Reviewing the Films of F.W. Murnau

Who is F.W. Murnau?
F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) has sometimes been called cinema’s first true poet. His slow-paced, haunting German Expressionist films expanded the horizon of early Hollywood productions and his films were closely studied by many of the great directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford.

F.W. Murnau in 1920

Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe was born in Germany (then Prussia) on December 28, 1889. Friedrich was one of five children born into a financially successful family. His father owned a textile factory and encouraged Friedrich’s artistic pursuits as a child. Later, he pushed Friedrich to become a respectable professor but Friedrich wanted to be an actor. Recalcitrant to his father’s wishes Friedrich assumed the name “F.W. Murnau” in part to conceal his work as an actor from his father, but the secret was soon discovered and his father cut financial ties with his son. The name “Murnau” was derived from a small town near Lake Staffel in Germany. Murnau studied art and history at the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg. Murnau continued acting and he served as an assistant at a new school of the pioneering German theatrical virtuoso and emerging filmmaker, Max Reinhardt, but upon the outbreak of World War I Murnau changed course. He enlisted as a foot soldier and later he became a pilot for Imperial Germany. During the war he crashed no less than eight times but managed to walk away unscathed. He was captured as a prisoner of war and placed in a prison camp in Switzerland. While incarcerated he directed a number of theatrical performances and wrote a screenplay. He was a devotee of Shakespeare and Ibsen. Throughout his lifetime he was a closeted homosexual and portions of his personal life remain a mystery.

After the war he was released from prison. He founded a German film company in 1919 where he began creating short productions. Many of his early German films were made in collaboration with other leading German filmmakers, such as those involved in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari like Robert Wiene, Carl Mayer, and Jans Janowitz. He was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and his oeuvre was rife with dark fantasy and mysticism. Murnau soon began creating extraordinary feature-length films in the emerging German Expressionist vein like Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Faust (Faust was his final German production before moving to Hollywood).

In 1927 he came to Hollywood along with his full crew to begin directing films for the Fox Film Corporation, beginning with Sunrise. The film was a critical success but a financial failure. As a result, Fox began taking more control of his productions (4 Devils and City Girl). Furious, Murnau departed Fox and formed his own partnership with Robert Flaherty (of Nanook repute). Their rocky relationship created a pseudo-documentary film in Bora Bora called Tabu but in post-production Murnau suddenly died in a car crash along the Pacific Coast Highway south of Santa Barbara, California (near Rincon Beach). Some believe nefarious behavior was afoot in the car at the time of his death. Murnau’s body was sent to Germany. His funeral was held in Berlin and only eleven people attended, among them Emil Jannings, Robert Flaherty, Greta Garbo, and Fritz Lang. Garbo had a death mask of Murnau created which she kept throughout her Hollywood years. In July 2015 Murnau’s grave was robbed and his skull was taken. The culprit has never been caught.

F.W. Murnau‘s Essential Filmography

F.W. Murnau made many lost films that are now lost, I have listed below his essential filmography:


Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror) (1922)
Release Date: March 4, 1922 (Germany)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Studio: Prana Film
Nosferatu is one of the great horror films of all time and it is an essential German Expressionist picture of the silent era. It was nearly sued out of existence by the estate of Bram Stoker for plagiarizing the story of Dracula, but thankfully one copy of the picture has survived to our great benefit. It tells the story of a businessman who is compelled to visit a remote German castle in order to complete a real estate transaction. Little does he know a blood-thirsty nosferatu named Count Orlock is waiting to wreak havoc upon his life.

the last laugh

Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (1924)
Release Date: December 23, 1924 (Germany)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring Emil Jannings, The Last Laugh is the brilliant work of F.W. Murnau, the great auteur of early cinema. It tells the somewhat absurd story of a proud but aging hotel doorman who falls beneath his station in life when he is demoted to a washroom attendant because he is too old. However, the film becomes a comedy in a surprising twist of fate, when the doorman inherits a vast sum of money and he regains his status.


Faust (1926)
Release Date: October 14, 1926 (Germany)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Faust is yet another excellent picture from F.W. Murnau, based on Goethe’s interpretation of the Germanic legend. It is a silent horror film in which Emil Jannings plays “Mephisto” (or Mephistopheles).


Winner of Best Unique and Artistic Picture (1927-1928): Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Release Date: September 23, 1927
Director: F.W. Murnau
Studio: Fox Film Corporation
Sunrise is yet another silent masterpiece from F.W. Murnau. It won an award at the very first Academy Awards ceremony for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” an award that has since been discontinued to pave the way for the Best Picture award (which has been credited to Wings for the year 1927-1928). Sunrise paints a beautiful picture of an unhappily married couple in a rural European community. The unnamed husband is tempted by a loose woman, and he fails in an attempt to kill his wife so they both flee to the city where he begs her for forgiveness in a church. They reconcile and return home after adventures in the city. He kills the other woman to be with his wife just as the sun rises.


City Girl (1930)
Release Date: February 16, 1930
Director: F.W. Murnau
Studio: Fox Film Corporation
City Girl is Murnau’s penultimate film (prior to Tabu) before his untimely death. It tells the story of a romance between an unhappy waitress working in Chicago and the son of a poor wheat farmer. The film brilliantly conveys the tension between the city and the country, as well as the dreams and realities of young lovers.


Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)
Release Date: March 18, 1931
Director: F.W. Murnau
Studio: Paramount
Tabu is the final film made by F.W. Murnau before his tragic and untimely death due to a car accident. Tabu is a pseudo-documentary romance film about natives in the tropics (Tahiti and Bora Bora). In many ways the drama and surrounding controversies behind the scenes of Tabu are far more interesting than the film itself. Murnau and his uncredited co-director Robert Flaherty (of Nanook repute) developed a highly contentious working relationship, and financing was constantly being revoked leading both men to the brink of bankruptcy.

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