(1888 - 1931)
Three Key Films: Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Underrated: While it may not seem like a documentary would fit very snuggly into Murnau’s filmography, Tabu (1931) actually is very much in line with the themes of Murnau’s more famous films. Many of these films feature a personal struggle to maintain oneself (The Last Laugh) or a relationship (Faust, Sunrise) in the face of social oppression or cosmic influence. Tabu works in exactly the same way; its central couple tries to remain together while out-running a Tribal elder who is attempting to track them down for breaking a religious taboo. Though certainly very different visually than Murnau’s other films (how can you make an Expressionist film about the South Pacific islands?) it is thematically linked to his previous work.
Unforgettable: Nosferatu climbs the staircase and enters Ellen’s room in Nosferatu. In what are now some of the most famous frames in film history, Count Orlok ascends a flight of stairs and enters the frightened Ellen’s room. Murnau chooses not to show us the face of Max Schreck. Rather, we see only his silhouette as he creeps up the stairs. After entering her room, the shadows of his hands flow over her body and grab her heart. It’s one of the most chilling sequences in all of cinema.
The Legend: In a twist of fate, F.W. Murnau would be never get to see his final film, Tabu, premiere to the public. After completing the film, a car accident tragically took his life. The story becomes somewhat ironic when compared to his films, as Murnau’s most popular and influential films are almost all about man’s struggle, and ultimate success, against the cosmos.
Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (the chosen name Murnau coming from a German town) was one of the giants of the silent era. Though only making films for a little over a decade, Murnau’s films are some of the silent era’s greatest achievements. Murnau’s films are visually stunning, using subjective camera and movement unrivaled by most of his contemporaries. Though not as drastically stylized as the works from Soviet montage or other German Expressionists, it could be argued that Murnau’s films would have a far more lasting and practical influence on future filmmakers.
Working in the German Expressionist and Kammerspiel movements, Murnau created films of high emotion and psychology. He started making movies in 1919, after serving as a fighter pilot in World War I. After a series of generally forgotten films, he would make one of his most famous films: Nosferatu. Though it would get him in legal trouble (it was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), the film was highly influential as one of the first major horror films.
In film, particularly silent film, Murnau found the perfect expression of his artistic sensibilities, a melding of the visual image and storytelling. There are very few moments in his work where the story and filmic image are not reliant on each other. Perhaps this should go without saying, though it should not be taken for granted in cinema’s early days, or even in today’s mainstream cinema.
Though less seen than Nosferatu, The Last Laugh may be Murnau’s crowning achievement. A chilling psychological tale into the decent of madness, the film also serves as a critique of Hollywood filmmaking, where our protagonist always has the last laugh and succeeds against his bad fortunes. Murnau would make the move to Hollywood and direct Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The film would go on to become one of the first two Best Picture winners at the Oscars (there were two different Best Picture awards at 1929’s ceremony).
After Sunrise, Murnau would make only a handful of films, including a few sound films which were poorly received. On a trip to the South Pacific, he would make his last movie: Tabu, an ethnographic documentary film with Robert Flaherty. Sunrise and Tabu are interesting tandem pieces: they both feature couples struggling against a greater force than themselves to remain together. One wonders how much success Murnau could have had in the sound era, since Murnau’s films are more reliant on image than many of his contemporaries. Tabu was originally intended as partly a sound film, but was restored to completely silent before his death. It’s possible that is exactly how Murnau would have had it. Joshua Jezioro