Next to Fritz Lang and G. W. Pabst, motion picture director F. W. Murnau (1888-1931) was one of just three directors responsible for revolutionizing German silent cinema during the 1920s.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, F. W. Murnau was the son of Heinrich Plumpe, a textile manufacturer, and Plumpe's second wife, Otilie. Born in Bielefeld, Westphalia, Germany, on December 28, 1888, he adopted the stage name "Murnau" as a young man, both as an attempt to hide his theatrical ambitions from his unsupportive father and as homage to the famed artists' colony south of Munich. The town of Murnau provided a creative haven for some of the expressionist period's most notable figures, including Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and others associated with the Blaue Reiter ("Blue Rider") movement of 1911-1914.
In 1892 the Plumpe family moved to Kassel, where young Murnau attended secondary school. During this period he frequented local museums, an activity that helped to nurture his growing fascination with the fine arts. A precocious youngster said to have been reading the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and Ibsen at age 12, Murnau was already staging miniature plays in his family's Kassel villa. Though he failed to win his father's support in this area, his mother and two elder stepsisters were instrumental in encouraging him to pursue his creative interests.
In 1907, after completing his schooling in Kassel, Murnau left for the University of Berlin to study philology. Although he had originally intended to become a teacher, his aspirations changed when he met the expressionist poet Hans Ehrenbaun-Degele, with whom he developed an intense friendship. The two men left Berlin for the University of Heidelberg, where Murnau expanded his studies to include not only literature and linguistics, but art history as well.
From 1909 to 1913 Murnau was active in Heidelberg's student theatre community. During this period he caught the attention of renowned impresario Max Reinhardt, who invited him to return to Berlin to join his Deutsches Theatre company. Reinhardt, who owned and operated theatres in Austria and Germany, served as a mentor to a number of important Austrian and German film figures of the period, many of which later earned fame in Hollywood.
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I in Europe, Murnau put his acting career temporarily on hold to volunteer in the German military. He saw active duty both as a company commander in East Prussia where he served on the Eastern Front and as a combat pilot in the Luftwaffe where he flew combat missions over France. He survived eight plane crashes without serious injury, as well as a 1917 internment in neutral Switzerland during which he wrote the script for his first film and staged a play. At the close of the war Murnau returned to Berlin and moved into a house belonging to longtime friend Ehrenbaun-Degele, who had tragically been killed in battle.
In 1919 Murnau co-founded the small, independent studio Murnau-Veidt Filmgesellchatt with Conrad Veidt, a German actor best known for his leading role in the silent-film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This same year, Murnau made his first film, Der Knabe in Blau ("The Boy in Blue"). Released in 1921 under the title Der Todessmaragd, the film was patterned after Oscar Wilde's story about a 1770 Thomas Gainsborough painting. As was the case for most early silent films, Der Knabe in Blau was shot on silver nitrate, the highly flammable medium responsible for the eventual decay or non-existence of most silent-era works. No original prints of Der Knabe in Blau, or of Murnau's second film, Satanas (1920, starring Veidt), are believed to exist today.
Murnau's earliest surviving film, 1920's Der Gang in die Nacht ("Journey into the Night") is a tragedy based around a love triangle. Through it can be seen the director's early creative vision, particularly his interest in combining the then-highly influential styles of Kammerspielfilm (literally, "chamber play" or "instinct" film) and expressionism. Kammerspielfilm, founded by Austrian screenwriter Carl Mayer, dealt with intimate, fatalistic stories about everyday people. Highly cinematic and with few intertitles—the between-scene "dialogue" used in most silent films— Kammerspielfilm was a stark, minimalist genre that required few characters to tell its stories. Expressionism, the primary influence among early German filmmakers, became influential in painting and poetr y around 1910 and was translated to film during World War I, when the German government funded its own film industry as a means of combating foreign competition. Murnau's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first expressionist film to be produced; as such, it contains most of the elements that would define the genre, as well as Murnau's work in the years to come. Co-written by Carl Mayer, Caligari appears as a painting brought to life: distorted, abstract, and heavily stylized and with extreme contrast between light and dark in the same scenes. There are elements of the fantastic, as well as a seeming obsession with the grotesque, the gothic, the psychologically unhealthy, and the absurd.
Almost universally considered a masterpiece of expressionist theatre, the 1922 film Nosferatu provided Murnau with his first artistic breakthrough in Germany. Subtitled Ein Symphonie des Grauens ("A Symphony of Horror"), Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation—as well as the earliest surviving screen rendering—of British author Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula—hence the different title, as well as screenwriter Henrik Galeen's intentional changing of all settings and character names. (Despite Galeen's and Murnau's efforts, Stoker's widow sued Nosferatu's production company, Pana-Film, for copyright infringement and in the process nearly crushed the film.) Murnau's version of the age-old vampire tale—indeed, the legend dates back to the 1100s—was just as much a reflection of the horror that befell Germany in the post-World War I era as it was of Stoker's novel.
From 1920 to 1922 the ghost of the Great War hung over Germany, and many soldiers that returned to the country were left crippled or horribly disfigured. The radical Spartacist League, a socialist group opposed to the war from the outset, led several uprisings in Berlin and Munich before being crushed in a bloody response from the republic. Postwar inflation was bleeding the German economy dry, and a Spanish flu epidemic and famine ravaged the country's citizens, ultimately killing more civilians than had the war itself. As Thomas Elsaesser note in Sight & Sound, "the cholera whose origins Nosferatu is supposed to record is doubled by several successive disasters befalling a defeated Germany, during which public opinion only too readily blamed the victors of Versailles for not coming to the country's aid. Instead, the French, adding insult and humiliation to injury and penury, insisted on the prompt payment of war reparations and annexed the Rhineland, setting off a chain of events that gave the nationalist right its first electoral successes among the working class."
Beyond reflecting a period of cultural unease, Nosferatu provided the dramatic template for every big-screen vampire that followed, from Bela Lugosi's 1931 portrayal of Dracula to Klaus Kinski's 1979 reprisal of the original Murnau character created by actor Max Schreck. Viewed from a modern perspective, Murnau's film is no longer horrifying in the traditional sense, yet it remains effective for its dark, minimalist approach, as well as its dramatic tension and uncomfortably believable tone. Film critic Roger Ebert, looking back on Nosferatu in his Chicago Sun-Times column, wrote, "It knows none of the later tricks of the trade, like sudden threats that pop in from the side of the screen. But Nosferatu remains effective: It doesn't scare us, but it haunts us. It shows not that vampires can jump out of shadows, but that evil can grow there, nourished on death."
In part because of the financial distress surrounding the Stoker lawsuit, the already troubled Pana-Films was unable to distribute Nosferatu widely, leaving the film for later audiences to discover. However, the visual breakthroughs Murnau and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner achieved with Nosferatu—the almost dreamlike use of sharp angles, shadows, negatives, and superimposed images—set the stage for 1924's expressionist masterpiece The Last Laugh, the film that put Murnau's name on the lips of Hollywood moguls like William Fox. The Last Laugh uses cinematographer Karl Freund's flowing, subjective camera angle to depict—from the protagonist's viewpoint—the emotional pain of a man who has found his life suddenly devoid of meaning. Thanks largely to his work with Freund in The Last Laugh, Murnau is widely credited as being among the fathers of mise-en-scène, the art of telling the story by moving and blocking the action within the frame itself.
Murnau remained in Germany long enough to adapt Moliere's Tartuffe (1925) and Goethe's Faust (1926) to the screen; in 1927, having been offered a four-year contract in Hollywood, he left his native country for the United States. Sunrise was Murnau's American debut and his first project for Hollywood's Fox Film Corporation, as well as Fox's most expensive film project to date. Subtitled A Song of Two Humans, Sunrise was the first feature film to be released with a synchronized soundtrack-on-film: a Movietone musical score by Austrian composer Hugo Riesenfeld. Unfortunately for all involved, the film suffered from poor timing. Appearing just days before the opening of Warner Brothers famous "talkie" debut The Jazz Singer and overshadowed by the Warner project's publicity, Sunrise was a box-office failure that came to be recognized among film connoisseurs as one of the 100 greatest motion pictures ever made only decades later. Released in the first year of the Academy Awards, Murnau's vivid, impressionistic love story received four nominations and won awards in three of those categories. Sunrise's fluid, "moving camera" perspective also influenced numerous American films to come, including Orson Welles's 1941 classic Citizen Kane.
Whatever acclaim Murnau received upon Sunrise's release was overshadowed, in Fox's eyes, by the film's commercial failure. Sunrise simply did not recoup its production costs, and as a result, Fox cut back on Murnau's budget for future projects. After making the now-forgotten Four Devils (1929) and City Girl (1930) for the studio, Murnau severed his contract and began collaborating with documentary filmmaker Robert Joseph Flaherty on the film Tabu. Filmed entirely in Tahiti, Tabu was the ambitious, fairytale-like story of Matahi and Reri, two indigenous young lovers doomed to fate by tribal constraints. Although Flaherty, like Murnau, was an iconoclastic figure who found himself out of place amid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the two directors also found themselves at odds with each other throughout the duration of the project; although Tabu was labeled "a Murnau-Flaherty Production," Flaherty withdrew from the film before its completion.
On March 11, 1931, Murnau and his chauffeur were killed while driving on California's Pacific Coast Highway. Tabu was just one week from its premiere, and Murnau, age 42 at the time of his death, was considering a new contract with the more artist-friendly Paramount Studios. Though Murnau left behind a rich film legacy that endures today, his life also became the subject of intense, often wildly inaccurate, artistic interpretation.
Collier, Jo Leslie, From Wagner to Murnau: The Transposition of Romanticism from Stage to Screen, UMI Research Press, 1988.
Eisner, Lotte H., Murnau, 1964, translated into English, University of California Press, 1973.
Shepard, Jim, Nosferatu, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Sight & Sound, February 2001.
"A Bloody Disgrace," Guardian Unlimited, http://film.guardian.co.uk/ (January 26, 2001).
Ebert, Roger, "Nosferatu," Chicago Sun Times, http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert-reviews/ (January 1999).