F. W. Murnau


Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931) was a German film director of the silent era, one of the greatest masters of film expressionism.

One of his most famous works was Nosferatu, Symphony of Terror (1922), a free adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Although the film was not a commercial success due to copyright issues, it is considered a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema today. Murnau later directed The Last Man (1924), as well as an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust (1926). In 1926 he moved to Hollywood and made three films at Fox Studios: Sunrise (1927), The Four Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930). “Sunrise” was regarded by critics and directors as one of the best films of all time.

In 1931 Murnau went to Bora Bora to shoot the film Taboo (1931), which was planned as a co-production with Robert Flaherty, but because of disagreements Flaherty left the project and Murnau shot the film himself. A week before the premiere, he was involved in a car accident and died in a Santa Barbara hospital from his injuries.

Of the twenty-one films that Murnau made, eight are considered lost, and only a thirteen-minute fragment of Maritza (1922) has survived. Twelve films have survived in their entirety.

Family and Early Years

According to Robert Plumpe, Murnau’s brother, their ancestors traveled constantly and never stayed in one place longer than five or ten years.

…They moved constantly from village to town and from town to village. They came to Germany from Sweden, settling first somewhere in the West… Then they went east again. Our ancient ancestors were knights and peasants, officials, clergy and burgomasters. They settled somewhere, worked, produced something, and then, without waiting for the final results of their work, they set off again.

Murnau was born in Bielefeld, Westphalia, into the family of the textile manufacturer Heinrich Plumpe and his second wife Ottilia, a former teacher whose parents owned a brewery. Friedrich had two siblings, Robert and Bernhard, and two half-sisters, Ida and Anna. В 1891

With the outbreak of World War I in October 1914 he was sent as a volunteer to the 1st Infantry Guards Regiment in Potsdam. He fought on the Eastern Front near Riga. On August 7, 1915 he was promoted to lieutenant and appointed company commander. In 1916 he was transferred to the Luftwaffe and served in the A 281 flying division at Verdun. According to him, he was shot down eight times. In 1917, during a reconnaissance flight, lost in the fog, he landed on Swiss territory. He was held prisoner in Andermatt, then in Lucerne. In June 1918 he staged a play with prisoners of war at the Lucerne Municipal Theater. After the war he returned to Berlin. Emilie Tekla Ehrenbaum-Degele took him into her home in Grunewald and gave him the right to live for life. Her son Hans died in Russia in 1915.

Early works

In 1919, with Ernst Hoffman as producer and lead actor, Murnau directed his first film The Boy in Blue (another title was The Emerald of Death), the plot of which was inspired by the picture of the same name by the English portraitist Thomas Gainsborough and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. That same year, the film Satan, with Conrad Feydt in the title role, was produced under the artistic direction of Robert Vine. Feydt knew Murnau from his work at the Max Reinhardt Theater.

In 1920, Murnau began a collaboration with the film playwright Karl Mayer, who wrote for him the screenplay of The Hunchback and the Dancer. Hans Janowitz, Karl Mayer’s co-writer on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, based on the story The Strange Story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson, wrote the screenplay for the film Janus Head. To avoid legal conflicts, the virtuous Dr. Jekyll became Dr. Warren in it, and the villainous Mr. Hyde became O’Connor. This film finally cemented Conrad Feuydt’s reputation as an expressionist performer of demonic roles. Evening-Night-Morning was an adaptation of a detective story. The screenplay was written by the Munich writer Rudolf Schneider, with whom other projects were planned. Murnau continued his collaboration with Karl Mayer on The Road to Night, on Maritza by the nickname Madonna of smugglers, he worked again with Hans Janowitz as a screenwriter. In 1921 the producer Erich Pommer engaged him to work for the firm Decla-Bioscope, where he directed the film Fogeled Castle and experimented with light and shade for the first time.

Until the end of 1921, Murnau made ten feature films, five of which were played by Konrad Feydt. Of the ten films of the 1919-1921 period, only three have survived, seven are considered lost.

“Nosferatu, Symphony of Terror.”

At the beginning of 1921, the artist and producer Albin Grau, who had long harbored the idea of a film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, invited Murnau to direct, offering him 25,000 marks and a profit participation. When almost everything was ready to be filmed, Grau decided to ask the writer’s widow Florence Stocker for permission. Either because of anti-German sentiment or out of a reluctance to see her husband’s novel transformed into an expressionist film, the widow refused. Grau then asked screenwriter Henrik Galeen to move the action from London to the fictional German town of Wisborg and to change the names of the main characters. Filming began in July 1921 and took place mostly on location, which was quite unusual for German and especially expressionist cinema of those years. Murnau sketched out each scene and rhythmicized the actors’ performance with a metronome.

The title role in this fantasy based on Stoker’s novel was played by theater actor Max Schreck. Without much film experience before, he created one of the most famous screen images of a vampire. Nosferatu, Symphony of Terror, in many ways revolutionary for its time, brought Murnau worldwide fame.

In doing so, UFA as the largest distributor of the Weimar Republic refused to take the film in its program, and it came March 15, 1922 on the screens of independent cinemas. And then the film drew the attention of Florence Stocker. Joining the British Society of Authors, she hired a lawyer in Berlin and he prepared a claim against the Prana Film production company, which meanwhile had gone bankrupt or pretended to go bankrupt in order to avoid trial. The firm’s successors sold the film abroad. An out-of-court settlement in which Florence Stocker could have received £5,000 did not take place. In July 1925, the court ordered all copies of the film to be given to Florence Stocker or destroyed. This ruling applied to all of Europe. But many countries simply ignored it.

Murnau’s film gave birth to his own cinematic tradition, which continues to this day – its direct continuation was, for example, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu – Ghost of the Night (1979) and Elias Meridge’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000).


In 1922, Murnau put the film “Ghost” by the novel of the same name by Gerhart Hauptmann, using an innovative at the time the method of “subjective camera”, when some episodes were filmed as if through the eyes of the protagonist, and his visions were superimposed on reality. The impressionability of Lorenz Lubota, a talented but gutless poet, turned out to be his bane. Losing his sense of reality, he lost his moral core and became an accomplice to crime.

“The Last Man.”

In December 1924 Murnau’s chamber drama The Last Man with Emil Jannings as the aging doorman of Berlin’s Atlantic Hotel was released. Transferred to the men’s room service, he is forced to part with his livery, which was an expression of his social status. On the set of this film, Murnau and his cameraman Karl Freund “liberated” the film camera for the first time, that is, took it off the tripod and used various devices – fire ladders, cranes, wheels, rails or ropes – to set it in motion and even make it fly, which at the time signified the emancipation of cinema in relation to the theater. “The liberated camera” followed people and objects in motion, circling around them, taking the point of view of the characters and emphasizing their state of mind with one perspective or another. In this way it became, as Murnau demanded, the “pastel” of the filmmaker:

I wanted the camera to show shadows of completely new and unexpected feelings: in each of us there is an unconscious “I,” which in a moment of crisis strangely bursts out…

The moving camera combined with the virtuoso acting of Emil Jannings and the almost total absence of captions contributed to the great international success of this film.

Screenings of classics

Murnau then turned to film adaptations of the classics, staging with great scope “Tartuffe” (1926) and “Faust” (1926), the distribution of which did not bring the expected results. On “Tartuffe” he again collaborated with Erich Pommer, who was the producer of “The Last Man,” and screenwriter Karl Mayer turned the Molière comedy into a “film within a film.” “Faust” was based on the German legend of Dr. Faustus, as well as Christopher Marlo’s play and Goethe’s tragedy. By simplifying the action, Murnau created a bizarre phantasmagoria about the struggle of light and shadow, good and evil. A connoisseur of his work, the French director Eric Romer wrote:

In his film Faust, at the height of his career, Murnau was able to mobilize all the means that ensured his complete mastery of space. All forms – faces, objects such as landscapes and natural phenomena, snow, light, fire, clouds – were created or recreated according to his imagination on the basis of a precise knowledge of the way they affect him. Never before has cinema relied so little on chance.

“Faust” was the last film Murnau made for UVA.

In Hollywood.

In June 1926, at the invitation of American producer William Fox, Murnau went to Hollywood and in July he signed a four-year contract guaranteeing him two films a year:

I accepted Hollywood’s offer because I thought I still had a lot to learn, and America offered me new ways to realize my creative plans.

His first American film was “Sunrise” (1927) based on the novel “A Trip to Tilsit” by Herman Zuderman – the parable about a man who for the love of another woman tries to kill his wife. In 1929, at the first award ceremony of the American Academy Prize for 1927

Murnau’s subsequent films, Four Devils (1928) and The Townswoman (1930), came at the crisis stage of the transition to sound cinema and were also not a commercial success. In addition, the director experienced direct interference of the studio management in his work. In the film “Four Devils” the unhappy finale was remade. On The Townswoman, he was removed from directing. In both cases, sound options were produced without his involvement.


In 1929, disappointed with the working conditions in Hollywood, Murnau terminated his contract with Fox. After unsuccessful negotiations with UFA Studios in Berlin, he bought a sailing yacht, determined to make his next film with his savings and in accordance with his ideas.

In April 1929 on his yacht “Bali” Murnau went to Tahiti to prepare the film “Taboo”, which he intended to stage together with the American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. However, a conceptual disagreement arose between them: Flaherty favored documentary filming, while Murnau insisted on a combination of feature and documentary scenes. In the end, Flaherty withdrew from the project and Murnau directed the film himself.

In 1931, at the end of filming, he returned to Hollywood without a cent of money. In order to edit and voice the film, he had to go into debt. Paramount Studios was interested in the finished film and offered him a ten-year contract. Murnau decided to make several more films in Tahiti, including an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Taipi. Taboo premiered in New York on March 18, 1931, but after the director’s death.

On March 11, 1931, thirty kilometers north of Santa Barbara, Murnau was involved in a car accident. Fourteen-year-old Filipino Elazar S. Garcia (or Garcia Stevenson, as he was known) was driving his rented Packard at the time of the accident. While the chauffeur, Garcia, and even Pal the sheepdog escaped with a fright, Murnau sustained a serious injury to the back of his head and died of its effects at the Santa Monica Clinic.

Since Murnau’s homosexuality was never a secret, a rumor was started in Hollywood that he allegedly fondled the Filipino and even performed oral sex on him, which is why he failed to control the car. Because of these rumors, only 11 people came to say goodbye to the director on March 19, including Greta Garbo, the poet Berthold Firtel and his wife Zalka, George O’Brien, Herman Bing.

On March 31, Murnau’s embalmed body was transported to Germany. The funeral took place on April 13, 1931, at the Southwestern Cemetery in Stansdorf near Berlin. They were attended by Robert Flaherty, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Erich Pommer, Emil Jannings, and others. Fritz Lang and Karl Mayer gave farewell speeches.

On July 13, 2015, the director of the cemetery discovered that the family crypt, where the director’s brothers are also buried, had been opened and Murnau’s head stolen by unknown perpetrators. Traces of wax on the lid of the coffin of one of the Murnau brothers led the police to suspect occult motives for the crime. The remains of the director’s brothers were not disturbed. Despite the announced bounty, the head has still not been found.


  1. Мурнау, Фридрих Вильгельм
  2. F. W. Murnau
  3. 1 2 F. W. Murnau // filmportal.de — 2005.
  4. ^ I Cento Capolavori. Un secolo di grande cinema, vol. 2, supplemento al mensile Ciak, numero 4, aprile 2000, p. 48.
  5. ^ Lotte H. Eisner, Murnau. Vita e opere di un genio del cinema tedesco, Alet Edizioni, Padova, settembre 2010, pp. 198-199
  6. ^ Lotte H. Eisner, Murnau. Vita e opere di un genio del cinema tedesco, Alet Edizioni, Padova, settembre 2010, pp. 201-203
  7. ^ Lotte Eisner, Lo schermo demoniaco, Editori Riuniti, Roma 1981 (1955).
  8. ^ Bernardi, cit., pag. 132.
  9. ^ a b c “F. W. Murnau”. TCM. Archived from the original on July 21, 2015.
  10. a b c d e f g >«Grandes Diretores: F.W. Murnau». 18 de janeiro de 2016. Consultado em 18 de janeiro de 2016
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.