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Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

Copyright: F.W. Murnau Stiftung
Mit freundlicher Genehmigung M. Steinlein

1888 - 1931

The director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau belongs to the most important German silent movie directors.

He was born as Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld.
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.

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.

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.

After the war 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.

At the beginning of the 20s he realised a whole string of well-known silent movies which paved the way to his later fame.
He directed "Satanas" (20) with Fritz Kortner and Ernst Hofmann, "Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin" (20) with Sascha Gura and Paul Biensfeldt, "Der Januskopf" (20) with Conrad Veidt, Magnus Stifter ant the later Dracula actor Bela Lugosi, "Abend - Nacht - Morgen" (20) with Bruno Ziener and Conrad Veidt, "Der Gang in die Nacht" (21) with Olaf Fönss, Erna Morena and Conrad Veidt and "Schloss Vogeloed" (21) 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.

His love to the gloominess accumulated in the movie "Nosferatu" (22) 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 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 occured many rumors about him which last till today. The actor Willem Dafoe impersonated Max Schreck in the movie "Shadow of the Vampire" (00) where he demonstrated him as a real vampire.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau created other milestones for the German film in the next years.
To these movies belong "Der brennende Acker" (22) with Werner Krauss, Eugen Klöpfer and Lya de Putti, "Phantom" (22) with Alfred Abel, Frida Richard and Aud-Egede Nissen, "Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs" (24) with Mady Christians and Harry Liedtke andof course "Der letzte Mann" (25) 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.

After this anew masterpiece followed only two more German silent movies which belong to the important works of German film history as well. The movies "Herr Tartüff" (25) with Hermann Picha, Werner Krauss, Emil Jannings and Lucie Höflich as well as "Faust" (26) with Gösta Ekman, Camilla Horn, Emil Jannings and Frida Richard demonstrate again the unique talent of this director.

This talent did not excape 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.
But the assumed great freedom in the USA became soon shortened by financial problems of Hollywood. Therefore his last great feature movie came with "4 Devils" (28) into being with Janet Gaynor and Mary Duncan in the leading role. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for the best camera.

With "City Girl" (30) he directed a feature movie with well-known actors again indeed but shortly before the end of the finishing Murnau was spelled at his position. The leading actors were Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau digressed from Hollywood and began his own project single-handedly - together with Robert J. Flaherty.
In Tahiti he shot "Tabu" (31) 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. But his fate chose another way.
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.

Other movies from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (Director):
Sehnsucht (21) Marizza, genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (22) Die Austreibung (23)

Komödie des Herzens (24) Tabu (31)

Der brennende Acker (22) Tabu (31)

Sunrise (27)