The 1921 Hungarian feature, “Dracula’s Death,” has been presumed lost for decades. It was filmed one year prior to “Nosferatu.
In February of 2021, Drakula halála opened in Vienna, Austria, and became the first film featuring the eponymous vampire.
Or, did it?
Drakula halála, later known by its English translations as alternately Dracula’s Death and The Death of Dracula, was a Hungarian silent movie that in fact was an original conception not based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.
The film’s plot was bold for its time: A young woman experiences horrifying visions upon being admitted to an insane asylum. A fellow inmate claiming to be Count Drakula (Hungarian spelling) appears to the woman while she sleeps, but she cannot determine if Drakua is indeed a vision or a nightmare. When she escapes her confinement and later gets married, she continues to be haunted by his presence.
The movie, as with so many others from the silent era, is considered “lost.” In 1924, a prose adaptation of the film was published, which survived and has recently been translated into English by Laszlo Tamasfi. See here.
A Brief History of “Lost” Films
Our present cinematic heritage, sadly, paints an incomplete picture of the history of film. Imagine the equivalent of a calamity — or series of calamities, as the majority of historians qualify — that ultimately destroyed the Library of Alexandria, one of the world’s most significant collections of prose, poetry, and historical documents.
The calamities that destroyed so many early films included the widespread use of combustible nitrate film stock until the mid-20th century, and the disposal of many silent films, ultimately considered useless or of no further commercial value upon the industry’s transition into sound film, to clear storage space for new product.
Among the most renowned casualties was London After Midnight, the Lon Chaney, Sr. starrer that has become known as the most sought-after “lost” film of them all.
From Wikipedia: Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation claims that “half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.” Deutsche Kinemathek estimates that 80–90% of silent films are gone; the film archive’s own list contains over 3,500 lost films. A study by the Library of Congress states that 75% of all silent films are now lost. While others dispute whether the percentage is quite that high, it is impractical to enumerate any but the more notable and those that can be sourced. For example, roughly 200 out of over 500 Méliès’ films and 350 out of over 1,000 of Alice Guy’s films survive.
About “Drakula halála”
Drakula halála was a Hungarian-Austrian production starring Paul Askonas as the titular character, and Lena Myl as the young asylum inmate. The film was directed and co-written by Károly Lajthay. The other writer credited — according to The Devil Flew Away, an extensive essay on the film included in the English-translated novel — was one Kertész Mihály, who would soon became better known as one of the world’s preeminent motion picture directors, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Angels with Dirty Faces among so many more).
Some confusion over the status of the film emanated from critic Troy Howarth, who wrote in his 2015 book, Tome of Terror, that a print of Drakula halála survived and has been stored in a Hungarian archive. Later research on the part of film historians corrected Howarth’s conclusion, explaining a copy of the novelization was found, but not the film itself.
On “Nosferatu” as the First True Adaptation of Stoker’s Work
The pilot of F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist classic, Nosferatu, closely followed Bram Stoker’s novel, despite changes in names and locations. However, the original German intertitles outright stated the film was indeed based on Stoker’s Dracula.
Domagoj Valjak wrote, in his April 5, 2017 article in The Vintage News: All copies of the cult classic “Nosferatu” were ordered to be destroyed after Bram Stoker’s widow had sued the makers of the film for copyright infringement.
See his article in the link above. To the point, the court agreed with Stoker’s widow, but some prints of Murnau’s print survived and the film has since become widely known as a masterpiece.
Nosferatu was released in 1922, one year following the original release of Drakula halála.
Perhaps Lajthay capitalized on the image of Stoker’s creation in his film while creating an original concept in anticipation of the same issue.
According to imdb.com: After originally opening in Vienna in 1921 and enjoying a long and successful European run, the film was later re-edited and re-released in Budapest in 1923 as “The Death of Dracula.”
On the few occasions I mentioned the word “lost” in the body of this piece, I used quotation marks. This was a deliberate choice, as films (and television product) long considered as such were eventually found.
My quotes represent the possibility the films may not be lost forever. See this link from www.silentlocations.com to Charlie Chaplin’s long-considered “lost” A Thief Catcher, a short 1914 film found in incomplete form in 2010.
Though I personally doubt our outcomes for films such as London After Midnight or Drakula halála would be so favorable, there always remains the sliver of possibility.
Thanks to Martin Scorsese, the UCLA Film Archive and other entities, film preservation has become an urgent and necessary facet of our cinematic heritage. The ability to digitally repair, replicate, and store moving pictures has immensely aided these efforts.
Today, most of the films of director Károly Lajthay are considered “lost.” However, stills do exist of his Drakula halála …
Though as filmgoers we no longer, apparently, have access to the movie, the published novelization (including the new translation) is said to be an accurate representation.
In the annals of horror, this “lost” piece of history may well cause contemplation — or consternation — as to our very definition of the genre, upon consideration that we are basing said definition on what we know … as opposed to what we should have known.
Perhaps our film heritage is more similar to the legacy of the Library of Alexandria than we would care to admit …
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