Murnau, Friedrich Wilhelm (1888–1931)

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German filmmaker.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888–1931) created a "German style" of filmmaking that sought to evoke the spiritual and visual power of German Romanticism. His films explore phantoms and specters (The Haunted Castle, Nosferatu, Phanton, all 1922; Faust, 1926), but also probe existential questions (Journey in to the Night, 1921; The Burning Soil, 1922; The Last Laugh, 1924). He directed no fewer than sixteen silent films (of which half are lost) in Berlin between 1919 and 1926 before accepting an offer by the American motion picture executive William Fox to bring high-art film production to Hollywood. After only four films, Murnau's American career was cut short by a fatal automobile accident. He died at the age of forty-three.

Murnau's first masterpiece, Nosferatu—Symphonie des Garuens (Nosferatu the Vampire) , reinterpreted Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula and pushed the limits of what could be shown in the new medium. The film reconfigures the vampire legend in the tradition of expressionist art, whose credo was: "The world is there, why repeat it?" Like expressionist paintings and poetry, Murnau's filmic world appears distorted and stylized. His use of extreme camera angles and elongated shadows as well as such special effects as superimposition and time-lapse photography reveals his desire to experiment with the very language of film. Nosferatu, the vampire who cannot die, is shown as a phantom, an immaterial substance that, like a film image, dissolves when hit by a ray of sunlight. Murnau retells Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula through the lens of World War I (1914–1918). Although his film is set in early nineteenth-century Germany and deals with the outbreak of the plague, it alludes to the encounter with mass death in the war, during which two million young Germans died. The film also expands the notion of dying for a higher good: only if the young woman sacrifices herself to the vampire can the town be saved. The hideous but strangely attractive monster as embodied by Max Schreck has become a stock figure in countless horror films. The surrealist Robert Desnos (1900–1945) treasured Nosferatu as an inspiration because it mingled mystery and terror, while Werner Herzog (1942–) praised it as the quintessential German film in the Romantic tradition and as the film that helped him find his own style. He remade it with Klaus Kinski playing Nosferatu in 1979.

Murnau's social drama Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) was based on a script by Carl Mayer, the most brilliant German screenwriter of the 1920s. The film became famous because it succeeded in telling its story in purely visual terms. The film's melodrama of an old hotel porter who is humiliated by the loss of his job and his uniform moves inexorably to an ending in misery and death—but suddenly the film's sole title card pops up, declaring that the screenwriter took pity on him and offered an alternative ending: an American millionaire bequeaths the downtrodden old porter a fortune that allows him to have the "last laugh." This fairy tale ending resonated in 1924 with the American Dawes Plan that miraculously rescued Germany from hyperinflation and ignominy. The stylistic importance of the film lies in its use of an "unchained" camera that travels down an elevator, moves through revolving doors, and even mimics the distorted movements of a drunkard. In this film expressionist distortion is no longer confined to abstract sets and stylized acting, as it is in the most famous expressionist film, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Rather, it extends to cinematography itself. The mobile camera becomes a character in the story; it does not just show things but makes them visible.

Murnau's first American film, Sunrise–Song of Two Humans (1927), continued the German tradition of studio productions, with its reliance on stylized sets and attention to lighting and mood. A psychological melodrama of adultery that contrasts country and big city, peasant and vamp, earth and water, good and evil, Sunrise has been hailed as one of the lasting achievements of silent cinema. The film displays narrative fluidity but also a pictorial density that charges each gesture with an excess of meaning. The meticulously staged scenarios and the slow movement give the film a rare melancholic mood. Murnau's last Hollywood film, Tabu—a Story of the South Seas (1931), narrates the tragic tale of a young fisherman who breaks the taboo on desiring an unattainable "holy" young woman. It is set in Bora-Bora and luxuriates in exotic location shots and documentary footage of natives' customs and dances. It is not a documentary, however, as the original collaboration with the documentarian Robert Flaherty (1884–1951) would suggest. Flaherty withdrew from the production once he became aware of Murnau's conviction that cinema was not there to record reality but to create a magic world of its own.

See alsoCinema.


Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Translated by Roger Greaves. Berkeley, Calif., 1969. An influential book that relates expressionist cinema to painting and the stage.

——. Murnau. Berkeley, Calif., 1973. A Weimar film critic in exile, Eisner published this biography in French in 1964.

Prinzler, Hans Helmut, Karin Messlinger, and Vera Thomas, eds. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Ein Melancholiker des Films. Berlin, 2003. Collection of essays on the occasion of a Murnau retrospective at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival.

Anton Kaes