F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau

Highest Rated: 100% The Last Laugh (1924)

Lowest Rated: 40% The Haunted Castle (1921)

Birthday: Dec 28, 1888

Birthplace: Bielefeld, North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Though perhaps best known for the nightmarish Gothic-Expressionist horror "Nosferatu" (1922), German director F.W. Murnau's other films, which include the melodramas "The Last Laugh" (1924) and his first Hollywood effort, the Oscar-winning "Sunrise" (1927), showed him to be a master craftsman who helped to set the bar for visual storytelling in the 20th century and beyond. Born Fredrich Wilhelm Plumpe on December 28, 1888 in the German city of Bielefeld, he was raised with his two brothers in Kassel, where as a boy, Murnau often put on plays in his family's home. Theater remained in his blood throughout his education - while studying literature and history at the University of Munich, he adopted the stage name "Murnau" for his debut in a 1909 production of "Das Mirakel" at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theatre. Reinhardt later invited him to work with him as an assistant director, but the experience was put on hold with the outbreak of World War I. Murnau served in the Imperial German Flying Corps and flew missions over France before a flight, misdirected by fog, brought him to neutral Switzerland and internment in a POW camp. While there, he acted in and directed several stage plays, and received his introduction to film by assisting in the production of propaganda films for the German embassy. Upon the end of the war, Murnau returned to German, where he established a production company, Murnau Veidt Filmgesellschaft, with actor Conrad Veidt. Their first film, "Der Knabe in Blau" ("The Boy in Blue", 1919), was inspired by the Thomas Gainsborough painting, and was quickly followed by a slew of melodramas, often inspired by classic literature and other films of the day, including "Satanas" (1919), which drew upon D.W. Griffith's epic "Intolerance" (1916), and "Der Janus-Koph" ("The Janus Head," 1920), an adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that did not credit author Robert Louis Stevenson. The best-known, and one of the few surviving titles from this period was "Nosferatu" (1922), an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula that, like "Janus-Koph," failed to accredit its author. Its blend of Gothic horror - as personified by star Max Schreck's eerie turn as the bald, talon-sporting Count Orlok - and naturalistic settings, which contrasted with the trend towards expressionism in German cinema, won critical praise, but the film was hit with a lawsuit from Stoker's estate over failure to obtain rights to the novel, which required that all prints be destroyed, though a single print, distributed globally, allowed "Nosferatu" to survive. Murnau's other enduring film from this period was "Der Letzte Mann" ("The Last Laugh," 1924), which traced the downward spiral of a proud hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) who is demoted to washroom attendant; the film helped to change the visual language of film through its use of a subjective camera perspective to show Jannings' perception of his changing world. Murnau would complete two more films in Germany, including "Faust" (1926), an epic fantasy with remarkable special effects that made it the most expensive film by its production company, UFA, until the release of "Metropolis" in 1927. He then emigrated to the United States at the behest of producer William Fox; there, Murnau directed one of his most triumphant efforts, the drama "Sunrise" (1927), which brought German Expressionism and innovative camerawork to Hollywood productions. Though critically praised and the recipient of three Academy Awards, including the first-ever Best Picture Oscar, "Sunrise" was not a box office success, and failed to recoup the colossal price tag required for its huge, dreamlike sets. His next two films were met with studio interference - the now-lost "Four Devils" (1928), a tragedy set in the world of the circus, was altered to reflect a more upbeat ending, while "Our Daily Bread" (1930) was renamed "City Girl" and hastily adapted to include synchronous sound. Neither were successes, and Murnau soon left Fox to team with documentarian Robert Flaherty to make "Tabu" (1931), a documentary with fictionalized elements that attempted to display the challenges of South Sea Islanders adapting to the encroachment of Western civilization. Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Floyd Crosby, "Tabu" was not without its own set of problems - Flaherty left the film over amicable disagreements regarding the focus of the film with Murnau, who had financed the entire project out of his own pocket - but its lush imagery and exotic locations helped to provide the director with his first financially profitable film in America. However, Murnau would not live to reap the benefits from this long-overdue success: one week prior to its release, Murnau was involved in a car accident while driving up the California coast. He was the only passenger to suffer traumatic injuries, from which he succumbed on March 11, 1931. Though only 12 of his 21 films survived the passage of time, those titles - "Nosferatu," "Faust," "Sunrise" and "Tabu" - kept alive Murnau's status as an innovator in the history of cinema.



93% 77% Tabu Director,
- 1931
63% 82% City Girl Director - 1930
82% No Score Yet 4 Devils Director - 1928
98% 92% Sunrise Director - 1927
91% 91% Faust Director - 1926
88% 77% Tartuffe Director - 1925
No Score Yet 27% The Finances of the Grand Duke Director - 1924
100% 88% The Last Laugh Director - 1924
97% 87% Nosferatu Director - 1922
43% 61% Phantom Director - 1922
No Score Yet No Score Yet The Burning Soil Director - 1922
40% 32% The Haunted Castle Director - 1921