conscience of the film. Originally, Anderson didn’t want to cast Gamble in the part because of the actor’s previous—and very recognizable—role as Dennis Mitchell in the 1993 live-action movie Dennis the Menace.

12. Rushmore Upset Francis Ford Coppola.

Director Francis Ford Coppola owns a winery, and when he first saw Rushmore, he was upset with Anderson because he used Coppola’s chief Napa Valley wine rival during Max's post-play celebration. (It probably didn't help matters that Coppola is Schwartzman's uncle.)

13. Anderson's Brother Did the Movie's Criterion Collection Artwork.

The Criterion Collection edition of 'Rushmore' (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Eric Chase Anderson did the artwork for the Criterion Collection DVD cover, an interoperation of a shot from the montage of Max’s extracurricular activities at the beginning of the movie. The Yankee Racer shot is itself a recreation of a photo from French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, taken in 1909 when he was only 15.

14. Schwartzman waxed his chest to play Max.

Although Max only shows his chest once in the film (during the high school wrestling match), Anderson made Schwartzman wax his chest for the duration of Rushmore's filming.

15. The Max Fischer Players Appeared on MTV.

During the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, the Max Fischer Players recreated the year's hit movies—The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight—as stage plays.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe Says Broadway Made Him a Better Actor

Dominik Bindl, Getty Images
Dominik Bindl, Getty Images

For 10 years, moviegoers watched as Daniel Radcliffe matured on film throughout eight Harry Potter films. But the 29-year-old recently revealed that he believes the bulk of his professional growth has occurred as a result of his Broadway stage work.

“It gives me a lot of confidence as an actor, which is not always something that I’ve felt,” Radcliffe told Variety. “I feel like doing theater ... it was really very important for me psychologically.”

Radcliffe starred in a number of films after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final film in the franchise, including The Woman in Black, Now You See Me 2, and Lost in London. His Broadway credits include Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.

“There’s something about doing it without an editor to save you, or a myriad of things in post-production that can help you out, something that made me go: ‘OK, I can act,’" Radcliffe continued. "I’ve grown a little bit as an actor every time I’ve gone back to the theater."

Radcliffe crediting his professional growth to working in theater may leave some Potterheads wondering if he thinks playing Harry Potter for so long held him back.

“Not professionally, at all,” he said. “There were moments when probably I coped with the personal effects of Harry Potter not as well as I could have. But professionally, no.”

According to Radcliffe, "There are directors that were, I think, excited to—I am quoting one of them here and I won’t say who—'reinvent' me.”

Radcliffe fans can gauge that reinvention for themselves with The Lifespan of a Fact, the new Broadway play starring Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones. It is running at New York City's Studio 54 through January 13, 2019.

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