I am sure that if you are a real horror fan, you have heard by now of the 1922 movie Nosferatu. It was one of the first real horror movies, made in Germany just after World War I. It had a large influence on vampire lore, because it made them vulnerable to the sun. Before, vampires were often weakened by sunlight, but exposure would not kill them.
The plot is based on the novel Dracula, but it takes a lot of liberties because the filmmakers did not have the license to make the film. It is about a clerk named Thomas Hutter, who goes to Count Orlok’s (the vampire, or “Nosferatu”) castle, who is blind to the fact that Count Orlok’s obviously a vampire, even though he just read a book about it. Thomas Hutter sells a house to Count Orlok, who then goes to the city of Wisborg, to go on a killing spree. He dies when he is feeding of the blood of a pretty woman. Distracted as he is, he did not notice the rising sun and vanishes in a cloud of smoke.
The movie is known for its haunting atmosphere, and Count Orlok’s presence is always frightening, even if you can only see his shadow. Some of the shots are colored, but only in one color, to add a feel to the scene. If all of this sounds familiar, you will also know that the movie was banned for copyright reasons, causing the company that made it, Prana Films to go bankrupt. By just paying the sum of money to Bram Stoker’s widow, who by the way, also dated Oscar Wilde. History is weird, right? No, every single copy of the film had to be destroyed.
Bram Stoker’s widow had little to gain from suing the film, she only needed the money because she was in financial trouble, and she did not even see the film. There was no real reason for her or the court to banish the film from existence. But apparently, it was not gone forever.
So why can you still watch the film on YouTube? Well, in the late twenties, it became clear that some cinemas that had kept copies of the film in secret and started showing it again, because by this time the court apparently no longer cared.
Now this is the part where it gets crazy. Last week, I read about it on a forum for old horror movies, the kind of forum where you discuss obscure interests or trade rare collector’s items, the kind of forum that is silently active in some corner of the internet without the general public knowing or caring. It was in the silent movie subforum, where usually a topic got posted once a month or so. Usually, those topics are about whether anyone knows where to get a good copy of Nosferatu or, once in a while, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
The title of the topic read simply: “Nosferatu”. I assumed it was nothing special, so I clicked it, ready to give a link to eBay. I can remember that it was pretty long, but after the recent events it got deleted. I will try to recap it while I can.
The poster, whose username was simply “rudolf” (without caps), to my surprise, did not want a copy at all, he just wanted our opinion on the movie, and had posted a few screenshots just for fun. I was already typing my comment when I noticed something was off about the screenshots. I did not know what it was, but I figured I would just watch the movie one more time on YouTube.
I was busy with my regular job, so I could not return to the forum until after a few weeks. I was browsing again when I remembered the Nosferatu topic. When I checked the comment section it struck me what was wrong with the screenshots: They were not from the movie at all. I could not recall any moment in the film where Count Orlok was walking like that in the mountains, or staring at the screen from that angle, or Thomas Hutter running near the river. The other commenters had noticed as well, and called “rudolf” out on it.
There was a response from Rudolf, saying that these were definitely in the movie, and that their summary of it was not correct. I was intrigued, but not interested enough to keep reading, so I moved on to another topic.
A few days later I was browsing again, in the music subforum, when I saw that Rudolf had posted a reply. He said that added music did not belong in silent horror films and that the silent version was the only true version. I remembered the thread, so I returned to it.
Apparently Rudolf and the forum administrators did not get along very well anymore. The administrators demanded to know where he got the screenshots, and Rudolf insisted that this was the original version, he even posted a picture of the plastic strip. I did not believe him for a second, and posted a snarky reply, saying that he was just trolling us.
Now I was following the thread. No one really took Rudolf seriously anymore, even though he continued to post more “screenshots” of the film. After a while the debate got so heated that Rudolf said he would record the full movie with his camera, and post a link to the whole movie on Friday (at midnight, for good measure).
All of us were interested now, and even though no one really knew what it was going to be. In the weeks that the forum thread was active, nearly all of us had posted replies. Some of us speculated that his copy was really an amateur fan film that he mistook for the real one, or cheap imitator with some added and deleted scenes. Some even believed Rudolf was right. In the following days, the nature of the film he would show us became the main topic to talk about in the forums, with a ton of other theories being submitted.
When the Friday night came, there was an unusually high number of online members. After about ten minutes of waiting and watching the other members complain, he finally posted a link to Mega, which I clicked. After I had downloaded the file and opened it with Media Player.
I do not remember the entire movie, but what I do remember still haunts me in my dreams to this day. The first thing that hit me was that I was seeing the film being projected, so this really was a plastic strip. Did not see that one coming? Well, just wait, it gets better.
The title cards were in German, so apparently, this was either a really old imitator or just the original Nosferatu. The movie started normally, with Hutter and his wife, Ellen, being introduced to the audience by being shown at home. A few minutes later Hutter had departed on his journey to the count’s castle. Nothing was really out of the ordinary, except for a few camera angles that seemed slightly different and some shots I had never seen before. The first major difference was at the inn, where Hutter reads the book on vampires, instead of the normal text, it showed: “Führen Sie, während Sie noch eine Chance haben, für das, was kommen wird es keine Rückkehr möglich sein.” Which was on the screen for an abnormally-long period of time, even for a silent movie. The second page showed: “Abwenden, für Baphomet kommt.”
Hutter reacted to this the same way as in the real version: by simply throwing the book away. Afterwards, he took the carriage like in the real version, but the woods looked much more dense, and it was evening instead of daytime, so everything was a lot harder to see, though there was a large moon in the sky. By this point my eyes were glued to the screen, I had no idea what was going on.
Unlike the normal version, where the coach drivers leave Hutter near the road because of their superstition, here, they brought him all the way through the woods. The scene was much longer, and I thought I could see something move in the woods, maybe or maybe not. What felt like an hour later they reached the castle, and Hutter entered the courtyard, at lot more cautious than in the normal version. That’s when Count Orlok first fully appears in the regular version, but here, there was no one there, so Hutter just entered the castle.
Inside, some walls looked distorted or darker. Hutter was looking very uneasy. Then Count Orlok came in. He looked just like in the regular version, tall and thin, with his ridiculous hat and eyebrows, and yet there was something different about him. Something about the eyes, I think, yet I could not tell what it was. Like in the real version, his presence brought a chill down my spine.
The screen froze. I checked if it was Media Player freezing, but it was not. The film remained frozen for about 5 minutes, with Count Orlok at the middle of the screen. I felt that he was somehow coming closer, but the shot seemed to remain still.
When the still shot finally ended, Count Orlok just sat down like in the regular version, his eyes fixed upon Hutter. Hutter began eating the food (somewhat nervously), while Count Orlok was examining the contract. Now, if you have watched the film several times you will know that in the regular version the contract is covered in all kinds of hermetic symbols and symbols of the occult. This is due that the production designer was Albin Grau, an architect and member of the occult group “Fraternitas Saturni”. He was also responsible for Count Orlok looking like he did. The contract looked exactly the same, unlike many other things in this version of the film.
Then came the moment that Hutter cut himself. Instead of rushing forward like in the other version, Count Orlok looked surprisingly still, and Hutter just cleaned it off. This surprised me greatly, because that is when the audience knows for sure that Count Orlok is Nosferatu in the original version.
After handling the contract, Hutter went to his room, mistrustful of the whole situation and unable to lock the door. After several minutes of paranoia, Count Orlok finally came in. Hutter, who by now knew of Count Orlok being Nosferatu, faints in fear. The screen then cut to Count Orlok’s smiling face, slowly zooming in, then abruptly stopping. In the next shot, you can see Ellen wake up, due to the bond she has with Hutter.
When he woke up, Hutter surprisingly did not find the two pinch marks on his neck like in the real version. However, he did become mistrustful of the whole situation, and, like in the normal version, consulted the book from the inn. This time the text read: “Sie Koennen Ihr Schicksal durch die Flucht nicht entkommen, Ubique Daemon.”
This was, like the previous page, on the screen for quite long. I was still wondering how all of this made sense, but I could not. Hutter, unlike me, did not seem impressed and began wandering the castle. Eventually, he made his way down the stairs and came to a dimly lit underground room, the crypt. Just like in the regular version, he discovered the coffins. In the real version, he opens one of the the coffin and find out that Count Orlok is in it. Frightened, he flees. That did not happen here. Carefully stepping through in the crypt, he opened the coffin. Suddenly, the screen went pitch black. I waited for 3 minutes in anticipation for what was to come, because by this point I had no clue where the film would go next. Then, surprisingly, the screen went back to the book page. “Sie können Ihr Schicksal durch die Flucht nicht entkommen. Ubique Daemon.”
When the screen cleared, the coach from the normal version departed in the distance, presumably with Count Orlok and his coffins in it. It then cut to Hutter escaping the castle through the window, but being knocked unconscious by the fall.
Next was the ship scene, in which the crew of the ship carrying Count Orlok were all infected by the rats from his coffin, carrying the plague. The ship was different, but for the rest it was the same. After the rest of the crew died, the first mate jumped into the sea out of fear when he saw Count Orlok, and then the captain went downstairs.
The captain, like an idiot, tied himself to the ship. Slowly, you could see Count Orlok ascending the stairs, and then the captain’s surprised face. Count Orlok slowly walked towards the captain with the strange walk he always uses. For a few seconds, they were looking each other in the eyes, and you could see the captain’s face white from terror.
The next shot was a shot of the stairs, with blood slowly but surely dripping down. I was surprised, because this was unheard of in silent films. Even movies made decades later usually did not show blood. Meanwhile, Hutter hurries home to warn his family of the danger. This was completely ripped from the regular version, until…
“Sie können Ihr Schicksal durch die Flucht nicht entkommen. Ubique Daemon.” …the book page showed up once more. I did not really know what it means, but I knew that “Schicksal” meant fate. And “Ubique Daemon” does not sound very nice to me either.
After a while, I saw Count Orlok’s ship entering the Harbor. In the asylum, Hutter’s former employer, whom Count Orlok made into his slave could see him coming. Count Orlok exited the ship and moved into his new house with his coffin, and the dead bodies were dragged of the ship for research. Their death was attributed to the plague due to notes from a diary found on board.
As of now, the whole movie had been mostly the same, except for a few minor differences in text and minor details. The climax however, was what really made the movie so terrifying.
In the regular version, people in Wisborg get killed by Count Orlok, their deaths are attributed to the plague. Knock also escapes, but is quickly recaptured and Ellen sacrifices herself to kill Orlok after reading the book from the inn. Hutter comes back with professor Bulwer (basically Van Helsing) to save her but it is too late. That is it, you can see his ruined castle a few shots later to symbolize his death. This ending was radically different.
For one, the night scenes (all of them) in this version were really filmed at night (and the street lights, as you see in a minor scene, are unlit, because people are too scared to go outside), contrary to some of the regular version. This made everything very hard to see, except some of the scenes inside which were lit by lamps.
First, you can see the man that announces that everyone must stay inside due to the plague, like in the other version. Next, you see that Ellen is getting sick, like in the real version, but this time she actually looked very weak. Ellen, despite her husband having forbidden it, reads the book from the in, in which was written: “Die Stunde des Baphomet sätzt ein.” She looked shocked by this text, but she is comforted by Hutter, who lays his arms around her. Like in the real version, Ellen points to the window, saying that she sees something there every night. Only this time, the shot from out of the window showed not Count Orlok’s house, but the darkened night sky, with no moon in sight.
After that, you can see the villagers talking to each other about Knock’s escape, and about how he should be caught. This scene is the same as in the regular version. One thing though, in the regular version he somehow ends up back in the asylum near the end. This did not happen here.
After thinking about the movie while trying to sleep, I got the idea that maybe, the summary on top of this page is wrong, and that the copies of Nosferatu were not destroyed because of copyright infringement. Maybe, the true version of Nosferatu barely survived at all, and the “regular” version is only a cheap copy, made by other filmmakers trying to cash in on Nosferatu’s name, or maybe the “regular” version is a combination of real and fake footage, as evident by some continuity issues, like Knock inexplicably being locked up again.