Reviewing the Films of F.W. Murnau

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

Murnau in 1920

He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Germany (then Prussia) on December 28, 1889. Friedrich was one of five children in a financially successful family. His father owned a textile factory and encouraged his artistic pursuits as a child, but later pushed his son to become a professor when he was of schooling age. In response Friedrich assumed the name “F.W. Murnau” to conceal his identity as an actor from his father, but the secret was discovered and his father financially cut ties. “Murnau” was derived from a small town near Lake Staffel in Germany. Murnau continued acting but upon the outbreak of World War I he enlisted as a foot soldier and later became a pilot. During the war he crashed no less than eight times but managed to walk away unscathed. He was captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp. While imprisoned he directed a number of theatrical performances and wrote a screenplay. Throughout his life he was a closeted homosexual, and portions of his life remains a mystery.

After the war he was released from prison and founded a German film company in 1919 for 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 is 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).

In 1927 he came to Hollywood along with his full crew to begin directing films for the Fox Film Corporation, beginning with Sunrise. It 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 Filmography

The complete filmography of F.W. Murnau is listed below, including his many lost films and the six films he directed that I reviewed as part of my classic film project:

Lost Film: The Boy in Blue / Emerald of Death (“Der Knabe in Blau”)
Release Date: 1920
A lost film inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “The Blue Boy” and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. This was Murnau’s directorial debut.

Lost Film: Satan (“Satanas”)
Release Date: 1920
A lost horror film created in collaboration with Robert Wiene.

Lost Film: The Hunchback and the Dancer (“Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin”)
Release Date: 1920
A lost film about a conniving hunchback and his love for a woman.

Lost Film: The Head of Janus (“Der Janus-Kopf”)
Release Date: 1920
A lost film that was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Lost Film: Evening-Night-Morning (“Abend – Nacht – Morgen”)
Release Date: 1920
A lost film about money and treachery.

Lost FIlm: Desire (“Sehnsucht”)
Release Date: 1921
A lost film that tells the story of a male dancer who falls in love with a duchess, only to be arrested, and his subsequent attempts to track down the duchess.

Journey into the Night (“Der Gang in die Nacht”)
Release Date: 1921
The film tells the story of a doctor who falls in love with a dancer despite already being engaged to another woman. He elopes with the dancer and his life descends into tragedy. Several fragile prints of the film survive.

The Haunted Castle (“Schloß Vogelöd: Die Enthullung eines Geheimnisses”)
Release Date: 1921
One of the earliest fully surviving films of F.W. Murnau, this moody and atmospheric German Expressionist film portrays several characters at a German castle as a mystery of murder and betrayal.

Lost: Marizza, called the Smuggler Madonna (“Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna”)
Release Date: 1922
A fragmented reel survives of this film. It is about a rural farm girl caught up in a smuggling and murder crime.

The Burning Soil (“Der brennende Acker”)
Release Date 1922
The film follows the struggle over a plot of petroleum-rich land. The film was considered lost until 1978, when it was discovered to have been owned by an Italian priest who organized screenings in mental hospitals.

nosferatu

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.

Phantom
Release Date: 1922
A film told through flashbacks about a man who is haunted by a woman who hits him in a carriage. It was thought to be a lost film for many years until it was restored in 2006.

Lost Film: The Expulsion (“Die Austreibung”)
Release Date: 1923
A lost film about a family of farmers who lost both their marriage and their farm.

The Grand Duke’s Finances (“Die Finanzen des Großherzogs”)
Release Date: 1924
A rare comedy film directed by F.W. Murnau. It is about a Duke of a small Mediterranean island and his struggles to overcome debt and establish political stability.

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.

Tartuffe (“Herr Tartuffe”)
Release Date: 1925
A pared down version of Moliere’s famous play starring the great German actor, Emil Jannings.

faust

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).

sunrise

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.

Lost Film: 4 Devils
Release Date: 1928
A highly sought after lost film about four orphans starring Janet Gaynor.

city-girl

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

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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