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.
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. As such, I have listed below my reviews of his essential filmography: