December 28, 1888– F. W. Murnau:
“I think films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles’ or, as I prefer to call them ‘dramatic angles’. They help photograph the thought.”
German Expressionist Cinema is a subject straying rather far from my interests or intellectual enthusiasm. If not for six semesters of Film History and Theory while attending a university 45+ years ago, I wouldn’t be able to even have a jumping off place for this column. Well, I do have another connection; F.W. Murnau is responsible for one of the most original films I have ever experienced in my long film-going life.
Born in Germany into a wealthy family, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau seems to have been an especially decent, disciplined professional, a gay aesthete, and an insecure artist who saw plenty of action as a combat pilot in World War I. He was captured behind enemy lines and held as a POW in Switzerland for the remainder of the war. Murnau was allowed to stage plays while he was a captive in the camp.
When he finally was allowed to return to Germany, Murnau became an innovative theatre director and propaganda editor. He broke into filmmaking in 1919 and he is now considered a major innovator in the German Expressionist Movement. Murnau made nine silent films in the three years prior to presenting his classic Nosferatu in 1922.
Nosferatu was a giant leap in the film world. It is an experimental, moody, fluid nightmare of a film that plays today like a dark degenerate dream. It is really the first Horror film masterpiece. The film was an unauthorized spin on Bram Stoker‘s Gothic 1897 novel, Dracula. It stars Max Schreck as a particularly gruesome vampire. Subtitled: A Symphony Of Horror, the film became the model for the vampire films that came after it. It was revolutionary for its use of actual film locations. The making of this landmark film became the inspiration for the frightening, compelling, and funny Shadow Of The Vampire (2000) with John Malkovich playing Murnau and featuring an excellent performance by Willem Dafoe as Schreck.
Shadow Of The Vampire covers the story of the creation of Nosferatu and its aftermath. You see, Murnau was sued by Stoker’s widow, with the court ruling against Murnau and ordering all copies of the film to be destroyed. But, because Nosferatu had already been released and was playing in theatres, a few copies survived. Film fans are lucky that we still have it.
It was in those film classes that I first experienced Nosferatu and his film version of Goethe‘s Faust (1926). Murnau is one of the first directors to reveal that moving the camera in conjunction with the action and the locale was an act of magical force, and his nighttime cityscapes and looming demonic visions have stayed in my imagination 40 years later.
Murnau was an openly gay man and the idea of working in Hollywood seemed better to him than dealing with the German government. Fox Studios signed Murnau to a contract in 1926 and gave him unprecedented creative control. Murnau took a minor, trite story about love, marriage, and betrayal subtitled A Song Of Two Humans and crafted a true American film masterpiece, Sunrise (1927). I think it is one of most beautiful films ever made. It has George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor playing a naive rural married couple, and Margaret Livingston as the big city woman who seduces the husband. The elaborate sets for Sunrise were constructed on the Fox lot and stretched over 20 acres.
Anything but Gothic, Sunrise is a rhapsodic, romantic work with a simplistic story and a rather conservative message. But, Murneu’s camera simply soars. Sunrise is a breathtaking cinematic achievement. The film won three Oscars at the very first Academy Awards presentation, including Best Picture and Best Actress. But, its failure at the box-office seriously restricted Murnau’s subsequent studio projects.
Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) is one of the most famous silent films, and one of the most truly silent, because it doesn’t even use title cards. Silent directors were proud of their ability to tell a story using the language of the camera, but no one before Murnau had ever entirely done away with all written words on the screen. He tells his story through shots, angles, moves, facial expressions and visual cues.
The film would be famous not just for its lack of titles, but for its lead performance by Emil Jannings, which is so effective that both Jannings and Murnau were offered Hollywood contracts. But, The Last Laugh is now noted for its moving camera. It is one of the first films to make use of a moving point of view. It is certainly the film that made the most spectacular early use of movement, with shots that track down an elevator and out through a hotel lobby, or seemingly move through the plate-glass window of a hotel manage’s office, influencing the famous shot 18 years later from Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane that swoops down through the skylight of a nightclub.
Murnau’s technical mastery makes all of his films exciting to see. In Nosferatu, in the fiendish visions of Faust, in the imaginary city of Sunrise, he created dreamlike visions that defined his characters: they were who they were because of what surrounded them. This is the essence of German Expressionism, a style that told stories through bold and exaggerated visual elements, reality slipping over into nightmare and back again.
Murnau’s American filmmaking career was cut cruelly short. In 1931, on the verge of signing with the much more auteur-friendly Paramount Pictures, Murnau died in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway. The details remain cloudy 90 years later. It seems that just days before the premiere of his new Polynesian-themed movie, Tabu, Murnau let a member of the film’s crew, Garcia Stevenson, a 14-year-old boy, drive his Packard limousine, while the 26-year-old chauffeur, John Freeland, sat in the backseat holding Murnau’s dog, Pal. Or possibly, it could have been that Murnau was in the backseat with Pal, but anyway, the boy swerved to avoid a truck and crashed the Packard. The story that Stevenson and the famous director were engaged in a blow-job right before the crash comes courtesy of Kenneth Anger‘s celebrated book, Hollywood Babylon (1959). We will never know exactly what happened, but it is a fact that everyone was thrown from the car, with only Murnau dying from his injuries. He was just 42 years old when he left this world.
Because of the scandalous rumors surrounding Murnau’s death, only a handful of mourners showed up at his funeral. Greta Garbo was one of only about a dozen film industry figures to make an appearance. She requested that a Murnau death mask be made. She kept it on her desk for the rest of her life.