Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe on December 28, 1888, F.W. Murnau was a visionary director of the silent film era. He created the 1922 vampire thriller Nosferatu as well as such compelling examination of love as 1927's Sunrise and 1931's Tabu. Murnau's promising career was cut short by a car accident in 1931.
Born into a wealthy family on December 28, 1888, F.W. Murnau was the son of a textile manufacturer. He was an avid reader, enjoying the works of Henrik Ibsen and William Shakespeare among others. For a time, Murnau studied at philology, or speech, at the University of Berlin. He later attended the University of Heidelberg. While in Heidelberg, Murnau studied with theater great Max Reinhardt and eventually joined Reinhardt's theater group. He borrowed the name of a village to use as a stage name when he started performing.
World War I put a damper on Murnau's theatrical dreams. He first served in the infantry and later joined the air force. During his time in the air force, Murnau survived seven plane crashes. He ended up interned in Switzerland after he accidentally landed there. Held for the remainder of the war, Murnau was allowed to stage a play and make films while in captivity.
Silent Screen Success
After the war ended, Murnau returned to Germany where he soon established his own film studio with actor Conrad Veidt. In 1919, he released his first feature-length film, The Boy in Blue, a drama inspired by the famous Thomas Gainsborough painting. He explored the popular theme of dueling personalities--much like Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--in 1920's The Janus Head starring Veidt and Bela Lugosi.
In 1922, Murnau created one of his most famous works, the vampire tale Nosferatu. The film was an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula with Max Schreck as the gruesome blood-sucker. Subtitled "A Symphony of Horror," the film set the tone for the many vampire films that followed. It also proved revolutionary for Murnau's use of real locations during filming. The making of this movie became the inspiration for the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire starring John Malkovich as Murnau.
Unfortunately, not everyone was won over by Murnau's spellbinding horror film. He was sued by Bram Stoker's widow, and the court later ruled against Murnau and ordered that all copies of the film were to be destroyed. The film had already been released at this point, so several copies survived.
While perhaps best known today for Nosferatu, Murnau achieved his most significant career breakthrough with 1924's The Last Laugh. In this melancholy tale, Murnau used a number of innovative camera techniques to create a fluid and poetic vision of an elderly man's life. The former doorman ends up spending his later years as a washroom attendant in a fancy hotel. With this international hit, Murnau soon attracted attention from Hollywood studios.
Before parting Germany, however, Murnau made two more films Tartuffe and Faust, both released in 1926. Murnau received some mixed reviews for his adaptation Moliere's Tartuffe, but he earned high praise for his work on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's masterpiece Faust. One later critic called it "a sweeping fantasy full of memorable images and well-acted performances."
An openly gay man, Murnau thought that life in the United States might be better than life under the German government. Producer William Fox signed Murnau to a contract and gave the filmmaker a lot of creative and financial latitude with his next film project. The result was 1927's Sunrise, considered one of the most beautiful films ever made. Murnau went to great lengths for this archetypical tale of love, marriage, betrayal, and forgiveness. The film starred George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor as a country husband and wife, and Margaret Livingston as the city woman who tempts the husband. The elaborate sets for the film were constructed on the Fox lot, stretching over approximately 20 acres.
An artistic triumph, Sunrise earned widespread praise for its lyrical, impressionistic look at love. The film netted the three honors in the first year of the Academy Awards, including one for Unique and Artistic Picture. All of the acclaim, however, did not translate into ticket sales. The film proved to be a costly flop for Fox and strained Murnau's relationship with the studio.
Murnau made two more films for Fox, but both his budgets and creative control were greatly diminished. The studio forced him to revise the final scenes of his tragic circus tale, Four Devils, to give the film a happy ending. He next worked on a film called Our Daily Bread, but he did not complete it. Instead the studio turned his silent picture into a partial talkie, City Girl (1930), with disastrous results.
Breaking away from the studio, Murnau teamed up with documentary filmmaker Robert Joseph Flaherty for Tabu (1931). The pair traveled to Tahiti to film this Polynesian love story, but Flaherty soon dropped out over creative differences with Murnau. Murnau stayed in Tahiti to complete the picture. Murnau reportedly entertained such guests as the artist Henri Matisse during his time there.
Shortly before the film's premiere, on March 11, 1931, F.W. Murnau died in a car accident, when his driver crashed on the Pacific Coast Highway. His promising career was cut short at the age of 42. After his death, Tabu became a huge critical and commercial success.
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