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Classically Speaking:
Promoting Classic Movies in a Jaded World!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Don't Know...F.W. MURNAU?

F.W. MurnauYou should really know who F.W. MURNAU (1891-1931) is! Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, may well have been the best director of the pre-dialogue era. He helped spearhead the glorious German cinema of the 1920s, then brought his act to Hollywood. Seventy-five years after Murnau’s untimely death in 1931, the German master’s works are still among the most powerful of the silent cinema and among the more influential films ever put on celluloid.

The Last Laugh (1924) [aka: Der Letzte Mann] Lobby CardA great place to start is Der Letzte Mann (1924) [aka: The Last Laugh], a film described in virtually every film history book written since 1925. This film introduced Murnau’s "Entfesselte Kamera", or "unchained camera", which included the famous opening shot of cameraman Karl Fruend riding bicycle through a hotel lobby with a camera fastened to him. Murnau became the king of the subjective camera and a master of chiaroscuro (use of contrasting light and shade). The Last Laugh was also amazing in that it featured only one title card, thanks to Murnau’s direction and Emil Jannings’ brilliant performance.

I also cannot recommend these four films highly enough.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) [aka: Nosferatu (USA: short title); Nosferatu the Vampire (USA); Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror; Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror; Nosferatu: The First Vampire (USA: reissue title); Terror of Dracula] The first real vampire feature film, this one is STILL scary, with rat-like Max Schreck as the vampire. The restored Kino version is a wonder to behold. This was the film that launched Murnau and the one he is probably best known for in the U.S.
Faust (1926) [aka: Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage; Faust: A German Folk Legend (Canada: English title)] Personally, I consider this Murnau’s best film. He again teams with Jannings and also introduced Camilla Horn as the heroine. With cinematographer Carl Hoffman doing an incredible job and Emil Jannings possibly even outdoing his performance in The Last Laugh, it is a true classic.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) [aka: Sunrise (USA: short title)] Sunrise is the film that most scholars seem to pick as Murnau’s masterpiece – and it certainly IS a masterpiece. This was the only Hollywood film in which Murnau had relative control over the product. It starred George O’Brien and the first Oscar-winning actress, Janet Gaynor. Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd, both released in 1927, presented a rousing last hurrah for the silent film.
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) [aka: Tabu (USA: short title)] Murnau’s last film, released just after his untimely death, started as a collaboration with famed documentary Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North). Flaherty later left the project and Murnau finished it as a great romantic epic and tribute to traditional native life in the South Pacific before western ideas polluted it.

*Contributed by: "MarkMyWord" Date: Wed, Oct 4 2006 / 21:04:39 PST

Although F.W. Murnau didn't receive so much as a nod from the Academy for his directing genius, two of the films I listed here did.

Academy Awards®
© A.M.P.A.S.®
1927 Won Best Actress in a Leading Role: Janet Gaynor SUNRISE
Artistic Quality of Production 1927 SUNRISE
1927 Nominated for Best Achievement in Art Direction/Set Decoration: Rochus Gliese - Art Direction SUNRISE
1927 Best Achievement in Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss SUNRISE
1930 Best Achievement in Cinematography: Floyd Crosby TABU


  • This showcase is very nice. Good work! I've seen Sunrise, but none of the other films you mention. I thought the directing in Sunrise was excellent. It was nice to learn what else to see this director has done. Watching Sunrise sold me on how good silent films are. I'd never so much as given them a chance before. That's a good director.

    By Anonymous Elizabeth Van Cleve, at Thu Oct 05, 11:00:00 AM PDT