F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau was a silent film director known for his innovative and expressive storytelling. He was born in Germany in 1873 and began his career as an art apprentice before moving to Hollywood in the early 1900s. Murnau’s most famous film is “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” which was released in 1927 and was considered a technological marvel at the time. Murnau’s other notable films include “City Lights” and “Last Moments of Love.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe on December 28, 1888, was a visionary German filmmaker whose silent era contributions left an indelible mark on cinema. With a childhood fascination for film, he initially delved into philology and art before Max Reinhardt, a renowned director, enlisted him into his acting school.

During World War I, Murnau served in the Imperial German Army and later with the German Army’s Flying Corps, showcasing resilience in surviving multiple crashes unscathed. In 1919, he premiered his first directorial work, but international acclaim eluded him until the 1922 film “Nosferatu,” an iconic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Despite copyright issues, the film is revered as a German Expressionist masterpiece and a cult classic.

Murnau’s repertoire expanded with gems like “The Last Laugh” (1924) and a 1926 interpretation of Goethe’s “Faust.” Hollywood beckoned in 1926, leading to his association with Fox Studio and the creation of cinematic wonders like “Sunrise” (1927), praised as one of the finest films ever made.

The filmmaker’s journey took an exotic turn with “Tabu” (1931), crafted alongside documentary pioneer Robert J. Flaherty. Disputes led Murnau to complete the film independently. Tragically, a week before Tabu’s successful premiere, he succumbed to injuries from a California car crash.

Of Murnau’s 21 directorial works, eight are lost to time, and only 12 survive in their entirety. His legacy endures as a pioneer of German Expressionism and a cinematic maestro whose impact reverberates through the ages.

Early years

F.W. Murnau

Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, born in Bielefeld but growing up in Kassel, was a future movie master. He had two brothers, Bernhard and Robert, and stepsisters Ida and Anna. His mom, Otilie Volbracht, was the second wife of Heinrich Plumpe, who owned a cloth factory in Germany.

Their house became a stage for little plays directed by young Friedrich, who was already into heavy books by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and Ibsen at just 12. He took the name “Murnau” from a town near Munich, where he once lived.

Described as having a cool attitude, Murnau was said to be towering at 7 feet or a more down-to-earth 6 feet 4 inches, depending on who you ask.

Murnau went to the University in Berlin to study philology and later did art history and literature in Heidelberg. Director Max Reinhardt noticed him during a student performance, and Murnau became pals with artsy folks like Franz Marc.

When World War I started, Murnau became a company commander on the eastern front. Later, he joined the German Flying Corps, surviving an amazing eight crashes in France. After landing in Switzerland, he got arrested but found time for creativity, joining a prisoner theater group and writing a film script.

Even in tough times, Murnau’s creative spark shone, hinting at the cinematic genius he’d become.

Career

After World War I, Murnau came back to Germany and teamed up with actor Conrad Veidt to start his own film studio. His debut full-length film, “The Boy in Blue” (1919), drew inspiration from a Thomas Gainsborough painting, exploring the theme of dual personalities in “Der Janus-Kopf” (1920), starring Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi, akin to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Murnau’s crowning achievement is “Nosferatu” (1922), an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok, the film faced copyright troubles, leading Prana Film to bankruptcy. Despite a court order to destroy prints, a sneaky copy survived, turning “Nosferatu” into an early cult film.

He also directed “The Last Laugh” (1924), written by Carl Mayer, introducing the subjective point of view camera and influencing cinéma vérité. Departing from expressionist norms, this Kammerspielfilm showcased Murnau’s versatility.

Murnau’s final German film was the grand “Faust” (1926), featuring Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, and Camilla Horn. Drawing on Faustian traditions and Goethe’s version, the film is notable for Mephisto’s winged figure spreading plague over a town.

Both “Nosferatu” (score by Hans Erdmann) and “Faust” (score by Werner R. Heymann) were pioneers in featuring original film scores, marking another Murnau milestone.

Hollywood

In 1926, Murnau took a Hollywood leap, joining Fox Studio. There, he crafted “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927), hailed by scholars as one of the greatest movies ever. While not a money-spinner, Sunrise bagged Oscars at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929, sharing the Best Picture title with “Wings.” Janet Gaynor clinched the first Best Actress Oscar for her roles, but the rules soon changed.

Despite the accolades, Murnau found himself financially comfy and even bought a farm in Oregon. His subsequent films, the lost “4 Devils” (1928) and “City Girl” (1930), struggled to adapt to the new era of sound, disappointing audiences. Frustrated, Murnau bid adieu to Fox and embarked on a South Pacific jaunt.

Teaming up with documentary pioneer Robert J. Flaherty, Murnau voyaged to Bora Bora to create “Tabu” in 1931. Artistic clashes led Flaherty to exit, leaving Murnau to wrap up the film. Censored in the U.S. for showing bare-breasted Polynesian women, the movie originally started as a mix of talkie and silent, later fully restored as a silent film – Murnau’s preferred storytelling medium.

Personal life

F.W. Murnau

In 1916, Murnau took to the skies as a radio operator in the German air force, but fate intervened when he had to make a surprise landing in Switzerland in December 1917. The consequence? He found himself interned until the war’s closure.

Murnau, openly gay, shared a poignant connection with poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, his friend and lover. Tragically, Ehrenbaum fell on the eastern front in 1915, a loss that left an indelible mark on Murnau. The horrors of war, the sting of sacrifice, and the brutality of violence became powerful inspirations for his cinematic creations. Thanks to Ehrenbaum, Murnau found artistic influence in expressionists like Franz Marc and Else Lasker-Schüler.

In Hollywood, Murnau’s heart swayed toward the young actor David Rollins. In a curious turn of events, he invited Rollins to his abode. By late 1927, Murnau managed to persuade Rollins to pose in the buff, using the enchanting pool and garden of the Wolf’s Lair castle in Hollywood as the picturesque backdrop. In a later interview, Rollins admitted to being initially puzzled by the request but eventually felt at ease enough with his own body to go along with it. This intriguing episode sheds light on the personal and creative dimensions of Murnau’s Hollywood chapter.

Death

On March 10, 1931, just a week before the premiere of his film “Tabu,” Murnau took a fateful drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles in a hired Packard touring car. His valet, Eliazar Garcia Stevenson, skillfully swerved to avoid an unexpected truck intrusion into the northbound lane. Unfortunately, the car flipped after hitting an embankment, ejecting all occupants, including Murnau. Suffering a head injury, he passed away the next day at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

A Hollywood Lutheran Church service on March 19, 1931, paid tribute to Murnau, and later, his body was transported to Germany for entombment in Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery near Berlin on April 13. Notable figures like Robert J. Flaherty, Emil Jannings, and Fritz Lang attended the second funeral, with Lang delivering the eulogy. Greta Garbo, in a unique gesture, commissioned a death mask of Murnau, which she kept on her desk during her Hollywood years.

In an unsettling turn of events, Murnau’s resting place faced disturbance in July 2015. Intruders broke into his grave, disturbing the remains and making off with the skull. Wax residue at the site fueled speculation of occult or ceremonial activities. Considering this was not an isolated incident, cemetery managers contemplated sealing the grave. As of now, the skull remains missing, adding an eerie mystery to Murnau’s final chapter.

Legacy

Jim Shepard, the American author, spun his 1998 novel “Nosferatu” around Murnau’s life and films, originally crafting a short story in his 1996 collection “Batting Against Castro.”

In 2000, director E. Elias Merhige brought Murnau’s tale to the big screen with “Shadow of the Vampire.” John Malkovich portrayed the director in this fictionalized account of the making of “Nosferatu,” where Murnau, committed to authenticity, supposedly hires a real vampire (played by Willem Dafoe) for the role of Count Orlok.

American Horror Story’s fifth season, titled “Hotel” (2015), weaves Murnau into its narrative. In the 1920s, he ventures to the Carpathian Mountains for “Nosferatu” research, stumbling upon a vampire community. Murnau joins their ranks, later turning Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova into vampires. Valentino, in turn, transforms his fictional lover into The Countess, the season’s main antagonist.

The 2020 film “Vampires vs. the Bronx” tips its hat to Murnau through “Murnau Properties,” a company in the film with a logo featuring a woodcutting view of Vlad the Impaler. This fictional firm, owned by vampires, plots to take over the Bronx through property and blood acquisitions.

The short film “F.W.M. Symphony” (2022) delves into the theft of Murnau’s head in 2015. The stolen skull becomes the centerpiece of a narrative intertwining fiction and history, creating a unique exploration of Murnau’s legacy.

Filmography

Original TitleEnglish TitleYearNotes
Der Knabe in BlauThe Boy in Blue / Emerald of Death1919Lost film, minor fragments survive
Satanas1920Lost film, minor fragments survive
Der Bucklige und die TänzerinThe Hunchback and the Dancer1920Lost film
Der Janus-KopfDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde / The Head of Janus1920Lost film
Abend – Nacht – MorgenEvening – Night – Morning1920Lost film
SehnsuchtDesire: The Tragedy of a Dancer1921Lost film
Der Gang in die NachtJourney into the Night1921
Schloß VogelödThe Haunted Castle / Castle Vogeloed1921
Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-MadonnaMarizza, called the Smuggler Madonna1922Mostly lost, one reel survives
Der brennende AckerThe Burning Soil1922
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des GrauensNosferatu, a Symphony of Horror1922
Phantom1922
Die AustreibungThe Expulsion1923Lost film
Comedy of the Heart1924Writer only
Die Finanzen des GroßherzogsThe Finances of the Grand Duke1924
Der letzte MannThe Last Laugh1924
Herr TartüffTartuffe1926
Faust1926Last German film
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans1927Won one Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture
4 Devils1928Generally regarded as one of Murnau’s best works; highly sought-after lost film
City Girl1930
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas1931Posthumous release (Died one week before New York premiere)

Biography

BornFriedrich Wilhelm Plumpe
Birth DateDecember 28, 1888
BirthplaceBielefeld, Germany
DiedMarch 11, 1931 (aged 42)
Place of DeathSanta Barbara, California, U.S.
Burial PlaceStahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery
Alma MaterUniversity of Berlin, University of Heidelberg
OccupationsFilm director, producer, screenwriter
Years Active1919–1931
MovementGerman Expressionism
Military Career
AllegianceGerman Empire
Service/BranchImperial German Army, Luftstreitkräfte
Battles/WarsWorld War I, Eastern Front

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