f.w. murnau
(1888 - 1931)


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f . w .   m u r n a u  :   m a s t e r   o f   l i g h t  ]

"Don't act - think!."
- F. W. Murnau

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    f . w .   m u r n a u  f a c t s

  • Name: F.W. Murnau
  • Birth name: Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe
  • Born: 28 December 1888, Bielefeld, North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Height: Nearly 7ft tall
  • Died: 11 March 1931, Santa Barbara, California, USA
  • Cause of death: Road accident

    f . w .   m u r n a u   :   b i o g .


      Unlike Nosferatu, his most horrific creation, F.W. Murnau was doomed to an early grave. But his works live on, triumphant symphonies of style

    Murnau Smartphones Page

    Nothing appeals, of course, like a breath of scandal - especially hollywood scandal - and rumours about the exact circumstances of the fatal car-crash on March 22, 1931, on the road from Los Angeles to Carmel, did not hesitate to paint the most lurid picture of orgiastic goings-on en route. In fact, all that seems to have happened was that F.W. Murnau, travelling in a chauffeur driven Packard, eventually gave in to the pleadings of his young Filipino valet that he be allowed to take the wheel. Driving too fast and swerving to avoid a truck. The valet drove the car off the road. Most of its occupants were virtually unhurt, but Murnau suffered a fractured skull and died in hospital shortly afterwards. That as it appears is the unexciting truth, but oddly enough the web of fantasy woven around the event has ensured that Murnau is known to many people who can never have seen any of his films.

    They should of course know more. Murnau is far from a nobody back in his native Germany, and he may fairly be judged the most distinguished and talented of all the directors bought over to Hollywood in the twenties with maximum publicity and the most elaborate red carpet treatment. And Murnau's first hollywood film , Sunrise (1927) has, in the last twenty years, been firmly reinstated in the 'ten best' lists of critics and film-historians throughout the world.

    Sunrise is a staggering achievement - living proof that great European film-makers do not automatically sell thier souls by going to Hollywood, or produce any less remarkable films that they were making back home in Germany in the silent era. Along with Fritz Lang and G.W Pabst, he was at the forefront of the outstanding creative German cinema of the early Twenties.
    A Masters Missing Links
    It is difficult to trace the stages of his rise to fame and success in Germany, since only one of the nine films he made before his first masterpiece, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922 Nosferatu, the Vampire), survives anywhere near complete. After Nosferatu the Vampire, the next three films are missing, or else like Phantom (1922) are known only in newly unearthed fragments. So a picture of Murnau's early work has to be pieced together from contemporary accounts and more recent recollections.

    He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld in 1888 and as a young man was noted for his quiet and serious disposition. While studying art and literature at Heidelberg University ,he took part in some student theatricals which impressed the great stage director Max Reinhardt, who offered Murnau what amounted to a six year scholarship to study and work in his, theatre in Berlin. Despite family opposition, Murnau accepted and acted in the company as well as assisting Reinhardt as a director and closey observing him at work until the outbreak of World War I.

    During the war he served as a combat pilot, but his plane was forced down in neutral Switzerland and he was interned; he managed, however, to direct his own independent stage productions and worked with film for the first time, compiling propaganda materials for the German Embassy.

    n o s f e r a t u  :   t h e   v a m p i r e

    On his release he entered the film industry almost immediately, directing Der Knabe In Blau (The Boy in Blue) in 1919. During the next two years he directed seven more films; dealing with a variety of subject-matter and were filmed in, as far as can be judged, a wide variety of styles. Then at the end of 1921, he started work on Nosferatu, by far the best big screen adaptation of Bram Stokerís Dracula...more.

    He Who Laughs Last...
    Superficially, Murnau's next masterpiece, Der letze Mann (1925, The Last Laugh) could hardly be more different. Nosferatu, The Vampire is a perfect example of the dread-ridden German silent cinema - what the writer, Lotte Eisner calls the Haunted Screen (the title of her book on German silent cinema). The Last Laugh seems to belong to the opposite tradition, that of the minutely realistic study of everyday life based on the small scale production, called the Kammerspiel, which Reinhardt had developed alongside his famous spectacles. Yet Murnau's story of a resplendedly uniformed doorman's fall from glory is realized in images just as haunting and atmospheric as those in which he clothed his vampire tales. And Emil Janning's performance in the principal role - the one in which he first amazed audiences with how much he could convey with his back to the camera - was also a potent factor in making the film the most universally noticed German feature of the year. It was, in fact, the immense American Success of The Last Laugh which eventually bought both Jennings and Murnau to Hollywood.
    Before he succumbed to the blandishments of the Hollywood producer William Fox, however, Murnau made two more films in Germany: both adaptions of theatrical classics, both with Jannings. Tartuff (1925, Tartuffe) was based on Moliere's play,and Faust (1926) was based on Goethe's, and both opened in 1926. Tartuffe is an ingenious attempt to adapt a stage work in terms of a stage performance, distanced by a framing device ut retaining all the theatricality of Moliere's original concept. Faust, on the other hand, seizes the opportunity to make the whole into a thoroughly 'cinematic' film. Such is Murnau's skill in using the basic syntax of the cinema to his own more successful or the more genuinely cinematic.
    California sunrise...
    Then came the red carpet treatment in Hollywood. All the resources of the Fox Studios were placed at Murnau's disposal. He was able to use a script by his favourite writer, Carl Mayer, an adaption of The Journey To Tilsit. Hermann Suderman's Lithuanian Story about a peasant wooing. He worked completely without interference, building giant sets, shooting and reshooting until he had just the effect he desired. The result - Sunrise - is really a completely German film made in America with American stars (Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien). Visually stunning and atmospherically sublime, it is constructed in a European style, the story itself remains slight, though Murnau's treatment develops it like a symphony, reaching a crescendo with the storm on the lake in which the re-united husband and wife are nearly separated for ever. Sunrise was greeted with critical acclaim and went on to win all kinds of awards. But the great American public did not buy it, and this relative failure overshadowed the progress of Murnau's two subsequent films for Fox.
    The coming of sound didn't help either, spreading uncertainty among the studios as to what they should do with the more expensive projects then in the works. Munrau's next film a circus drama called Four Devils (1928) suffered from front-office interference designed to make it more general in it's appeal. Our Daily Bread (1930) was begun with enormous ambition as a saga of thr Mid-Western grain page

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a film by fritz lang, germany, 1927

reconstructed & restored 2010
150 minutes

available (22nd nov. 2010): | metropolis microsite



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