F.W. Murnau (1888–1931)

Director | Writer | Producer
He studied art and literature history at the University of Heidelberg. During World War I, he was a combat pilot.

Date of Birth 28 December 1888, Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Date of Death 11 March 1931, Santa Barbara, California, USA  (road accident)
Birth Name Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe
Height 6' 4" (1.93 m)

He studied art and literature history at the University of Heidelberg. During World War I, he was a combat pilot.

Director. First was assistant to Max Reinhardt. Began making movies in Germany in 1919. Went to the USA in 1926.
Innovative use of light and dark shadowing to create a certain mood
Visual storytelling without intertitles.

Retrospective at the 53rd Berlin International Film Festival. [2003]
He was voted the 33rd Greatest Director of all time by "Entertainment Weekly" magazine.
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945". Pages 807-819. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
Did not live to see the premiere of his last film; he died in an automobile accident in Santa Barbara, CA, on March 11, 1931. The car was driven by Murnau's Filipino valet Garcia Stevenson. Murnau was entombed in Berlin. Robert J. Flaherty, Emil Jannings and Greta Garbo attended the funeral, and Fritz Lang delivered the funeral speech.
Directed 17 films in Germany and 4 in America.
Signed by William Fox in 1926, he remained under contract until 1929. During his tenure he brought much prestige but little financial reward to the studio through the expensively-produced Sunrise (1927), for which he was effectively given carte blanche. Much of the success of this film (and the first Academy Award for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production 1927) was the result of Murnau's creative collaboration with his German art director Rochus Gliese. Many of Murnau's expressionist techniques were later emulated by other Hollywood directors and changed cinema forever.
His best-known film, Nosferatu (1922), which many film historians consider his masterpiece, was acclaimed at the time of its release by surrealist artists and writers, but had a mixed initial critical reception. The estate of Bram Stoker sued the producers for unauthorized use of the novel and an English court ordered all copies and negatives of the film to be destroyed. Fortunately, this could not be enforced in Germany, though the producers divested themselves of all materials by selling them to Deutsche Film Produktion.
Directed one Academy Award-winning performance: Janet Gaynor in Sunrise (1927).
Two of his films won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography: Sunrise (1927) and Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). His film 4 Devils (1928) was nominated for the award but didn't win.
Two of his American masterpieces are included in the National Film Registry: Sunrise (1927) (among the first 25 films selected in 1989) and Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) (selected in 1994). Established in 1988 because of the National Film Preservation Act, the National Film Preservation Board works to ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America's film heritage in the National Film Registry.
His Sunrise (1927)--considered one of the masterpieces of American cinema--was voted the fifth greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound's 2012 critic's poll. It's the highest-ranked silent film on the list.
Played by John Malkovich in "Shadow Of The Vampire" (2000) - an outrageous caricature of the real man which angered many of Murnau's admirers.
He studied art history and philology in Berlin and Heidelberg where he met the important theater man Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt was impressed by Murnau and he admitted him to the Max-Reinhardt acting school. There he not only learnt acting but as also introduced to the direction.
After World War I he went back to Germany where he turned to the film business. As a director he shot his first movie with "Der Knabe in Blau" (19) with Ernst Hofmann and Margit Barnay.
Before his movie "Tabu" was released in cinema Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was killed in a car crash. At the wheel was his 14 years old servant who lost control of the car. The car crashed against an electric pole. Murnau hit his head and died in a hospital the next day, in nearby Santa Barbara.
His stage career came interrupted by his engagement in World War I where he served as a lieutenant and later as a bomber pilot. When he had to make a forced landing in Switzerland he first was interned but soon he was able to work for the theater in Lucerne.
In Tahiti he shot "Tabu" (1931) without any movie stars. The roles were impersonated by inhabitants of Tahiti. In order to finance this movie Murnau invested his whole fortune and in addition he also got into debt. Paramount was enthusiastic about his movie and they offered him a contract for ten years.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau digressed from Hollywood and began his own project single-handedly - together with Robert J. Flaherty.
Because his parents were against his ambition to go to the theater and because they also did not accept his homosexuality he changed his name from Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau created other milestones for the German film in the next years. To these movies belongs "Der letzte Mann" (1925) with an impressive Emil Jannings as a commissionaire who was relegated from a bell captain in a bright uniform to a cloak room attendant. The movie is also a trend-setter for the "liberation" of the then heavy camera from the tripod. For the first time the camera slides together with the actors through the room and set a new benchmark in the shooting. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was forced by the UFA to create a happy end for this movie. Murnau intended to finish it with the scene of the once proud bell captain working in the toilet. He only followed this demand with great reluctance and he created the new end intentional overdraw.
Nosferatu (music by Hans Erdmann) and Faust (music by Werner R. Heymann) were two of the first films to feature original film scores.
He directed "Satanas" (1920) with Fritz Kortner and Ernst Hofmann, "Der Januskopf" (1920) with Conrad Veidt, Magnus Stifter ant the later Dracula actor Bela Lugosi, and Schloss Vogeloed" (1921) with Arnold Korff and Paul Bildt. These movies already possessed many gloomy elements which makes the charme till today. Unfortunately some of these works are lost.
In July 2015 Murnau's grave was broken into, the remains disturbed and the skull removed by persons unknown. Wax residue was reportedly found at the site, leading some to speculate that candles had been lit, perhaps with an occult or ceremonial significance. As this disturbance was not an isolated incident, the cemetery managers are considering sealing the grave.[.
F.W. Murnau is often regarded as the most important silent movie director.
Together with documentary film pioneer Robert J. Flaherty, Murnau travelled to Bora Bora to make the film Tabu in 1931. Flaherty left after artistic disputes with Murnau who had to finish the movie on his own. The movie was censored in the United States for images of bare-breasted Polynesian women.
The film Tabu was originally shot by cinematographer Floyd Crosby as half-talkie, half-silent, before being fully restored as a silent film - Murnau's preferred medium.
His love to the gloominess accumulated in the movie "Nosferatu" (1922) to an incomparable summit. The movie presents the actor Max Schreck with a frightening and impressive performance of count Orlok, a vampire who rushed his victims headlong into disaster.
Because of legal disputes with the descendants of Bram Stoker the director Murnau did not use the name Dracula for the movie Nosferatu but changed it to count Orlok. This movie is regarded as a jewel of the German silent movie film and because of the intensely play of Max Schreck there occurred many rumors about him which last till today.
Murnau was entombed in Southwest Cemetery in Stahnsdorf (Südwest-Kirchhof Stahnsdorf) near Berlin. Only 11 people attended the funeral. Among them were Robert J. Flaherty, Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang, who delivered the eulogy. Garbo also commissioned a death mask of Murnau, which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.
Of the 21 films Murnau directed, 8 have been completely lost. One reel of his feature Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1922) survives, too. Especially his lost American film 4 Devils (1928) is a major loss of silent cinema art. Check your attic.
At the beginning of the 20s he realised a whole string of well-known silent movies which paved the way to his later fame.
His talent did not ex-cape to the American film business too and finally William Fox lured Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau away to the USA. There he realised his first movie with "Sunrise" (27) with George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor. At the first Oscar event in film history this movie was nominated for four Oscars and he won three of them for the best movie, the best leading actress and the best camera.