Friederich Wilhelm Murnau
born Dec. 28, 1889, Bielefeld, Germany
as Friederich Wilhelm Plumpe
died March 11, 1931, Hollywood
Murnau had two brothers and two stepsisters. His mother, Otilie was the second wife of his father Heinrich Plumpe. The family made their home in Westfalia, a small village in north west Germany. It is said that Murnau was well read as a child. He was already familiar with Shakespeare, Nietzche, and Ibsen before he was 12. He also fond of putting on plays to entertain his neighbors.
Apparently on a path towards a teaching career, he studied Philology and later Art History at the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg respectively. One of his earliest influences was the German theater director Max Reinhart. Reinhart was so impressed with young Murnau that he invited him to his drama school.
He saw a lot of active duty in World War I including company commander on the Eastern front and a stint in the German Air Force. He survived many crashes and an internment in Switzerland where he was able to keep himself creatively occupied with small productions. The wartime also allowed him to flex his film making muscle with propaganda films.
By 1919, the war was over and Murnau turned his attention back to dramatic works. His first few films included Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920, based on the Robert Lewis Stevenson book) and The Haunted Castle (1921). Although he was starting to explore Expressionism in these early films it was not until the 1922 Nosferatu that he made his artistic breakthrough.
Nosferatu was not an immediate success due in part to copyright issues and the already difficult financial times facing Prana-films [link to Nosferatu background]. Despite all this, Nosferatu was a masterpiece of Expressionist artwork. His use of superimposed images, negative images, and the oddly angled castle architecture in Nosferatu set the stage for the more dreamlike images in the Last Laugh (1924). It was this film that finally got the attention of the early Hollywood film moguls such as William Fox. He remained in Germany for a few more years to make Tartuffe in 1925 and Faust in 1926.
Finally Murnau was offered a four year contract in Hollywood which saw the release of Sunrise in 1927, Four Devils in 1928 and City Girl in 1930. Sunrise yielded several Academy Awards including Cinematography, Best Actress (Janet Gaynor), and "Unique and Artistic Picture."
But Murnau was frustrated by the Hollywood system and the lack of control he now had over his artistry. He eventually broke his contract with Fox to begin a ten year contract with Paramount. Sadly, his next film, Tabu also turned out to be his last. He was killed in a car accident before the film premiered in March of 1931. The car he was riding in was being driven by his 14 year old Philippine servant.
Murnau's Contribution To Filmmaking
It might seem a paradox that an Expressionist like Murnau was so adamantly opposed to the overuse of special effects. But his creative use of negatives in Nosferatu and blurry dreamlike images in The Last Laugh were appropriate to the feeling he wanted fo convey. He was not strictly an Expressionist. His background in art gave him a stylistic pallet which included influences from the Romantic and Impressionist movements. He used stylistic effects only where necessary to blur the line between reality and imagination. This was a fine line for him which he could easily cross at any moment. He was quoted as saying:
"I like the reality of things, but not without the fantasy - they must dovetail. Is that not so with life, with human reactions and emotions? We have our thoughts and also our deeds."
As Murnau's skill with the camera improved, his reliance on intertitles diminished. He felt that a good story could be told without titles. This is easy to see in comparing the title heavy Nosferatu with The Last Laugh which told it's story through images and acting. It's ironic that his last film Tabu, which was technically a talkie relied very little on sound and had almost no dialogue.
So if necessity is the mother of invention then Murnau's contributions to film making were borne out of the limitations of the silent era. While D.W. Griffith was writing the "rules" of film making, Murnau was already showing us how to break them. His contributions to the grammar of film are still evident in today's films. But there are many filmmakers who have not learned. This is the difference between commercial filmmaking and artistic contribution. Sadly many of his films have not surrvived. But fortunately through the work of Film Preservation Associates and others his work will remain with us for many years. And even though the original negatives and many prints were destroyed Nosferatu survives as the greatest expression of a truly original artist.
Carlos Garza © 2000 Silent Orchestra