Program of films by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

F. W. Murnau – intelectual and poet

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau brought the visual efforts of German expressionism
to the highest point: the way he used light, contrast and the somber foggy
photography, the composition of scenes and the interfusion of natural and
artificial scenography.

In spite of the catastrophic economic crisis after the defeat in WW II, hardly
profitable reparations and the shaky condition of the world economy in general,
German cinematography progressed. The company UFA became the leader in Europe;
Babelsberg became the leading studio, and several acclaimed art movements
appeared – expressionism, Kammerspielfilm (“chamber film”), Strassenfilm
(“street film”) and Neue Sachlichkeit (new reality). It is true that film
historians preferred the Russian and French avant-garde over these, primarily
because they discovered more prominent ways of film expression, but also because
of the negative feelings towards Germany. As time passed this evaluation was
corrected and during 1980’s more credits were given to German film. New German
film, the fact that many contemporary German cineastes resisted the attacks of
sound technology, something that can also be seen these days, and Murnau’s
bigger influence on sound film than Eisenstein’s all played a central role in
that process. Furthermore, the followers of auteur and genre
approaches have never quite forgotten Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang who excelled
in Hollywood, or Pabst who was undoubtedly hindered by national socialists who
came to power. Surely they haven’t forgotten Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the only
one who hadn’t tried his hand at sound film because of his early death. In fact,
nobody even dared to favor any of the aforementioned over Murnau.

He was born in Bielefeld in 1888 as F.W. Plumpe (from a father of Swedish
origin). Since this last name seemed inappropriate for the world of spectacles,
he changed it. He had an unforgettable experience in Murnau, a small town in
southern Bavaria, and painted by Kandinsky, he decided to take its name. He
studied in Heidelberg and Berlin (philosophy and art history), afterwards acted
in theater of the famous Max Reinhardt. And in order to have a more interesting
and adventurous career prior to his film career, he was a “Kampfpilot” (fighting
pilot) in the WW I and was forced to land in Switzerland and be hospitalized
until the end of the war. In 1919 he made his debut as a film director who
would, in the following twelve years, (he died in 1931 in a car accident in
California), direct twenty films. Four of them ensured him the title of a world
film classic: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1921), Der Letzte
(1924), Faust (1926) and Sunrise (in USA, 1927).

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens is the first horror film: it was
Murnau who ensured the status of this genre. It is actually an adaptation of
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but there were some problems with copyrights, so
all names and places had to be changed. A similar thing happened with Der
(1920) in which he used some parts of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and
Mr Hyde
. This expressionist tendency for the fantastic is also noticable in
Fantom (based on G. Hauptmann), Faust, and some trace it even in
Schloß Vogelöd (1921), along with elements of criminal film.

The film Der Letzte Mann, (the screenplay is written by the first worldly
acclaimed screenwriter Carl Mayer), is a master piece of the “Kammerspiel”, a
film of closed and claustrophobic spaces. It is a story that reminds the one of
Kabanica by Gogolj and might even be the most successful socially
psychological film of the silent era. Even the most socially aware neorealists
couldn’t have thought of a better story. In a critics’ selection of the best
films (Bruxelles, 1958) it was chosen as the eleventh best film of all time. And
this only confirms the belief that Murnau would do just fine in sound film as

Faust was the first successful adaptation of a “gigantic” literary work,
and after this screen version of Goethe, Murnau continued his ambition with
Moliere’s Tartuffe. Faust had an influence in our country as well:
Oktavijan Miletić, in his version of Faust (1934), refers to a scene from
Murnau’s Faust.

The American film Zora (based on Hermann Sudermann) is a symphony of
love, instead of fear. It may be one of the most successful love poems of all
time; in fact, it is the eighth film on the list of the best films of all time
(Sight and Sound, 2002).

Even a superficial listing points out the meaning and value of Murnau’s films.
And taking a deeper look in his opus, film historians say that he was the first
to effectively use driving scenes, panoramas that are not motivated by any
visible movement, but are used to create an atmosphere and to hint the
psychological state of his characters. He was the master of focalization, or the
discrete suggestion of a present – as well as observing and experiencing –
position of a character in a scene. Almost all agree that he was the one who
brought the visual efforts of German expressionism to the highest point: the way
he used light, contrast and the somber foggy photography, the composition of
scenes and the interfusion of natural and artificial scenography. All of this,
along with a dynamic camera, suggests a metaphysical sensation of space. But
those who are interested in the wholeness of Murnau’s film world and his own
view on life, look for deeper meanings and a tangle of contradictions in his
works, and thus find him truly unique. In Murnau’s work we find a clash of
nature and culture, fate and man’s resistance, a view of the world that is
closer to German romanticism (painting and literature that also excited Werner
Herzog) and a realistic immersion in the life “detail” and the “harsh reality”.
Because of all this he is said to be a poetic realist. Indifference towards the
material, anxiety and subconscious yearning, misery and power, fear and rapture,
the real and fantastic – all dualities of a man and the world. Some of these
contradictions can be found in Lang’s work as well, but with Murnau they are
evident in his characters, they are visually and structurally blended, and
result in films that are on a verge of being dream-like. This is why, even when
he convinces us of being a realist, Murnau is modern and avant-garde. Like
Thomas Mann, he is a combination of poet and intellectual. The result is a
striving towards a sublime, philosophical symphony – of love or fear alike.
(Ante Peterlić)