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Try as she might, Bram Stoker's widow couldn't kill 'Nosferatu'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The world's first full-length vampire film, "Nosferatu," premiered in Germany 100 years ago today. And like a vampire, the film itself seems unable to die, but not for lack of trying. NPR's Avery Keatley has more.

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AVERY KEATLEY, BYLINE: Before the public premiere of "Nosferatu" 100 years ago in Berlin, the audience was primed with an ominous advertisement for the film. Nosferatu does not die. You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. But no one could have expected how "Nosferatu" would turn out to be a curse to its very makers.

The film is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula." We follow our hero, Hutter, who visits Count Orlok's castle. Orlok is overcome with desire for Hutter's wife, Ellen. And Hutter discovers that Orlok is, in fact, the terrible Nosferatu.

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KEATLEY: Nosferatu brings plague and death to their town before Ellen sacrifices herself, allowing Nosferatu to suck her blood until the sun rises. When day breaks, Ellen is dead and Nosferatu is transfigured into a puff of smoke. While that may sound like pretty typical vampire lore, Nosferatu was the first vampire to be vanquished by sunlight.

LOKKE HEISS: Whatever else "Nosferatu" does, you can credit that movie for creating that new aspect of vampires.

KEATLEY: That's film scholar Lokke Heiss. He says "Nosferatu" was a relative success and slated for multiple screenings, but...

HEISS: Very quickly after the film was screened and it first premiered, Prana, the company that produced it, got into some business trouble.

KEATLEY: Prana Film went bankrupt just a few months after "Nosferatu" premiered. And then came Florence Stoker, Bram Stoker's widow, who was living in London.

HEISS: Florence Stoker received the program of the Berlin premiere. And on the program, it said this was adapted from Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

KEATLEY: Florence realized that this freely adapted film was violating copyright and costing her royalties.

BRENT REID: Her husband had died. She's a widow. So she was pretty much entirely reliant on her husband's legacy.

KEATLEY: That's silent film writer and researcher Brent Reid. He says with few options available to her, Stoker decided to act.

REID: She went for it. She went after it in the same sense that she would have gone after anybody who she felt was ripping off her husband's work.

KEATLEY: What ensued was a years-long international legal battle between Florence Stoker and the company that took over Prana after they went belly up. After years of appeals, bankruptcies and liquidations, Florence changed course and requested instead that all copies and negatives of "Nosferatu" be destroyed. And eventually, the German court ruled in her favor. But no one ever provided any physical evidence that the film had actually been destroyed.

REID: There's no one original complete print, but there are certainly lots that are more or less complete and some that are fragments.

KEATLEY: Those handful of prints that survived eventually made their way to film archives and museums in Germany, France and New York. And film preservationists took up the painstaking task of restoring Count Orlok to his original glory.

REID: Our current versions of "Nosferatu" that exist today are patchwork compilations of all of those prints. It's literally been piecing together the film, almost frame by frame.

KEATLEY: Like the film, the original score that accompanied "Nosferatu" also had to be pieced back together.

GILLIAN ANDERSON: The word silent has meant to many people that it was silent, which is far, far from the truth. The fact of the matter is that the sound, the music, was 50% of the experience.

KEATLEY: That's silent film conductor Gillian Anderson. The original composer, Hans Erdmann, had published other suites derived from his score of "Nosferatu."

ANDERSON: I had to try and piece together where this music went with what part of the film.

KEATLEY: Her reconstructed score is what you've been hearing throughout this piece.

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KEATLEY: Florence Stoker's mission to have the film destroyed seems to have only contributed to its mythology. Here's Brent Reid again.

REID: It retains its power to bewitch and entertain and horrify as much as it did a hundred years ago. Count Orlok is immortal.

KEATLEY: That century-old warning was true after all. Nosferatu does not die.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.