Web of Murnau
"Murnau was one of the few in Hollywood of whom it can be said that he wanted to do great things in films not because of fame or fortune but because of a real personal enthusiasm for the medium."
Lewis Jacobs

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F.W. Murnau

M urnau is both one of the giants in the history of the cinema, and a forgotten figure. Many critics attribute the success of his films to his collaborators, Carl Mayer on The Last Laugh and Sunrise, or Robert Flaherty on Tabu, and play down his role as director. But collaboration does not explain the brilliance that infuses all his films, no matter the contributors.

Murnau was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe on December 28, 1888 in Bielefeld, Westphalia, Germany. He took the name "Murnau" from a town in Germany. He studied art history at the University of Heidelberg and learned theatre by working in the acting company of Max Reinhardt. He was a combat pilot during World War I and directed his first film in 1919.

The theatre of Max Reinhardt and expressionism in general had a major impact on the style of filmmaking that arose in Germany after the First World War. Like many of the other figures who emerged as powers in the postwar German film industry, Murnau had worked with Reinhardt. From Reinhardt and the expressionistic theatre movement, Murnau inherited acting, lighting and staging styles that made the subjective emotions of his film's characters tangible. Expressionism placed greater value on emotion than realism, and its effects were often achieved through distortion.

Murnau's knowledge of art history fills his films with arresting images that recall Rembrandt (and expressionist artists) in the intense range of light and dark of films like Faust, as well as German Romanticism in the rugged outdoor photography of Nosferatu, and even a Gaugin-like celebration of the body in Tabu. And unlike many of the other directors of the German film industry of the 20's, Murnau came from a rural background, from the rolling farmlands of Westphalia. From his earliest films he uses the outdoors and depictions of farm life to great effect.

A string of very successful films in Germany took him to Hollywood, where Lubitsch already was and Fritz Lang would soon follow. Murnau's first American film was a rare thing indeed, a personal reverie made on a massive budget for a major studio. His creative control would not last in Hollywood, and his last studio film was finished by an assistant director and edited without his input.

His next film, Tabu, took him out of the U.S. and to the South Seas. It was begun as a collaboration with documentarist Robert Flaherty but soon evolved into another personal work for Murnau.

Seven days before the New York premiere of Tabu, Murnau was thrown from the automobile in which he was riding. The driver of the car and another passenger were not scratched. Murnau's head was cracked open on a roadside pole and he died immediately. He was 42.

According to Flaherty's son David, Murnau was "a man of simple, almost monastic tastes. When I first met him, he was still a commanding figure in Hollywood though, as I later learned, he was a man who wanted to get away from it all. He was not taken in by Hollywood, and he knew that Hollywood was robbing him of his touch." Murnau directing

Murnau was gay; stories of forbidden or ill-fated love affairs run throughout his work. Supposedly, fortune tellers were frequent guests to his home in Los Angeles. Some critics consider him a filmmaker without an obvious style, and some believe that he remains one of the great artists of the medium. To me he is the consummate film poet, a human being whose talent was to make silent images that speak like the lines of a great romantic poem, or like the music of a great symphony.

As far as I can tell there are no biographies of him in English in print, and compared to his contemporaries, and other filmakers less influencial than him, there is very little literature about him at all. It is about time that this changed.

In early 1998, the novel Nosferatu by Jim Shepard was published. The book is a work of imagination that tells the author's version of Murnau's early years: his relationship with the love of his life, his time with Max Reinhardt's company and his days as a flyer in World War I. The second half of the book contains imagined diaries of the filming of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh as well as a section on Tabu that switches between first and third person. Though the book has some very powerful sections, overall it feels fragmented and incomplete. However, it has raised the profile of Murnau the man in the United States, and has been reviewed in many publications.

Further raising the profile of Murnau is a film called Shadow of the Vampire by director E. Elias Merhige. It presents a fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu.

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Copyright © 1998 John Akre

This page last updated 19 February 2001