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Travel

Stahnsdorf and the search for F.W. Murnau's stolen skull

@SamWKemp

As its caretaker, Olaf Ihlefelt had come to know Stahnsdorf’s Southwest Cemetery as a place where very little was likely to change overnight. For decades, he had diligently tended its graves – planting bulbs in spring, cutting the long grass in summer, and sweeping away the rust-red leaves come autumn.

In all that time, the masonic landscape had remained utterly static. Indeed, Ihlefel was pretty convinced that these rows of tombs would continue to cast the same shadows until he himself was no longer living; that is until one July morning in 2015, when he wandered into the cemetery to find one of its grandest crypts desecrated. He looked into the pit and saw a coffin with its lid prized open. Inside lay the skeletal remains of one of Germany’s greatest silent filmmakers, F.W Murnau. As the musty stench rose to greet him, Ihlefelt turned away – wrist pressed against his nose and mouth. But when he peered down a second time, he noticed something quite strange: Murnau was missing his skull.

Murnau died not in Germany but in California, where he had managed to escape the Weimar republic and establish himself as one of the leading lights of Hollywood’s golden age. On March 10th, 1931, just a week before the release of his film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Murnau was driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in a rented Packard touring car. As his valet Eliazar navigated the pair along the winding coastline, the director alerted him to a truck that had unexpectedly veered onto the wrong lane. Swerving to avoid the vehicle, Eliazar hit an embankment, causing the car to overturn and throw the occupants onto the road. Murnau died the next day, having sustained severe head injuries.

After a service at the Hollywood Lutheran Church on March 19th, Murnau’s body was shipped over – Dracula style – to Germany, where he was buried in a cemetery twelve miles south of Berlin. Robert J. Flaherty, Emil Jannings, and Fritz Lang all attended the second ceremony, while Greta Garbo stayed in Hollywood and commissioned Murnau’s death mask, which she kept on her desk until she too passed away. For nearly 80 years, the director’s body lay beneath the soil while his tomb became a site of occult pilgrimage. Murnau was, of course, responsible for crafting one of the earliest and most influential horror films of all time. You may not have seen Nosferatu (1922) but you’ve certainly seen photos of its spindle-fingered protagonist, Count Orlock, played so wonderfully by Max Shreck. Today, the infamous Dracula adaptation still attracts hordes of devoted fans, many of whom visit Murnau’s grave to pay tribute to the man who bought vampires to the silver screen.

But, according to Olaf Ihlefelt, it wasn’t a group of film buffs who raided Murnau’s tomb that night in 2015. After informing the authorities, the caretaker inspected the grave a third time. On the ground, he found traces of candlewax, leading him to assert that Murnau’s skull was stolen by “Satanists” who had used it to perform some candle-lit ritual under the cover of darkness. Nearly seven years later, that skull is still missing.

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