Silents are Golden: Silent Directors – The Ingenious F.W. Murnau

Silents are Golden: Silent Directors – The Ingenious F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau Headshot
F.W. Murnau

Very tall and described as having an “icy, imperious disposition,” F.W. Murnau certainly fit the stereotypical idea of a German silent film director. Highly cultured, his love of the arts and extreme attention to detail resulted in some of the finest works of the silent screen–and indeed, of cinema in general. Some would even say his masterpiece Sunrise (1927) is the finest film ever made.

George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston in Sunrise (1927)
George O’Brien and Margaret Livingston in Sunrise (1927)

The future director of Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924) was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in 1888, in what was then the province of Westphalia in Prussia. He had two brothers, two stepsisters, and his father owned a cloth factory. A precocious child, he enjoyed staging plays at the family home and was voraciously reading Shakespeare, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche well before he was a teen.

As a young man Murnau studied philology in Berlin and then art history and literature in Heidelberg. While in Heidelberg he met Max Reinhardt, the legendary Berlin theater director who was highly influential in encouraging Expressionism. While acting in the director’s theater he adopted the stage surname “Murnau,” after a small town south of Munich. Upon graduation he stayed with Reinhardt, learning the ropes of directing, until World War I broke out. He joined the Imperial German Flying Corps and flew numerous missions in northern France. Incredibly, he was in eight plane crashes and walked away each time without serious injuries.

F.W. Murnau pilot WWI
Said to be a photo of Murnau (on the right) in front of his aircraft.

After landing in Switzerland he was arrested and spent the remainder of the war as a POW. He didn’t let his time in the internment camp go to waste, working on plays, a film script and helping compile propaganda films for the German embassy. By the end of the war, Murnau had decided that film – already an obsession of his – was his future.

Upon his return to Germany he started a small film studio (Germany was full of tiny studios at the time) with the great actor Conrad Veidt. His first feature film was the Gothic tale Der Knabe in Blau (1919) and his second was Satanas (1920), inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). He worked with a number of key figures in the German Expressionist movement: Robert Wiene, director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); Caligari’s screenwriter Carl Mayer; and scenarist Thea von Harbou, wife of director Fritz Lang, to name a few.

 Director F.W. Murnau
Director Murnau

But while Murnau had been soaked in the highly stylized atmosphere of German Expressionism, he had a gift for bringing that atmosphere to film while having a steady grip on realism. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) is the most famous example, with its dramatic lighting, macabre story (gleefully ripped off from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel) and real-world locations. Produced by Prana Film, a small studio that wanted to specialize in occult-themed features, it was a bridge between the extreme stylization of German Expressionism and the naturalness of films from European countries like Sweden and from Hollywood. Prana Film was sued into oblivion by Stoker’s widow, but that didn’t keep Nosferatu from surviving and becoming the classic it is today.

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)
Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)

It was thought that Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), with its emotional story of a hotel doorman who loses his station and its incredibly fluid camerawork, is what caught the attention of Hollywood. In reality Murnau signed a contract with William Fox shortly after the film premiered in Berlin – and long before U.S. audiences got to see it. By this point he was gaining a reputation as a highly skilled director and may have been recommended by cameraman Karl Freund.

Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman in The Last Laugh (1924)
Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman in The Last Laugh (1924)

The contract was an undeniable deal: Murnau would have a big budget, all the Hollywood sets and equipment he needed, and free reign to make whatever pictures entered his head. But in spite of this he fastidiously stayed in Germany awhile longer to create Faust (1926), one of his masterpieces. Based on Goethe’s version of the well-known German legend, it contained some of the most remarkable scenes ever filmed – including the giant demon Mephistopheles standing over a medieval town, releasing the black plague (the set used fans and billowing soot).

Faust (1926) Mephistopheles
Faust (1926)

Upon the completion of Faust, Murnau finally headed to Hollywood. His first film would be the prestige picture Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans (1927), which required sets of a peasant village and a vast (or seemingly vast) city street. The latter was created with ingenious use of forced perspective, attracting legions of cameramen, set designers, and designers eager to crawl through it and see it was done. It would also use ingenious camerawork, fixing the camera to a track in the studio ceiling so it could appear to “float” through a foggy marsh. Actors Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien considered it an honor to be the film’s leads, and the production was a special experience for both.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise (1927)
George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise turned out to be a stunning achievement and very influential in Hollywood. It would win one of the first Academy Awards in the category “Unique and Artistic Picture.” Many directors (even John Ford) would try to imitate Murnau’s style, using dramatic lighting and careful tracking shots. Murnau followed up with Four Devils (1928), which is unfortunately lost today, and the wistful City Girl (1929), made just as most studios had switched to talkies.

Sadly, we’ll never know what the great F.W. Murnau would’ve done with the talkie era, with its initial limitations but also its possibilities. His last silent film was Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), a dramatic love story filmed in Tahiti. Only a week before it premiered, Murnau was being driven up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles in a chauffeured car. The young driver crashed the car against a pole and Murnau suffered a severe head injury. He died the next day, at only 42 years old.

F.W. Murnau
F.W. Murnau

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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4 Responses to Silents are Golden: Silent Directors – The Ingenious F.W. Murnau

  1. THOMAS A BILLICH says:

    AWESOME STUFF!

  2. Excellent post about one of my favorite filmmakers. Thank you.

  3. Erik Andersson says:

    Always happy to see an article on the great F. W. Murnau. I thought you might be interested in seeing that the small town of Athena, Oregon has recently embraced its role as a location for CITY GIRL with a mural and a celebratory plaque on the Oregon Film Trail. Eastern Oregon still looks quite similar to how it did in CITY GIRL when it was subbing for the Minnesota wheat fields in the film’s storyline.

    https://oregonconfluence.com/2020/06/27/new-sign-for-the-oregon-film-trail-athena/

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