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Once called "the greatest poet the screen has ever known" by French film theorist and director Alexandre Astruc, German director F.W. Murnau did more than any of his contemporaries to liberate the cinema from theatrical and literary conventions, achieving a seamless narrative fluency by freeing the camera to discover varied perspectives in the medium's fledgling stages. Criticized for facile, underdeveloped characters, Murnau was more a painter than a novelist, his art more concerned with mood and rhythm than whether his characters were dimensional. He was a master chiaroscurist, brilliantly orchestrating a world moving between lightness and shadows, exemplified by the great "Nosferatu" (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and his most famous film. Though nine of his 21 films were lost to the sands of time, Murnau was still able to cast a great shadow over cinema history, rejecting the rigid expressionism prevailing in Germany. Rather than obsessing over angles for a fixed camera, he made his camera soar, particularly in "The Last Laugh" (1924), arguably his most fully realized picture. Murnau gained international prominence because of that film and his equally innovative...
Once called "the greatest poet the screen has ever known" by French film theorist and director Alexandre Astruc, German director F.W. Murnau did more than any of his contemporaries to liberate the cinema from theatrical and literary conventions, achieving a seamless narrative fluency by freeing the camera to discover varied perspectives in the medium's fledgling stages. Criticized for facile, underdeveloped characters, Murnau was more a painter than a novelist, his art more concerned with mood and rhythm than whether his characters were dimensional. He was a master chiaroscurist, brilliantly orchestrating a world moving between lightness and shadows, exemplified by the great "Nosferatu" (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and his most famous film. Though nine of his 21 films were lost to the sands of time, Murnau was still able to cast a great shadow over cinema history, rejecting the rigid expressionism prevailing in Germany. Rather than obsessing over angles for a fixed camera, he made his camera soar, particularly in "The Last Laugh" (1924), arguably his most fully realized picture. Murnau gained international prominence because of that film and his equally innovative adaptation of "Faust" (1926), which prompted a move to Hollywood. There he directed the great "Sunrise" (1927), deemed the most beautiful movie ever made. Having won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, Murnau seemed assured of long success in Hollywood. But his untimely death in 1931 just prior to his biggest box office success, "Tabu" (1931), cut short his promise. Still, Murnau's innovative skill with the moving camera helped write the language of modern cinema.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe on Dec. 28, 1888 in Bielefeld, Germany, Murnau was raised in Kassel from the time he was seven. He adopted the last name Murnau, which was taken from a small town in Bavaria, for his stage debut with Max Reinhardt's Deutches Theatre, where he performed part time while studying literature and history at the University of Heidelberg. Having made his debut for Reinhardt in a production of "Das Mirakel" (1909), Murnau went to work for the company fulltime after graduating while also learning the ropes behind the scenes as an assistant director. But his career was interrupted once World War I broke out across Europe. Murnau first served in the infantry on the Eastern front and later graduated to the Air Force, only to survive seven crashes before losing his way in the fog and landing in neutral Switzerland, where he remained interned for the duration of the war. The Swiss did allow him to act in and direct theatrical productions, as well as to assist in the compilation of propaganda films for the German Embassy in Bern. That latter experience helped convince Murnau that his future lay in directing moving pictures.
Back in Berlin post-war, Murnau formed the production company Murnau Veidt Filmgesellschaft with actor Conrad Veidt and other colleagues from his Reinhardt days, quickly turning out his first feature "Der Knabe in Blau" ("The Boy in Blue") (1919), a Gothic melodrama inspired by the Thomas Gainsborough painting. Murnau and his associates proceeded to the more ambitious "Satanas" (1919), a three-episode film modeled after D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) in which Lucifer (Veidt) contemptuously manipulates human affairs in Egypt, Renaissance Italy and revolutionary Russia. Scripted by Robert Wiene, the film teamed Murnau for the first of nine times with cinematographer Karl Freund. "Der Bucklige und die Tanzerin" ("The Hunchback and the Dancer") (1920) marked the first of seven collaborations with scriptwriter Carl Mayer, a key figure in German silent cinema and perhaps the first writer to think wholly in cinematic terms. Those films and the intriguing "Der Januskoph" ("The Janus Head") (1920), based without acknowledgment on Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and starring Veidt in the dual role, are among the director's films that were lost to time and improper storage. In fact, of his total output of 21 films, only 12 survived, the earliest being "Der Gang in Die Nacht" ("The Gang in the Night") (1920).
Murnau's gift for producing stunning visuals was also filled with a certain naturalism normally associated with Swedish film. This influence tempered the extreme German expressionism characterized by absolute studio control over films almost forced to display a strict sense of narrative structure and moral certainty. His films may have lacked the dogmatic self-confidence of his fellow German directors, but he showed his own brand of courage filming his first masterpiece, "Nosferatu" (1922). Most German horror films of the period emulated the studio-bound style of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) and its distorted, expressionistic sets. But Murnau filmed his unauthorized version of the Dracula story on location, in rugged mountain landscapes and on northern streets, proving he could photograph the real world and yet invest it with a variety of poetic, imaginative and subjective qualities. Meanwhile, because the production company, Prana Film, failed to obtain rights to the novel from Bram Stoker's estate, they were compelled to change "vampire" to Nosferatu and Count Dracula to Count Orlok. After the film's release, Stoker's estate sued Prana, forcing it into bankruptcy, while having the court order all prints destroyed. But since the film had already been distributed around the world, such a task proved to be impossible, leaving the art of cinema better for it.
Murnau made three films with Fritz Lang's wife Thea von Harbou as scenarist: "Phantom" (1922), based on a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann, "Die Austreibung" ("The Expulsion") (1923), adapted from a play by Gerhart's brother Karl and the last of Murnau's lost films, and "Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs" ("The Finances of the Grand Duke") (1923), the director's sole attempt at an original comedy. Possibly due to the influence of von Harbou, "Phantom" conformed more closely to the expressionistic conventions of the day than any other surviving Murnau film; its most striking sequences refracted through the distorting prism of the protagonist's (Alfred Abel) crazed perception. On the other hand, "The Finances of the Grand Duke," a lumbering farce filmed on the Dalmatian coast and performed by most of the cast at a high level of misplaced energy, exposed both Murnau and von Harbou as ill-equipped for comedy. Also at the time of "Nosferatu," Murnau directed "Der Brennende Acker" ("The Burning Earth") (1922), which represented an initial fascination with a theme he would refine in later films: individuals cut off from some form of primal innocence and releasing dark forces as they experience forbidden emotional and physical depths.
Murnau's next effort, "Der Letzte Mann" ("The Last Laugh") (1924), which reunited him with writer Carl Mayer and cinematographer Karl Freund, was arguably his most complete realization of a preconceived idea and firmly established his reputation internationally. Shot entirely in the studio with sets by Robert Herlith and Walter Rohrig, the film attained an unprecedented degree of camera mobility and camera subjectivity, telling the story of an old doorman (Emil Jannings) demoted to washroom attendant at a high-end hotel purely in visual terms and dispensing almost entirely with inter-titles - title cards in silent films that represented dialogue. Mounting the camera on a bicycle, fixing it to his stomach, hurling it through the air attached to a scaffolding and moving it forward on a rubber-wheeled trolley of his own design were some of the methods Freund employed to translate the ideas of Murnau and Mayer to film, transforming the camera from a mere recorder of events to an active part of the narrative. Later deemed a masterpiece in the Murnau canon, "The Last Laugh" was hailed as one of the finest films ever made upon its release and revolutionized motion picture photography. Hollywood could not help but notice.
Murnau would make two more German films, "Tartuffe" (1926) and "Faust" (1926), allowing the former's elements of costume and set design to thoroughly dominate his version of the Moliere play at the expense of the characters. His addition of a modern-day prologue and epilogue further hamstrung the project, so that despite its sumptuous look, it had a very un-Moliere feel about it. He fared better with Goethe's "Faust," which of all his films aroused the most critical acclaim. The film superbly measured up to the metaphysical nature of its theme, particularly in its prologue in heaven, described by some as one of the most poignant images of German Expressionism ever created. Murnau further cemented his status as a cinematic innovator with his ingenious photographing of Mephistopheles' flight over the town bearing the curse of the black plague, an effect that required Emil Jannings to hang suspended for three hours, his black cape billowing from the force of three electric fans, with soot being ejected from a propeller and enveloping the miniature village below. A sweeping fantasy full of memorable images and well-acted performances, "Faust" - and not "Nosferatu" - was arguably Murnau's great masterpiece.
"Faust" turned out to be Murnau's last German film. Producer William Fox brought the director to the United States and granted him an unprecedented degree of artistic control over his first project, "Sunrise" (1927), often referred to as the most German film ever made in Hollywood, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Murnau and his designer, Rochus Gliese, took full advantage of their carte blanche, constructing elaborate country and city sets that covered 20 acres of studio lot, around which the camera prowled and glided even more relentlessly than in "The Last Laugh." Mayer provided the script, adapted from Hermann Sudermann's A Trip to Tilsit, emphasizing the archetypal, mythic nature of the three main characters by calling them simply The Man (George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). Infatuated by The Woman from the City, The Man is urged by her to murder his wife and make it appear as an accidental drowning. When he fails to go through with it, The Wife guesses his intentions and flees, forcing him to pursue and win back her love. The film was a perfect marriage of naturalistic acting with a pictorially expressionistic dream landscape that was seemingly real and surreal at the same time.
"Sunrise" was an artistic triumph that earned three Academy Awards, including the first Best Picture Oscar - then called Unique and Artistic Picture - while being hailed as one of the most important movies ever made. At the box office, however, "Sunrise" failed to recoup its investment. Consequently, Fox had a heavy hand in Murnau's two subsequent pictures, releasing them in forms very different from the director's original intentions. Mayer's script for "Four Devils" (1928), adapted from a novel by Hermann Bang, had one of the two male acrobats seduced by a vampire to the despair of his female partner and the couple tragically falling to their deaths at picture's end. In the studio-imposed happy ending, the female acrobat falls alone, sustaining minor injuries, and her partner begs for forgiveness. Murnau next bought an Oregon farm with studio money to shoot the proposed "Our Daily Bread" on location. An 88-minute silent version existed that represented Murnau's true vision, featuring a breathtakingly romantic tracking shot through the ripe wheat. But the film - renamed "City Girl" (1930), a title Murnau despised - was hastily converted into a talkie by Fox while containing footage shot by another director. The film opened to poor box office and remained an indelible stain on Murnau's otherwise sterling résumé.
Disillusioned with Fox, Murnau broke his contract with the producer and teamed with documentarian Robert Flaherty to make a movie in Tahiti, signing a new deal with the newly-established Colorart company. When Colorart went bankrupt, Murnau financed "Tabu" (1931) out of his own pocket, giving him final say over the film's content. Losing the battle of artistic wills, Flaherty left the picture amicably and later secured money from Paramount for its completion and the commission of an original score. Though Flaherty received credit as co-writer and co-director, "Tabu" is the realization of Murnau's desire to impose a fictional plot and European cultural values on the Polynesian material. Director loosed his camera on his new-found paradise, the simple plot sometimes lost amidst the idyllic landscape. Made independently from the Hollywood system, "Tabu" proved to be the sole box office hit of Murnau's American career. But the great director did not live to see its success. A week prior to its opening, Murnau had driven up the coast from Los Angeles in a hired Rolls Royce, choosing his driver more for his appealing looks than his driving ability - the director lived openly as a gay man in a time when such a lifestyle was, at best, taboo. In fact, Murnau had always viewed America as a promised land of sorts, where he could practice his homosexuality without fear of Germany's punitive penal code. It was his poor choice in drivers that doomed him to an early death as the car crashed on March 11, 1931, killing only him among its passengers. Murnau was about to embark on a 10-year contract with Paramount where he might have done more for American film than did his fellow countrymen Fritz Lang or Ernst Lubitsch. He was 42 years old.
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