Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and the Expressionism in German Cinema

Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens

Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (!922)

On December 28, 1888, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was born. He was one of the most influential German film directors of the silent era, and a prominent figure in the expressionist movement in German cinema during the 1920s. Murnau‘s best known work was his 1922 film Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s Dracula.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was actually born as Friedrich Wilhelm Pumpe. He grew up in a wealthy family and enrolled at the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg to study the history of art. The famous director Max Reinhardt noticed his talents during a play at university and occupied the young Pumpe as director’s assistant and actor. During this period, he also changed his name to Murnau to demonstrate his break up with his family, who could neither accept his choice of living, nor his homosexuality.

During World World War I, Murnau became a pilot and landed in Switzerland in 1917, where he was active in several plays. Many see his experiences during the war a significant influence to his later movies, especially Nosferatu. He came back to Berlin in 1919 and began working on his first movie, “The Boy in Blue“. Unfortunately, this movie is lost on this day, but it is known that Thomas Gainsborough‘s painting “The Blue Boy” and Oscar Wilde‘s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” were inspirations for Murnau to create this film.

Soon, Murnau started working for UFA and created several works for them including “The Last Laugh” in which he used the completely new unchained camera technique that opened up whole new perspectives to the art of film in the 1920s. Also, he introduced the subjective camera in the movie that illustrated the plot from the perspective of one specific actor. Murnau became famous, also because he needed almost no subtitles for the audience to understand the plot, which was remarkable back then.

In the United States, Murnau became a well known artist and William Fox offered him a contract as well as complete artistic freedom. As a result, the movie “Sunrise” won three Oscars during the very first Academy Award ceremony in 1929. However, the economic situation in the U.S made it hard for Fox to allow the artistic freedom Murnau was used to and he quit the contract. 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 was originally shot by cinematographer Floyd Crosby as half-talkie, half-silent, before being fully restored as a silent film — Murnau’s preferred medium. The movie was a success but Murnau was broke. Paramount took over this film and offered Murnau a contract for 10 years.

On this day, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is mostly remembered for his movie “Nosferatu“. It starred Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok and was an unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula. The company producing the film was “Prana Film” and co-founded by Albin Grau. Since a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire, he wanted to shoot a vampire film. Nosferatu’s preview premiered on 4 March 1922 in the Marmorsaal of the Berlin Zoological Garden. This was planned as a large society evening entitled Das Fest des Nosferatu (Festival of Nosferatu), and guests were asked to arrive dressed in Biedermeier costume. The cinema premiere itself took place on 15 March 1922 at Berlin’s Primus-Palast. The studio behind Nosferatu, Prana Film, was a short-lived silent-era German film studio founded in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and occultist-artist Albin Grau, named for the Hindu concept of prana. Although the studio’s intent was to produce occult- and supernatural-themed films, Nosferatu was its only production the company declared bankruptcy after Stoker’s estate, acting for his widow, Florence Stoker, sued for copyright infringement and won. The court ordered all existing prints of Nosferatu burned, but one purported print of the film had already been distributed around the world. This print was duplicated over the years, kept alive by a cult following, making it an example of an early cult film. The work remains an important piece of the expressionist art and Murnau reinforced into the public eye. The press praised it as a masterpiece with overall technical perfection.

A week prior to the opening of the film Tabu on March 11, 1931, Murnau drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles, California in a hired Rolls-Royce. The young driver, a 14-year-old Filipino servant, crashed the car against an electric pole. Murnau hit his head and died in a hospital the next day, in nearby Santa Barbara, before the premiere of his last film.

At yovisto you can learn more about the history of the movie business in the 1948 documentary ‘Let’s go to the Movies‘.

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