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F.W. Murnau (1888 - 1931)

Related: director - German Expressionism

Contemporaries (film directors): Erich von Stroheim - Walter Ruttmann - Abel Gance - Jean Cocteau - Fritz Lang

Contemporaries (other): T. S. Eliot - Hans Richter

Films: Nosferatu - (1922)

Count Orlok from Nosferatu (1922)

Murnau died in an automobile accident in Santa Barbara, California on March 11, 1931. The car was driven by Murnau's fourteen-year old Filipino valet Garcia Stevenson, and it was widely rumored (as written by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon) that Murnau was performing fellatio on the young driver at the time of the accident. Murnau was entombed in Berlin. Robert Flaherty, Emil Jannings and Greta Garbo attended the funeral, and Fritz Lang delivered the funeral speech. [May 2006]


Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (December 28, 1888 - March 11, 1931) was one of the most influential directors of the silent film era. (His actual birth name was Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe.)

He was one of a number of German film directors to take part in the expressionist movement that took root in German cinema during the 1920s, and he directed a number of movies that were influential and remain wildely seen among film scholars today. Much of Murnau's output from the silent era has been lost, and only a few of his films survive today; film scholars acknowledge them as masterpieces.

Murnau's most famous film is Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula that caused Stoker's estate to sue for copyright infringement. Murnau lost the lawsuit and all prints of the film were ordered destroyed, but bootleg prints were stored and preserved over time, so that Nosferatu is widely available in the present era. The film inspired Werner Herzog to remake the film in 1979.

Nearly as important as Nosferatu in Murnau's filmography was The Last Laugh (1925), written by Carl Mayer and starring Emil Jannings. Often voted second greatest film of all time by international critics' polls, 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 cinema verite movement in its subject matter.

Murnau emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox Studio and made the 1920s-era fable Sunrise - a movie often cited by film scholars as one of the greatest films of all time. It was a success and it received several Oscars at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927 (though the movie Wings won Best Picture). However, Murnau's next two pictures, Four Devils and City Girl, were modified to adapt to the new era of sound film (Four Devils has been completely lost), and they were not well received as a result. Their poor reception disillusioned Murnau, and he quit Fox to journey for a while in the South Pacific.

Murnau's travels abroad resulted in the film Tabu, which was censored in America because it showed images of bare-breasted "native" Polynesian women. Tabu would be Murnau's last film, as he died in an automobile accident in 1931. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F.W._Murnau [Oct 2004]

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) - F.W. Murnau

  1. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) - F.W. Murnau [Amazon.com]

    Conceived by two master filmmakers, but essentially made by only one, Tabu is the last great silent film (released four years into the talkie era). Few classics have had a more fraught history, starting with the dicey notion of combining the radically different approaches of documentarist Robert Flaherty and supernaturalist F.W. Murnau. After selecting the South Seas locations, collaborating on the story, and doing some preliminary photography, Flaherty withdrew, leaving Murnau to realize this tale of forbidden love and implacable retribution in an earthly paradise. The results, ravishing to behold, complete a spiritual trilogy begun with Nosferatu (1921-22) and Sunrise (1927), Murnau's other films of young couples drawn asunder by phantoms. Floyd Crosby won an Academy AwardŽ for his cinematography. The director himself was killed in a car wreck just before his film was released. All the more tragic that Murnau's original, uncut version was never seen till Milestone Film & Video's restoration in 1990. --Richard T. Jameson

    Filmed entirely in Tahiti, "Tabu" represents an unusual collaboration between legendary directors F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise) and Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North). Two lovers are doomed by a tribal edict decreeing that the girl is "tabu" to all men. While the lovers' flight from judgment and the ultimate power of the tabu are reminiscent of Murnau's expressionist films, "Tabu" is all open air and sunlight, sparkling on the ocean and glistening on the beautiful young bodies of the native men and women. Now available completely uncensored and restored by UCLA, this cinematic landmark is one of the most gorgeous black and white films ever made, and was the 1931 Academy Award winner for Best Cinematography.

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