F. W. Murnau

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F. W. Murnau
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe
(1888-12-28)December 28, 1888
Bielefeld, Province of Westphalia, German Empire
Died March 11, 1931(1931-03-11) (aged 42)
Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
Occupation Film director
Years active 1919–1931
Height 6'11" (2.10 m)

Friedrich Wilhelm "F. W." Murnau (born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe; December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931) Murnau was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Ibsen plays he had seen at the age of 12, and became a friend of director Max Reinhardt. During World War I he served as a company commander at the eastern front and was in the German air force, surviving several crashes without any severe injuries.

Arguably Murnau's best known work is his 1922 film Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Although not a commercial success due to copyright issues with Stoker's novel, the film was considered a masterpiece of Expressionist artwork. He was also known for his work with the 1924 film The Last Laugh and his interpretation of Goethe's Faust (1926). He later immigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox Studio and made three films, including Sunrise (1927), 4 Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930).

In 1931 Murnau travelled to Bora Bora to make the film Tabu with documentary film pioneer Robert J. Flaherty, who left after artistic disputes with Murnau, who had to finish the movie on his own. A week prior to the opening of the film Tabu, Murnau died in a Santa Barbara hospital from injuries he had received in an automobile accident that occurred along the Pacific Coast Highway near Rincon Beach, south of Santa Barbara.

Of the 21 films Murnau directed, 8 have been completely lost, leaving 12 surviving in their entirety. One reel of his feature Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna survives.

Early years[edit]

Murnau was born in Bielefeld, Province of Westphalia, and grew up in Kassel from the time he was seven.[1] He had two brothers, Bernhard and Robert, and two stepsisters, Ida and Anna. Murnau's mother Otilie Volbracht was the second wife of his father Heinrich Plumpe, the owner of a cloth-factory in the north-western part of Germany. Their villa was often turned into a stage for little plays, directed by Murnau, who already read books of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Ibsen plays at the age of 12.[2][3] He took the name "Murnau" from the town of Murnau am Staffelsee. The 6'11" (210 cm) director was said to have an icy, imperious disposition and an obsession with film.[4] He was openly gay.[5]

Murnau studied philology at the University in Berlin and later art-history and literature in Heidelberg, where director Max Reinhardt saw him at a students' performance and decided to invite him to his actor-school. He soon became a friend of Franz Marc, Else Lasker-Schüler and Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele. In World War I Murnau served as a company commander at the eastern front.[2] Murnau joined the German air force in northern France two years later and survived eight crashes without severe injuries. He landed in Switzerland where he was interned and won a prize for the best production-concept.


After World War I ended, Murnau returned to Germany where he soon established his own film studio with actor Conrad Veidt. His first feature-length film, The Boy in Blue, a drama inspired by the famous Thomas Gainsborough painting, was released in 1919. He explored the popular theme of dual personalities, much like Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in 1920's Der Janus-Kopf starring Veidt and Bela Lugosi.[6]

F.W. Murnau shooting a film in 1920.

Murnau's most famous film is Nosferatu, a 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula for which Stoker's widow sued for copyright infringement. Murnau lost the lawsuit and all prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed, but bootleg prints survived. The vampire, played by German stage actor Max Schreck, resembled a rat which was known to carry the plague. The origins of the word are from Stoker's novel, where it is used by the Romanian townsfolk to refer to Count Dracula and presumably, other undead.

Nearly as important as Nosferatu in Murnau's filmography was The Last Laugh ("Der Letzte Mann", German "The Last Man") (1924), written by Carl Mayer (a very prominent figure of the Kammerspielfilm movement) and starring Emil Jannings. The film introduced the subjective point of view camera, where the camera "sees" from the eyes of a character and uses visual style to convey a character's psychological state. It also anticipated the cinéma vérité movement in its subject matter. The film also used the "unchained camera technique", a mix of tracking shots, pans, tilts, and dolly moves. Also, unlike the majority of Murnau's other works, The Last Laugh is considered a Kammerspielfilm with Expressionist elements. Unlike expressionist films, Kammerspielfilme are categorized by their chamber play influence, involving a lack of intricate set designs and story lines / themes regarding social injustice towards the working classes.

Murnau's last German film was the big budget Faust (1926) with Gösta Ekman as the title character, Emil Jannings as Mephisto and Camilla Horn as Gretchen. Murnau's film draws on older traditions of the legendary tale of Faust as well as on Goethe's classic version. The film is well known for a sequence in which the giant, winged figure of Mephisto hovers over a town sowing the seeds of plague.

Nosferatu (music by Hans Erdmann) and Faust (music by Werner R. Heymann) were two of the first films to feature original film scores.


F.W. Murnau with Henri Matisse at Tahiti in 1930.

Murnau immigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox Studio and made Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), a movie often cited by film scholars as one of the greatest films of all time.[7] Released in the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system (music and sound effects only), Sunrise was not a financial success, but received several Oscars at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. In winning the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production it shared what is now the Best Picture award with the movie Wings.

Murnau's next two films, the (now lost) 4 Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930), were modified to adapt to the new era of sound film and were not well received. Their poor receptions disillusioned Murnau, and he quit Fox to journey for a while in the South Pacific.[1]

Together with documentary film pioneer Robert J. Flaherty, Murnau travelled to Bora Bora to make the film Tabu in 1931. Flaherty left after artistic disputes with Murnau who had to finish the movie on his own. The movie was censored in the United States for images of bare-breasted Polynesian women.[citation needed] The film was originally shot by cinematographer Floyd Crosby as half-talkie, half-silent, before being fully restored as a silent film — Murnau's preferred medium.


Grave and bust, by Ludwig Manzel, in the Stahnsdorf Southwestern Cemetery
Murnau's memorial plaque in Berlin.

A week prior to the opening of the film Tabu, Murnau drove up the coast from Los Angeles, California in a hired Rolls Royce. The young driver, a 14-year-old Filippino servant,[8] crashed the car against an electric pole. Murnau hit his head and died in a hospital the next day, in nearby Santa Barbara,[1][9] before the premiere of his last film.

Murnau was entombed in Southwest Cemetery in Stahnsdorf (Südwest-Kirchhof Stahnsdorf) near Berlin. Only 11 people attended the funeral. Among them were Robert J. Flaherty, Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang, who delivered the eulogy. Garbo also commissioned a death mask of Murnau, which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.[10]

Derivative works[edit]

In 2000, director E. Elias Merhige released Shadow of the Vampire, a fictionalization of the making of Nosferatu. Murnau is portrayed by John Malkovich. In the film, Murnau is so dedicated to making the film genuine that he actually hires a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play Count Orlok.


Original Title English Title Year Notes
Der Knabe in Blau The Boy in Blue / Emerald of Death 1919 Lost film, minor fragments survive
Satanas 1920 Lost film, minor fragments survive
Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin The Hunchback and the Dancer 1920 Lost film
Der Janus-Kopf Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde / The Head of Janus 1920 Lost film
Abend – Nacht – Morgen Evening – Night – Morning 1920 Lost film
Sehnsucht Desire: The Tragedy of a Dancer 1921 Lost film
Der Gang in die Nacht Journey Into the Night 1921
Schloß Vogelöd The Haunted Castle / Castle Vogeloed 1921
Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna Marizza, called the Smuggler Madonna 1922 Partially Lost film, Only one reel survives
Der brennende Acker The Burning Soil 1922
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror 1922
Phantom 1922
Die Austreibung The Expulsion 1923 Lost film
Comedy of the Heart 1924 Writer only
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs The Finances of the Grand Duke 1924
Der letzte Mann The Last Laugh 1924
Herr Tartüff Tartuffe 1925
Faust 1926 Last German film
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans 1927
4 Devils 1928 Generally regarded as one of Murnau's best works and is a highly sought-after lost film
City Girl 1930
Tabu 1931


  1. ^ a b c "F.W. Murnau". TCM. [dead link]
  2. ^ a b "Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau". internettrash.com.  Archived from March 24, 2005.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ F.W. Murnau. Eisner, Lotte H. (1964). Le Terrain Vague. ASIN: B0029LAF1M
  5. ^ Atkinson, Michael (26 January 2001). "A bloody disgrace". Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2014. 
  6. ^ "F. W. Murnau Biography". Biography.com. p. 1. Retrieved June 19, 2012. 
  7. ^ http://us.share.geocities.com/toddmagos/polls22.htm[dead link] MASTER LIST][dead link] at us.share.geocities.com
  8. ^ Friederich Wilhelm Murnau. Nosferatumovie.com. Accessed from August 8, 2012.
  9. ^ "F. W. Murnau Killed in Coast Auto Crash.". New York Times. March 12, 1931. Retrieved 2009-01-22. Movie Director Planned to Go Home to Germany After Making South Seas Film. F.W. Murnau, German and American moving picture director, died this morning in a local hospital from injuries received in an automobile accident yesterday afternoon on the Coast Highway north of here. 
  10. ^ Eisner, Lotte H. (1973). Murnau. University of California Press. p. 222. ISBN 978-0-520-02425-0. 

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