History Month Profiles – 1: F.W. Murnau
The remarkable thing about F.W. Murnau’s most famous film is that we’re lucky it even exists. Based (somewhat loosely) on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula and released in 1922, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (or ‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror’) soon fell foul of the Stoker estate. The author himself had died just 10 years earlier and his widow, Florence, didn’t take too kindly to an unauthorized adaptation raking in the Deutsche Marks.
Florence Stoker took the studio, Prana Films, to court for copyright infringement, and they were ordered to destroy all copies of Nosferatu, not to mention bankrupted in the process. Thankfully, a handful of prints survived, from which a more or less complete version can now be enjoyed.
F.W. Murnau was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Westphalia in 1888. A precociously literate child (he was a fan of Nietzsche and Ibsen aged 12), he chose the slightly more imposing surname “Murnau” from a town near Munich. After studying philology and art history in Berlin and Heidelberg he served in Germany’s air force during the First World War, surviving a grand total of eight plane crashes!
Following the war he returned to Berlin, where – alongside actor Conrad Veidt (who would later star in Casablanca) – he founded his first film studio. His feature film debut, The Boy in Blue, followed, along with Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus), an adaptation (unauthorized, of course) of Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde, starring Veidt and future horror icon Bela Lugosi.
To understand the cinema of early 1920s Germany, it’s necessary to know a little about its history. The war’s aftermath left the country in turmoil – politically, financially, emotionally and physically – and that trauma manifested itself in the arts through Expressionism; visual depictions in art and film of humanity’s deepest, darkest emotions.
Robert Wiene’s 1920 horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, gave us freakish, exaggerated sets and Conrad Veidt’s haunting somnambulist Cesare, all very obviously filmed on a studio sound stage. Nosferatu, which began shooting in July 1921, would break from movie-making convention, with many of its scenes shot on location in places as far afield as Slovakia and Lubeck.
In Count Orlok, Murnau and his star, Max Schreck (literally ‘Max Fear’ in German) created one of the most definitive (not to mention terrifying) big screen vampires of all time, and the film would later inspire countless films and TV series, from Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake to the recent documentary spoof What We Do in the Shadows.
Murnau himself – or a heavily fictionalised version of him – has also appeared on screen, in the film Shadow of the Vampire and the TV series American Horror Story: Hotel, both of which posit that Murnau encountered real-life vampires while researching his Gothic masterpiece. All nonsense, of course, but that idea is a testament to the legacy of both Nosferatu, an almost-100-year-old film, and Murnau the director and personality.
Gay men such as Murnau enjoyed a brief period of liberation and tolerance in 1920s Berlin (as immortalised in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories), but by the second half of the decade this was beginning to change. The rise of fascism led to an atmosphere of paranoia and prejudice, and this may be why Murnau chose to leave Germany in 1926, and seek his fortune in Hollywood. There he was immediately signed to Fox Pictures and directed the film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. What Nosferatu was to horror, Sunrise was to romantic melodrama, and just as Murnau revolutionised the way films could be shot on location with his earlier film, so in Sunrise he helped pioneer film-making techniques that would go on to become commonplace. Sunrise won the award for “Unique and Artistic Production” at the very first Academy Awards in 1929, and in 2012 was named the fifth best motion picture of all time by the critics at Sight and Sound.
Sadly, future Hollywood success would elude Murnau. His first forays into “talkies”, 4 Devils and City Girl were not as well received, and before he could embark on another picture he was tragically killed, aged just 42, in an automobile accident. Perhaps fittingly for a man who helped create the visual language of cinematic horror, Murnau’s afterlife was almost as ghoulish as his 1922 film. Greta Garbo – one of only eleven people to attend his funeral – commissioned a death mask of him, and in July 2015 Murnau’s grave was broken into and his skull stolen.
To date, it has not been recovered…