F.W. Murnau (1888 - 1931)

F.W. Murnau (1888 - 1931)

In spite of his short career in films, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau earned a reputation as a creative genius who contributed to the German film industry’s international ascendancy, but also as a director unable to manage the shift to Hollywood and all that such a move entailed.

He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld in 1888, son of a textile manufacturer He grew up in Bielefeld and Kassel in a cultured environment. From about 1909 on, he took his professional name of Murnau after a village in Upper Bavaria favored by noted artists in the early part of the twentieth century. As a child, he imersed himself in literary clasics and staged theatrical productions with his sister and brothers and as a young man was noted for his quiet and serious disposition. While studying art and literature at Heidelberg University, he took part in some student theatricals which impressed the great stage director Max Reinhardt, who offered Murnau what amounted to a six year scholarship to study and work in his theatre in Berlin. Despite family opposition, Murnau accepted and acted in the company as well as assisting Reinhardt as a director and closely observing him at work until the outbreak of World War I.

When the war began in 1914, he enlisted in the infantry and fought on the Eastern front. ln 1916 he transferred to the air force and was stationed near Verdun, where he was one of the few from his company to survive. In 1917, he was deployed with the air force before he was detained in neutral Switzerland where he direct his own independent stage productions and worked with film for the first time, compiling propaganda materials for the German Embassy.

After the war, he directed his first film, the fantasy film Der Knabe in Blau (The Boy in Blue) in 1919. During the next two years he directed seven more films dealing with a variety of subject-matter and filmed in, as far as can be judged, a wide variety of styles. Then at the end of 1921, he started work on Nosferatu, his most famous film, a 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula which caused Stoker's widow to sue for copyright infringement. Murnau lost the lawsuit and all prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed, but bootleg prints survived. The vampire, played by German stage actor Max Schreck, resembled a rat which was known to carry the plague. The origins of the word are from Bram Stoker's novel where it is used by the Romanian townsfolk to refer to Dracula and presumably, other undead. Nosferatu is similar sounding to the Greek nosophoros, roughly translating to "plague-bearer", which may be a possible root of it.

F.W. Murnau (1888 - 1931)

It is difficult to trace the stages of his rise to fame and success in Germany, since only one of the nine films he made before Nosferatu, survives anywhere near complete. After Nosferatu, the next three films are missing, or else like Phantom (1922) are known only in newly unearthed fragments. So a picture of Murnau's early work has to be pieced together from contemporary accounts and more recent recollections.

Nearly as important as Nosferatu in Murnau's filmography was Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1925), written by Carl Mayer (a very prominent figure of the Kammerspiel film movement) and starring Emil Jannings. Janning's performance in the principal role - the one in which he first amazed audiences with how much he could convey with his back to the camera - was a potent factor in making the film the most universally noticed German feature of the year. It was, in fact, the immense American success of The Last Laugh which eventually bought both Jennings and Murnau to Hollywood. Before he succumbed to the blandishments of the Hollywood producer William Fox, however, Murnau made two more films in Germany: both adaptions of theatrical classics, both with Jannings. Herr Tartüff (1926) was based on Moliere's play and Faust (1926) was based on Goethe's, and both opened in 1926.

Murnau received official recognition at the premiere of Faust in 1926, and left for the United States and a contract with Fox studios. All the resources of the Fox Studios were placed at Murnau's disposal. He was able to use a script by his favorite writer, Carl Mayer, an adaption of The Journey to Tilsit, Hermann Suderman's Lithuanian Story about a peasant wooing. He worked completely without interference, building giant sets, shooting and reshooting until he had just the effect he desired. The result - Sunrise - is really a completely German film made in America with American stars (Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien). Sunrise was highly praised by all critics, and was one of three pictures which brought Janet Gaynor an Academy Award as Best Actress in the 1927–28 year. Quite naturally, awards also went to cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss and to interior decorator Harry Oliver, while Sunrise was given a special award for its Artistic Quality of Production, a category never again specified. For all that, Sunrise was not a box-office success, and the studio moved in to supervise Murnau closely on his next two productions.

The coming of sound didn't help either, spreading uncertainty among the studios as to what they should do with the more expensive projects then in the works. Murnau's next film, a circus drama called Four Devils (1928) was a circus story of four young aerialists that gave Murnau's camera a chance to fly with them from one performing trapeze to another. The producers stepped in: Four Devils was subsequently turned into a happy ending and was equipped with a sound track. All prints are unfortunately lost, which is a fate common to most of the last great silent films.

F.W. Murnau (1888 - 1931)

Murnau began shooting on his final film at Fox, called Our Daily Bread, with Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan, but he was not allowed to finish the picture, being dismissed during the shooting of the film. Our Daily Bread was begun with enormous ambition as a saga of the Mid-Western grain lands but got progressively cut down into a personal story of a city girl's problems with a hostile-seeming environment. Retitled City Girl, it was roughly edited with some talkie scenes to cash in on the new craze. Finally, though the silent version of the film contains some of the director's finest work, this was hardly noticed in the confusion of the talkies and his Hollywood career ended.

Murnau returned to Berlin but his negotiations with Ufa did not lead to a result. In 1929, he traveled to Tahiti where he planned to do a film about the island's inhabitants together with the documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. But their ideas and concepts did not match. Thus, Murnau finished the naive love story Tabu (1930) at his own expense. Deep in debt, he returned to Hollywood, where Paramount offered him a ten-year contract. But Murnau died from the consequences of an automobile accident, one week before the premiere of Tabu, and what else he would have done in Europe or America remains one of the cinema's most intriguing fields of speculation.

F.W. Murnau's death mask

Nothing appeals, of course, like a breath of scandal - especially Hollywood scandal - and rumors about the exact circumstances of the fatal car-crash on March 22, 1931, on the road from Los Angeles to Carmel, did not hesitate to paint the most lurid picture of orgiastic goings-on en route. In fact, all that seems to have happened was that F.W. Murnau, travelling in a chauffeur driven Packard, eventually gave in to the pleadings of his young Filipino valet that he be allowed to take the wheel. Driving too fast and swerving to avoid a truck, the valet drove the car off the road. Most of its occupants were virtually unhurt, but Murnau suffered a fractured skull and died in hospital shortly afterwards. That as it appears is the unexciting truth, but oddly enough the web of fantasy woven around the event has ensured that Murnau is known to many people who can never have seen any of his films.

Murnau was entombed on Southwest Cemetery (Südwest-Kirchhof Stahnsdorf) in Stahnsdorf near Berlin. Only 11 people attended the funeral. Among them were Robert Flaherty, Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang who delivered the funeral speech. Garbo also commissioned a death mask of Murnau which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.

German Films

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Before directing Nosferatu "F.W. Murnau had already a few films to his credit - among them Der Januskopf (The Two-Faced Man, 1920), a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Schloß Vogeloed (Vogelod Castle, 1921), a crime picture visibly influenced by the Swedes; and the realistic farm drama Der brennende Acker (Burning Soil, 1922), in which he is said to have furthered the action through sustained close shots of facial expressions. In Vogelod Castle, too, he knowingly used faces to reveal emotional undercurrents and orchestrate suspense. This early film moreover testified to Murnau's unique faculty of obliterating the boundaries between the real and the unreal. Reality in his films was surrounded by a halo of dreams and presentiments, and a tangible person might suddenly impress the audience as a mere apparition." [5]

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

"Murnau’s Nosferatu gave a sense of lyrical realism to an important staple of German cinema, the horror film. Subtitling his film A Symphony of Horror, Murnau freed the story from the claustrophobic studio look of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920). Rather than using highly stylized, expressionistic sets as popularized by Wiene’s film, Murnau chose to shoot much of Nosferatu outdoors. The resulting atmospheric impressionism lends the film both a sense of realism and dreaminess. It is as if a shroud of mist and shadows prevents the characters from seeing the truth behind the evil of the vampire." [4]

"Bela Balazs, a German film writer of Hungarian descent, wrote in 1924 that it was as if "a chilly draft from doomsday" passed through the scenes of Nosferatu. To obtain this effect Murnau and his cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner, used all kinds of tricks. Strips of negative film presented the Carpathian woods as a maze of ghostlike white trees set against a black sky ; shots taken in the 'one-turn-one-picture' manner transformed the clerk's coach into a phantom vehicle uncannily moving along by jerks. The most impressive episode was that in which the spectral ship glided with its terrible freight over phosphorescent waters. It is noteworthy that such an amount of picture sense and technical ingenuity served the sole purpose of rendering horrors. Of course, film sensations of this kind are short-lived ; at the end of 1928, the Film Society in London revived the film with the remark that it "combined the ridiculous and the horrid."[...]" [5]

"In Nosferatu Murnau created some of the most vivid images in German expressionist cinema. Nosferatu's shadow ascending the stairs towards the woman who awalts him evokes an entire era and genre of filmmaking. Nosferatu is indeed 'a symphony of horror' in which the unnatural penetrates the ordinary world. The location shooting used so effectively by Murnau was rarely seen in German films at this time. For Lotte Eisner (1969), Murnau was the greatest of the expressionist directors because he was able to evoke horror outside the studio. Special effects accompany Nosferatu, but because no effect is repeated exactly, each instance delivers a unique charge of the uncanny. The sequence that turns to negative after Nosferatu's coach carries Jonathan across the bridge toward the vampire's castle is quoted by Cocteau in Orphée and Godard in Alphaville. Max Schreck as Nosferatu is a passive predator, the very icon of cinematic Expressionism." [2] "Murnau and his film became the subject of Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000), a fictional story about the making of Nosferatu which, because of its central conceit that the actor playing Nosferatu was a real vampire, has gained cult status." [4]

Der letzte Mann (1924)

Der letzte Mann (1924)

Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), one of the most significant films of the period, combined elements of expressionism and the subsequent New Objectivity. "Working closely with pioneer cameraman Karl Freund and screenwriter Carl Mayer, the director created a uniquely German tragedy of humiliation and degradation. Perceiving the schadenfreude (joy at the suffering of others) of his neighbors when he is demoted to lavatory attendant, a once proud doorman succumbs to his abject shame and collapses in the men’s toilet." [4] Despite the happy ending required by the studio, this study of a man whose self-image has been taken away from him is the story of the German middle class during the ruinous inflation of the mid-1920s. "The strength of the film lies not in its plot, which is fairly standard for German melodrama, but in its fluid visual style. Murnau and his collaborators freed the camera from its tripod for this film, allowing it to swing and move freely as it captured the hero’s psychological confusion at his fate." [4]

"In 1924, Carl Mayer, the creator of Caligari, conceived his theory of 'unchained' or 'subjective camera'. "The camera should not remain immobile," he wrote, "it must be everywhere. It must come close to things and it must above all come close to human beings. It must spy on their sorrows and joys, the sweat on their brows, their sighs of relief." In order to assume the physical perspective of Emil Jannings's humiliated hotel doorman, Murnau and the cinematographer Karl Freund variously mounted the camera on a bicycle, a fire-engine ladder, overhead cables, and even Freund's chest. To represent Jannings's sensory perceptions they resorted to superimpositions, unfocused lenses and distorting mirrors, thus using the subjective camera in an Expressionist way. So clear was Murnau's symbolism that the film's only caption was to explain the doorman's unexpected inheritance towards its end. Recognizing that 'objectivity' was actually the sum of a number of conscious decisions about camera placement and lighting, Murnau chose to employ the camera as a performer, whose movements were always logical and whose stillness always significant. The roving camera also permitted him to experiment with long takes, which he enlivened with deft editing." [1]

Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)

Murnau's last German film was the Ufa superproduction Faust (1926) with Gösta Ekman as the title character, Emil Jannings as Mephisto and Camilla Horn as Gretchen. Murnau's film draws on older traditions of the legendary tale of Faust as well as on Goethe's classic version. Ufa seemed determined to make this film a cultural monument. This carefully composed and innovative feature contains many memorable images and startling special effects, with careful attention paid to contrasts of light and dark. Particularly striking is the sequence in which the giant, horned and black winged figure of Mephisto (Jannings) hovers over a town sowing the seeds of plague. The acting by Ekman (who miraculously transforms, in the course of the film, from a bearded old man to a handsome youth) and the sinister, scowling, demonic Jannings is first rate and the virtually unknown actress Camilla Horn gives a memorable performance as the tragic figure of Gretchen. "Gerhart Hauptmann, Germany's foremost poet, composed the film titles. Karl Freund's camera rushed on a roller coaster of his own invention through a vast, studio-built landscape filled with towns, woods and villages, and the views thus obtained enabled the spectators to participate in the aerial trip Mephistopheles undertook with the rejuvenated Faust." [5]

"Murnau’s painterly style is again obvious in Faust (1926), which emphasizes horror over the philosophical dilemma of a man who sells his soul to the devil. Murnau’s visuals capture the humor from the early scenes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterpiece, as when Mephistopheles and Martha make small talk in a garden as Faust seduces Gretchen. At the same time, they represent the majesty of angels, the depravity of witches, and the cunning of the devil." [4]

While the film had considerable success abroad, it met with indifference in Germany itself. Nowadays some critics consider Faust, even more than Der letzte Mann, to be Murnau’s crowning achievement. Regardless of which film is considered his best, it is clear that the pictorial quality of his images is like poetry, revealing more than the eye can see.

Murnau at Fox

Sunrise (1927)

"Aside from Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau was the most prestigious European director to come to Hollywood in the 1920s. Fox hired him in 1925, in the wake of the critical acclaim for The Last Laugh. Murnau lingered at Ufa only long enough to make Faust (which proved popular in the United States). Fox allowed him an enormous budget to make its biggest picture of 1927, Sunrise. Scripted by Carl Mayer, who had written so many German Expressionist and Kammerspiel films, and designed by Rochus Gliese, who had worked with Murnau in Germany, the film was virtually a German film made in America. It was a simple but intense psychological drama of a farmer who attempts to murder his wife in order to run away with his lover from the city. When he cannot bring himself to commit the deed, he must regain his horrified wife's trust. The film was full of Germanic mise-en-scene with Expressionist touches. Even the American stars, Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, were induced to give Expressionist-style performances." [3] Visually stunning and atmospherically sublime, it is constructed in a European style, the story itself remains slight, though Murnau's treatment develops it like a symphony, reaching a crescendo with the storm on the lake in which the re-united husband and wife are nearly separated for ever.

"Sunrise was perhaps too sophisticated to be really popular, and its huge city sets made it so expensive that it did only moderately well for Fox. As a result, Murnau's fortunes declined. He went on to increasingly more modest projects: Four Devils (1928), yet another circus film, now lost; and City Girl (1930), a part-talkie that was taken out of Murnau's control and altered considerably.

Despite Murnau's lack of popular success during his Hollywood career, Sunrise had an enormous effect on American filmmakers, especially at Fox. Both John Ford and Frank Borzage were encouraged to imitate it. Ford's sentimental World War I drama Four Sons (1928) looks very much like a German film, and signs of Ufa's studio-bound style were to crop up in his sound films, such as The Informer (1935) and The Fugitive (1947). Borzage's late-1920s films show even more directly the influence of Murnau's work. On Borzage's 7th Heaven, none of the film crew was European, but the set designs by Harry Oliver incorporated the sorts of false-perspective backgrounds that Murnau had used in Sunrise and some of his German films. German-style virtuosic camera movements were imitated, most spectacularly in an elaborate vertical shot made from an elevator" [3]


  • Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)
  • City Girl (1930)
  • 4 Devils (1928) [Lost film]
  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
  • Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926)
  • Herr Tartüff (1925)
  • Der letzte Mann (1924)
  • Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (1924)
  • Die Austreibung (1923) [Lost film]
  • Phantom (1922)
  • Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
  • Der brennende Acker (1922)
  • Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1922) [Lost film]
  • Schloß Vogeloed (1921)
  • Sehnsucht (1921) [Lost film]
  • Der Gang in die Nacht (1921)
  • Abend - Nacht - Morgen (1920) [Lost film]
  • Der Januskopf (1920) [Lost film]
  • Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin (1920) [Lost film]
  • Satanas (1920) [Lost film]
  • Der Knabe in Blau (1919) [Lost film]