Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, Germany, 28 December 1888.
Educated in philology, University of Berlin; art history and literature,
University of Heidelberg.
Served in German army, from 1914; transferred to air force, interned in
Switzerland following crash landing, 1917.
Attended Max Reinhardt theater school, 1908, later joined company;
founder, with other Reinhardt school colleagues, Murnau Veidt
Filmgesellschaft, 1919; invited by William Fox to Hollywood, 1926;
returned to Germany, 1927; sailed to Tahiti with Robert Flaherty to
In auto accident, California, 11 March 1931.
Films as Director:
Der Knabe in Blau ( Der Todessmaragd ; The Boy in Blue )
Satanas ; Sehnsucht ( Bajazzo ); Der Bucklige und die Tanzerin ( The Hunchback and the Dancer ); Der Januskopf ( Schrecken ; Janus-Faced ); Abend . . . Nacht . . . Morgen
Der Gang in die Nacht ; Schloss Vogelöd ( Haunted Castle ); Nosferatu—Eine Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu the Vampire )
Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna ; Der Brennende Acker ( Burning Soil ); Phantom
Die Austreibung ( Driven from Home )
Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs ( The Grand Duke's Finances ); Der Letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh )
Tartüff ; Faust
Sunrise ( Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans )
Die zwolfte Stunde—Eine Nacht des Grauens ( Nosferatu the Vampire ; Nosferatu ) (adapted for sound); Our Daily Bread
Tabu (+ co-pr, co-sc)
By MURNAU: book—
Sunrise (Sonnenaufgang), Ein Drehbuch von Carl Mayer mit hand-schriftlichen Bemerkungen von Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau , German Institute for Film Studies, Wiesbaden, 1971.
By MURNAU: articles—
"The Ideal Picture Needs No Titles," in Theatre Magazine (New York), January 1928.
"Étoile du Sud," in La Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1931.
"Turia, an Original Story," and " Tabu ( Tabou ), a Story of the South Sea," with Robert Flaherty, in Film Culture (New York), no. 20, 1959.
On MURNAU: books—
Jameux, Charles, Murnau , Paris, 1965.
Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler , New York, 1966.
Eisner, Lotte, The Haunted Screen , Berkeley, California, 1969.
Eisner, Lotte, Murnau , Berkeley, California, 1973.
Huff, Theodore, An Index to the Films of F.W. Murnau , New York, 1976.
Petrie, Graham, Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America 1922–1931 , London, 1985.
Berg-Ganschow, Uta, and others, editors, F.W. Murnau 1888–1988 , Bielefeld, 1988.
Collier, Jo Leslie, From Wagner to Murnau: The Transposition of Romanticism from Stage to Screen , Ann Arbor, 1988.
Murnau , Lisbon, 1989.
Gehler, Fred, and Ullrich Kasten, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau , Augsburg, 1990.
On MURNAU: articles—
Josephson, Matthew, "F.W. Murnau—The German Genius of the Films," in Motion Picture Classic (New York), October 1966.
Domarchi, Jean, "Murnau," in Anthologie du cinéma , vol. 1, Paris, 1966.
Astruc, Alexandre, "Le Feu et la glace," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1952; in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), January 1966.
Wood, Robin, " Tabu ," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1971.
Dorr, J., "The Griffith Tradition," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1974.
"L'Aurore," special Murnau issue of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), June 1974.
"Per una ri-lettura critica di F.W. Murnau," special Murnau issue of Filmcritica (Rome), July 1974.
Castoro Cinema (Milan), special issue, no. 36, 1976.
Audibert, L., "Dossier: Le Pont traversé," in Cinématographe (Paris), January 1977.
Latil Le Dantec, M., "De Murnau à Rohmer: les pièges de la beauté," in two parts, in Cinématographe (Paris), January and February 1977.
Special Murnau issue of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), July/September 1977.
Mitry, Jean, and others, "Griffith, Murnau et les historiens," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 March 1978.
Gehler, F., "F.W. Murnau, Hollywood and die Südsee," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), May 1981.
Cardullo, B., " Der letzte Mann Gets the Last Laugh: F.W. Murnau's Comic Vision," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Fall 1981.
Murnau Section of Casablanca (Madrid), October 1981.
Elsaesser, Thomas, "Secret Affinities," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1988/89.
Maśnicki, Jerzy, "Randka z wampirem," in Kino (Warsaw), November 1998.
Walker, M., "1192 F.W. Murnau," in Film Dope (Nottingham), December 1991.
Koszarski, R., "Ernest Palmer on Frank Borzage and F.W. Murnau," in Griffithiana (Gemona), vol. 15, December 1992.
* * *
F.W. Murnau was studying with Max Reinhardt when the First World War began. He was called up for military service, and after achieving his lieutenancy, he was transferred to the air service, where he served as a combat pilot. But his plane was forced down in Switzerland, where he was interned for the duration. Through the German Embassy, however, he managed to direct several independent stage productions, and he began his lifelong dedication to the motion picture, compiling propaganda film materials and editing them. This experience made it possible for him to enter the reborn film industry after peace as a full-fledged director.
Murnau's first feature film as director was The Boy in Blue , produced in 1919, and he made twenty-one full-length features from that year until 1926, when Fox Studios brought him to Hollywood. Unfortunately, most of the pictures he made in his native country no longer exist except in fragmentary form. They are tempting to read about, especially items like Janus-Faced , a study of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, which he made in 1920 with Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi. Critics found it more artistic than the John Barrymore version of the story made at about the same time in Paramount's New York studios.
Extant today in a complete version is Nosferatu , which was subtitled "a symphony of horror." It was a more faithful version of Bram Stoker's Dracula than any made thereafter, and the film, starring the incredibly gaunt and frightening Max Schreck as the vampire, is still available.
The next Murnau film that is still viewable is The Last Laugh , which starred Emil Jannings. At the time of its release, it was noted as being a picture without subtitles, told almost completely in pantomime. Its real innovation was the moving camera, which Murnau used brilliantly. The camera went everywhere; it was never static. Audiences watched spellbound as the camera moved upstairs and down, indoors and out, although the film told only the simple story of a proud commissionaire reduced in his old age to menial work as a lavatory attendant. The camera records, nevertheless, a very real world in an impressionistic way. In fact, Murnau, because of his skill with the moving camera, was generally known as the Great Impressionist, for he gave a superb impression of actual reality.
That title fit Murnau even more aptly in his next two features, both of which also starred Emil Jannings. They are Tartuffe , a screen adaption of Moliere's black comedy, in which Lil Dagover and Werner Krauss were also featured. It is topped by what must be the most definitive film version of Goethe's Faust. The film starred Jannings as Mephistopheles, with the handsome Swedish favorite, Gosta Ekman, in the title role; Camilla Horn as Marguerite; the great Parisian star Yvette Guilbert as Marthe; and a young William Dieterle as Valentine. Again, the camera not only moved, it soared, especially in the sequence where Faust is shown the world which will be his if he sells his soul to the devil. Murnau was a master of light and shadow, and his work is always brilliantly choreographed as it moves from lightness to the dark.
It came as no surprise when in 1926 Murnau was invited to Hollywood, where the red carpet at Fox was unrolled for him. He was allowed to bring his cameraman, writers, and other craftsmen to work with him, and his initial feature was called Sunrise , subtitled "a song of two human beings." The two stars were Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, playing a young farm couple who make their first trip to the big city, which was constructed on the Fox lot, so that Murnau and his camera could follow them everywhere indoors and out of doors and onto a moving streetcar. Again, the story was very simple, adapted from a Hermann Suderman novel, A Trip to Tilsit , and simply proved that real love will always be triumphant.
Sunrise was highly praised by all critics, and was one of three pictures which brought Janet Gaynor an Academy Award as Best Actress in the 1927–28 year. Quite naturally, awards also went to cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss and to interior decorator Harry Oliver, while Sunrise was given a special award for its Artistic Quality of Production, a category never again specified.
For all that, Sunrise was not a box-office success, and the studio moved in to supervise Murnau closely on his next two productions. Four Devils was a circus story of four young aerialists that gave Murnau's camera a chance to fly with them from one performing trapeze to another. All prints of Four Devils are unfortunately lost, which is a fate common to most of the last great silent films. Murnau began shooting on his final film at Fox, called Our Daily Bread , with Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan, but he was not allowed to finish the picture. The overwhelming popularity of the talking screen was allowed to flaw it, for the only version of it now shown is called City Girl , and is only effective when it is recognizably silent and all Murnau. As a part-talkie, the film is crude and not at all Murnau.
Murnau then allied himself with Robert Flaherty, and the two men journeyed to the South Seas to make Tabu. Flaherty, however, withdrew, and Tabu is pure Murnau; some praise it as his greatest film. Murnau returned to California and was on the eve of signing at Paramount, which treated directors like Mamoulian, Lubitsch, and von Sternberg very kindly in their talking debuts. Unfortunately, Murnau lost his life in a motor accident on the Pacific Coast highway. He was only forty-two years old at the time, and after the success of Tabu , a new fame might have been his.