F.W Murnau, December 28, 1889 – March 11, 1931
In February 1931, F.W. Murnau was as relaxed and happy as he’d ever been. Recently returned to California from Tahiti, where he had spent almost two years making his feature film Tabu, the 42-year-old looked out at the Pacific horizon from the balcony of his Santa Monica hotel suite and told a man from a newspaper how keen he was to return to the South Seas.
‘I have found at last a place where politics is an unknown word,’ he said. ‘Where no-one has been touched by sophistication, where there is simplicity and charm and an art that is not self-conscious, where there is sunlight and the complexities of life as we know them are strangers.’
He had built a house near Papeete on a site adjacent to the former home of Paul Gauguin and intended to return to make further pictures, he said. There was a fair chance he would spend the rest of his life there but in the meantime while the cinema world found itself teetering between silence and sound he had things to do.
‘First I must go to Europe,’ he said. ‘It is four years since I saw my mother. Then I want to discover talking picture conditions in Germany, France, England and America. I have been away from civilisation during the development of talkies. I must find out what they are doing and where they are going.’
The premiere of Tabu was less than a month away, the first film he’d made free of a studio contract and the first step towards putting the difficulties he’d had with his previous employer, Fox Studios, behind him.
Tabu, a film over which he’d enjoyed complete creative control, was a return to his best and if it was as successful as he anticipated then the future looked bright: having effectively financed the production himself Murnau had just been offered a lucrative 10-year contract by Paramount.
Less than three weeks later he was dead. According to news reports he was being driven up the Pacific Highway to visit a writer named William Morris who had been engaged to produce the novel adaptation of the film. A deposition filed later by Murnau’s family claimed the chauffeur had pulled in to a petrol station where Murnau’s 14-year-old valet Garcia Stevenson asked if he could drive for a while. Another version has it that Murnau insisted the boy drive despite the chauffeur’s protestations.
Either way, the boy was at the wheel when the car swerved to avoid an oncoming truck and rolled down an embankment. Stevenson and the chauffeur received minor injuries but Murnau suffered a fractured skull and died in hospital the same evening.
It’s impossible to calculate the loss suffered by the film world that day in the spring of 1931 by the side of a Californian highway. As one of the masters of silent cinema who’d proved his genius on both sides of the Atlantic, Murnau had been talking excitedly of the opportunities presented by the arrival of sound just a few days before his death. ‘It’s ridiculous to say that pictures will return to silence,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. ‘No invention of value will ever find itself discarded. Talkies, suitably handled, mark a great advancement for the screen.’
Instead Murnau is remembered for his visionary work in the silent genre. Barely half of his 21 films survive but they include mainstays of cinema anthology as Der letzte Mann (released in English as The Last Laugh), Sunrise and the ground-breaking horror classic Nosferatu.
Murnau, christened ‘the greatest poet the screen has ever known’ by the French director Alexandre Astruc, was the first to free the camera from a static stance and to add a lyrical creativity to the events on screen. For Murnau the camera wasn’t simply there to provide the same perspective as a theatregoer in a seat, it was there to contribute to the creative process of a still-young medium.
Nosferatu, for example, was not bound by studio sets, not even the brilliantly distorted ones used in such German Expressionist classics as Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, made two years before Nosferatu in 1920.
For his gothic masterpiece, based without permission on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and hence subjected to legal wrangles that almost saw the film lost forever, Murnau went to Lübeck and the High Tatras mountains, achieving an astonishingly set of landscapes and backgrounds as well as coaxing a career-defining performance from Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok.
Two years later came Der letzte Mann, the film that truly established Murnau as a formidable director. Never before had his revolutionary technique of moving the camera through scenes, along streets and corridors and up and down stairs, been so effectively employed than in the story of an elderly hotel doorman demoted to washroom duties. It was almost as if he’d brought the third dimension to cinema. For one scene, cinematographer Karl Freund strapped a camera to his stomach and lurched through a crowd of extras to portray a drunken passage through a bar while Murnau again drew a brilliant performance from his star, this time Emil Jannings.
Der letzte Mann was noticed by Hollywood and when in 1926 Fox offered Murnau a contract that allowed him to keep his German crew together, the director sailed across the Atlantic, leaving behind the country that had made him.
He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, adopting the name Murnau after a town in Bavaria of which he had fond memories because his parents disapproved of both his choice of career and his homosexuality. He studied philosophy, literature and the history of art at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin then joined Max Reinhardt’s theatre company where he developed his natural feel for lighting and stage design.
Murnau served in both the army and air force during the First World War – surviving two crashes, the second of which, according to some sources, damaged his liver so badly he couldn’t drink alcohol ever again – and was then employed making propaganda films for the German government.
Freed from the restrictions of his wartime output in 1919 he began exploring his extraordinary cinematic talent to full effect, creating what Marlene Dietrich described as ‘theatrical symphonies in which words and music, lighting and painting effects, and the art of acting were fused in an intoxicating whole which swept all along with it by the strength of its gripping qualities and its atmosphere’.
These qualities inspired and underpinned his first film in America, 1927’s Sunrise, a beautifully crafted piece of cinema that many modern scholars cite as the best silent film ever to come out of Hollywood. Ostensibly it was a straightforward love triangle story, but Murnau was given his head by the studio and took full advantage, constructing large and elaborate sets and creating one of the most visually beautiful films ever made.
Sunrise won three Oscars at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929 including an equivalent of the modern Best Picture. But unfortunately for Murnau Sunrise proved too ahead of its time for audiences and the film was a flop at the box office.
Closely watched and reined in by Fox on his next two films, Murnau extricated himself from his contract and threw in his lot with the documentary maker Robert Flaherty, famous for Nanook of the North, with whom he travelled to the South Seas to make Tabu. The pair disagreed over Flaherty’s desire to make a more anthropologically-focused documentary, which clashed with Murnau’s intention to drive the narrative with a fictional love story, and Flaherty withdrew direct input.
Despite this setback, and despite the casting of inexperienced local actors, Tabu turned out to be Murnau’s greatest – and only – commercial success in America. He didn’t live to see it: the film opened a week after his death. The whiff of scandal about his demise, with the Hollywood gossips arching their eyebrows over the presence of a 14-year-old boy in the car of a gay man, proved enough in its immediate aftermath to ensure only 11 people attended his funeral.
Greta Garbo was one of them, the Swedish actress also commissioning a death mask that she kept in her home for the rest of her life.
Murnau’s body was transported for burial in Germany aboard the liner Europa, the same voyage on which he’d booked passage to visit his mother and see for himself the progress of sound in film ahead of a new cinematic future he would never see.