One of the greatest filmmakers of early German cinema alongside Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst, F.W. Murnau was one of the towering figures who championed the sensibilities of German Expression. His 1922 film Nosferatu is considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest films ever made. Murnau’s works are essential for any understanding of the evolution of German cinema and are examined by students all over the world to this day.
Born in the Kingdom of Prussia in 1888, Murnau grew up studying the likes of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Ibsen and Shakespeare. Although he was obsessed with cinema, Murnau studied philology at the University in Berlin and later switched to art history and literature. Inclined towards the performing arts from an early age, he was discovered by director Max Reinhardt and was introduced to the artistic community in Germany.
After serving in the First World War, Murnau returned to Germany and started his own film studio with actor Conrad Veidt. He made his first feature film in 1919, a moving drama named The Boy in Blue, but some of his early works are now lost due to the highly flammable medium. His earliest surviving work is the 1920 film Journey into the Night, which is seen as a fascinating intersection of the influence of theatre and the spectacle of German Expressionism.
As aforementioned, Murnau’s best known masterpiece is the 1922 picture Nosferatu, the famous adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He eventually emigrated to Hollywood in 1926 and joined Fox Studio, where he continued to make brilliant films like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Murnau passed away at the untimely age of 42 after suffering from fatal injuries in a car crash.
On the 80th anniversary of his death, we revisit F.W. Murnau’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
F.W. Murnau’s 6 definitive films:
The Boy in Blue (1919)
Inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s painting The Blue Boy and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, this 1919 drama was Murnau’s directorial debut which contained a lot of pre-cursors to his work. Sadly, the film is considered lost now and only small fragments exist in archives.
Infused with elements from fantasy and mythology, The Boy in Blue tells the story of a decadent aristocrat who is poverty-stricken. After embarking on a quest to find an emerald that was depicted in an ancestral painting, he finds love in an unlikely place.
Nosferatu was undoubtedly Murnau’s breakthrough film which showed the world that he was capable of creating cinematic magic. An unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film successfully reimagines the mythical tale and generates a unique kind of atmospheric horror.
Stoker’s estate sued Murnau for copyright infringement and the court ordered him to destroy all copies. Lucky for us, one of the copies had already been distributed all over the world and it was replicated over the years in order to preserve the legacy of this influential masterpiece.
The Last Laugh (1924)
A brilliant example of the “chamber-drama” genre that focuses on the psychology of its characters, The Last Laugh presents the case of an old doorman who gets demoted because of his age. Deviating from the tragedy of reality, the film shows him catching a lucky break after inheriting a fortune from a Mexican millionaire.
Indulging in fantastic meta-commentary, the film’s title card says: “Here our story should really end, for in actual life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him, however, and provided quite an improbable epilogue.”
Primarily based on Goethe’s seminal exploration of the Faust legend but also drawing inspiration from other sources, Murnau conducts his own examination of the anthropocentric universe. A spectacular example of German Expressionism, the film follows the eponymous alchemist as he tries to make sense of the dialectics of the world.
Although it was a financial failure, Faust is now recognised as one of the best films to have been made in the silent era. One of the scenes also inspired Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia, marking a turning point in the tradition of animation.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
This 1927 masterpiece was Murnau’s American film debut after moving to the United States. Sunrise is a memorable commentary on the institution of marriage, featuring an illegitimate romance between a countryman and a city woman that subjects the man to all kinds of temptations.
The film won the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture at the first Academy Awards in 1929. Sunrise is also notable for being one of the first features to have a synchronised musical score and sound effects soundtrack.
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)
Murnau’s last film before his tragic demise, Tabu depicts the struggles of two lovers who cling to each other despite the external forces that want to tear them apart. Divided into two chapters, the film tries to figure out whether love can exist unhindered by placing the lovers in different societal frameworks.
For his brilliant work, cinematographer Floyd Crosby won an Academy Award and the film was preserved in the United States National Film Registry. Crosby funded the preservation of the film himself in order to keep it safe for future generations who might want to explore the genius of F.W. Murnau.