Though Nosferatu was a German film, it was first screened in The Hague, The Netherlands on 16 February 1922, at the Flora and Olympia cinemas. The film had its grand German première on 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). This was part of Das Fest des Nosferatu, a party where guests were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.
Prior to the screening, a prologue written by Kurt Alexander and based on Goethe’s Faust was read, accompanied by Otto Kembach’s band playing Hans Erdmann’s score. Erdmann himself conducted.
Nosferatu was followed by Die Serenade, a dance play also written by Erdmann and performed by a dancer from the Berlin State Opera. Then there was a costume ball, whose attendees included many prominent filmmakers of the era, such as Ernst Lubitsch, Richard Oswald, Heinz Schall, Hanns Kräly, and Johannes Riemann.
The theatrical release was on 15 March 1922 at the Primus Palace.
Several days after Nosferatu‘s première, another of director F.W. Murnau’s films, The Burning Soil, was released. This created lots of extra buzz for both Nosferatu and Murnau, and the reviews were overwhelming positive. However, some critics didn’t think it felt enough like a horror film on account of the bright lighting, clarity of images, and technical perfection.
Despite mostly garnering praise, Nosferatu wasn’t a financial success, and UFA, Germany’s primary film production company, refused to screen it at their major theatres. Nosferatu could only be shown at small indie theatres. Prana-Film, the company who produced it, had also already blown through the several million marks given them as start-up capital from Silesian financiers with little experience in the film business. They spent too much on advertising and other aspects of the film.
Bankruptcy proceedings opened in August 1922, and the film was seized. Prana’s troubles increased when Bram Stoker’s widow Florence sued them for copyright infringement. In July 1925, a Berlin court ordered all copies of the film and anything else related to it be destroyed.
Mrs. Stoker also prevented London’s Film Society from screening Nosferatu with a copy already in England, but they managed to hide it. Sadly, when they tried again to screen it four years later, Mrs. Stoker succeeded in having the copy destroyed. Hypocritically, she was already in film right negotiations for Dracula with Universal.
Luckily, many copies survived undetected abroad, sometimes with different intertitles, character names, and editing. In the late 1920s, a French version with only 31 intertitles (versus the original 115) became wildly popular among André Breton and his Surrealist friends. When this version came to the U.S. and had the intertitles translated, the characters were renamed after Stoker’s characters, and Wisborg was changed to Bremen.
A version released on 16 May 1930 in Vienna was set to music by the recently-created German Film Production company and given the title The Twelfth Hour—A Night of Horrors. It had a happy ending, and the characters got entirely new names. It also contained many scenes filmed by Murnau and cameraman Günther Krampf but never released.
Irony of ironies, this edit was unauthorized itself, and Murnau’s name didn’t appear in the credits!
Since Prana never applied for copyright in the U.S., Nosferatu entered the public domain by default. It came back into the public eye when it was featured (in a quite shortened cut) on the 1960s show Silents Please! Before long, it was widely distributed on home video under many different names and versions.
Nosferatu officially entered worldwide public domain in 2019.
The first restoration effort began in 1981, and many others have followed in the ensuing decades. One such restoration was based on a first-generation nitrate copy of Nosferatu which was unearthed by Murnau scholar Luciano Berriatúa in the Cinémathèque Française and has been shown at several film festivals. Since each version uses different music, tinting, presentation speed, contrast, etc., they’re all separately copyrighted.
In 1979, director Werner Herzog did a remake, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night), called Nosferatu the Vampyre in English. Klaus Kinski stars as Count Dracula.
Two other planned remakes were respectively announced as being in development in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but there’s no news as to their current status.
Countless songs, music videos, films, video games, TV shows, and works of literature over the last 100 years have referenced or been influenced by Nosferatu, and an operatic version was composed by Alva Henderson and Dan Gioia in 2004 and released in 2005.