The studio behind Nosferatu, Prana Film, was a short-lived silent-era German film studio founded in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau, named for the Buddhist concept of prana. Its intent was to produce occult and supernatural themed films. Nosferatu was the only production of Prana Film as it declared bankruptcy in order to dodge copyright infringement suits from Bram Stoker's widow.
Grau had the idea to shoot a vampire film; the inspiration arose from Grau's war experience: in the winter of 1916, a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire and one of the Undead.
Diekmann and Grau gave Henrik Galeen the task to write a screenplay inspired from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, despite Prana Film not having obtained the film rights. Galeen was an experienced specialist in Dark romanticism; he had already worked on Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) in 1913, and the screenplay for Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World) (1920). Galeen set the story in a fictional north German harbour town named Wisborg and changed the character names. He added the idea of the vampire bringing the plague to Wisborg via rats on the ship. He left out the Van Helsing vampire hunter character. Galeen's Expressionist style screenplay was poetically rhythmic, without being so dismembered as other books influenced by literary Expressionism, such as those by Carl Mayer. Lotte Eisner described Galeen's screenplay as "voll Poesie, voll Rhythmus" ("full of poetry, full of rhythm").
Filming began in July 1921, with exterior shots in Wismar. A take from Marienkirche's tower over Wismar marketplace with the Wasserkunst Wismar served as the establishing shot for the Wisborg scene. Other locations were the Wassertor, the Heiligen-Geist-Kirche yard and the harbour. In Lübeck, the abandoned Salzspeicher served as Nosferatu's new Wisborg house, the one of the churchyard from Aegidienkirche served as Hutters and down the Depenau coffin bearers bore coffins. Many walks of Lübeck took place in the hunt of Knock, who ordered Hutter in the Yard of Füchting to meet the earl. Further exterior shots followed in Lauenburg, Rostock and on Sylt. The exteriors of the film set in Transylvania were actually shot on location in northern Slovakia, including the High Tatras, Vrátna Valley, Orava Castle, the Váh River, and Starhrad. The team filmed interior shots at the JOFA studio in Berlin's Johannisthal locality and further exteriors in the Tegel Forest.
For cost reasons, cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner only had one camera available, and therefore there was only one original negative. The director followed Galeen's screenplay carefully, following handwritten instructions on camera positioning, lighting, and related matters. Nevertheless Murnau completely rewrote 12 pages of the script, as Galeen's text was missing from the director's working script. This concerned the last scene of the film, in which Ellen sacrifices herself and the vampire dies in the first rays of the Sun. Murnau prepared carefully; there were sketches that were to correspond exactly to each filmed scene, and he used a metronome to control the pace of the acting.