Sunday, March 9, 2008
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931) was one of the most influential directors of the silent film era.
He was one of a number of directors who were part of the expressionist movement in German cinema during the 1920s, and he directed many movies that were influential. While some of Murnau's films from the silent era have been lost, most still survive. They are widely acknowledged among film scholars as masterpieces.
He was born as Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, Germany. He attended the University of Heidelberg and studied art history. He took the name "Murnau" from a town in Germany. He was a combat pilot during World War I and directed his first film Der Knabe in Blau ('The Child in Blue') in 1919.
Birth and early years
Murnau's most famous film is Nosferatu, a 1922 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. Werner Herzog remade the film in 1979. Nosferatu, subtextually, depicted demoralized Germany post World War I. 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 Bram Stoker's novel where it is used by the Romanian townsfolk to refer to Dracula and presumably, other undead. "Nosferatu" is similar sounding to the Greek "nosophoros", roughly translating to "plague-bearer", which may be a possible root of it.
Nearly as important as Nosferatu in Murnau's filmography was The Last Laugh ("Der Letzte Mann", German "The Last Man") (1925), written by Carl Mayer 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.
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. This carefully composed and innovative feature contains many memorable images and startling special effects, with careful attention paid to contrasts of light and dark. Particularly striking is the sequence in which the giant, horned and black winged figure of Mephisto (Jannings) hovers over a town sowing the seeds of plague. The acting by Ekman (who miraculously transforms, in the course of the film, from a bearded old man to a handsome youth) and the sinister, scowling, demonic Jannings is first rate and the virtually unknown actress Camilla Horn gives a memorable performance as the tragic figure of Gretchen.
Murnau emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he joined the Fox Studio and made Sunrise (1927), a movie often cited by film scholars as one of the greatest films of all time. Filmed 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 1928. In winning the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production it shared what is now the Best Picture award with the movie Wings.
On the DVD version of the film one can see Murnau in a couple of the outtake shots.
Murnau's next two pictures, Four Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930), were modified to adapt to the new era of sound film and were not well received. No copy of Four Devils now exists. Their poor receptions disillusioned Murnau, and he quit Fox to journey for a while in the South Pacific.
Together with documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty, Murnau travelled abroad to Bora Bora to realize the film Tabu in 1931. But Flaherty left after artistic disputes with Murnau who had to finish the movie on his own. Because of images of bare-breasted "native" Polynesian women the movie was censored in the United States. The film was originally shot as half-talkie, half-silent, before being fully restored as a silent film - Murnau's preferred medium.
Murnau did not live to see the premiere of his last film; he 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, who was also killed in the accident. Murnau was entombed on Southwest Cemetery (Südwest-Kirchhof Stahnsdorf) in Stahnsdorf near Berlin. Only 11 people showed up for the funeral. Among them were Robert Flaherty, Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang who delivered the funeral speech. Garbo also commissioned a deathmask of Murnau which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.
Posted by qwertyuio at 1:30 PM