Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the greatest and most important film directors ever, and the maker of my personal favorite movie. Born in Germany (or what equates to the country of Germany today) on December 28, 1888, F.W. Murnau would go on to direct 21 films in the 12 years from 1919 to 1931, when he would suddenly die from a car crash in California on March 11. Long before his death, Murnau (born Plumpe) got his artistic start in the theater, where he became friends with Max Reinhardt. He fought in World War I as a pilot, and ended up interred in a prisoner of war camp in Switzerland, where he put on plays for the prisoners. After the war ended, Murnau returned to Germany and made his first film, the now-lost THE BOY IN BLUE (1919), starting a relatively brief but intense career in movies.
Like many German filmmakers, and maybe more than others, Murnau was initially influenced by the outgrowth of Expressionism in the wake of WWI’s horrors. But the extent of true Expressionism in the German film industry in the early-to-mid 1920s, the era of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), is sometimes over-assigned, applied to any prominent German director of the time. Murnau definitely played with the visual and performance aspects of Expressionism, but especially by the end of his career and life, spent in Hollywood as it was from 1926 onward, that changed. Then, and even before, he was embracing Romanticism and other influences, fusing them with the stark shadows of Expressionism and actively forming a new American mise-en-scene.
Murnau was only 42 when he died. He left an incredible legacy, one that still reaches out to audiences that aren’t too familiar with the silent era. NOSFERATU in particular has had an incredible popular staying power. His films are constantly studied, and Murnau’s life as a gay man has given new critical approaches to his body of work, whether he was closeted at the time, or the fact was an open secret, or he openly embraced his sexuality. The mind reels at what could have been had he lived to make movies into the 1950s or ’60s as a number of his silent era peers did. He probably could have found a way to enrich the talkies; he only ever made essentially half of one, and it’s not even surviving today. In fact, only 12 of Murnau’s 21 works can now be viewed in full, although one reel of MARIZZA, GENNANT DIE SCHMUGGLERMADONNA (1922) is around and minor scraps of others survive. But those 12 movies are the subject of this piece, representative of a filmography with an incredible emotional core and deftness of direction, moving films that literally move with a fluidity that contributed to the reshaping of an entire art form.
#12 — JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT (1921)
Translated from its original German, “Der Gang in die Nacht,” JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT is Murnau’s earliest extant film. His preceding six films (THE BOY IN BLUE, SATANAS , THE HUNCHBACK AND THE DANCER , THE HEAD OF JANUS , EVENING — NIGHT — MORNING , and DESIRE ) are all lost. As with a couple of the early Murnau films, combined with his reputation through NOSFERATU, JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT’s title implies some kind of horrific bent. And certainly, the dark themes below its melodrama, concerning a doctor, his wife, a blind painter, and a couple of concluding suicides, don’t render the film some kind of rosy tale. But in its structure, performances (which include Conrad Veidt’s, a frequent Murnau collaborator in the early films), and composition, JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT feels old-fashioned, even by the standards that Murnau would define within a year. It definitely doesn’t fit into the horror genre, and it’s stagey. But there are glimpses of some more radical lighting or set design that could be attributed to Germany’s leading film art movement. Again, though, Expressionism as a label on Murnau in general is a bit misleading, because JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT is more Griffith than it is CALIGARI. Murnau never made a bad film, but JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT ranks as his “worst” because it’s quite unremarkable, even for its time, among its peers, and at the start of his career.
#11 — THE HAUNTED CASTLE (1921)
As with JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT, don’t go into its follow up, THE HAUNTED CASTLE (or “Schloß Vogelöd: Die Enthullung eines Geheimnisses,” or “Castle Vogeloed”), thinking it’s an Expressionist horror film in the vein of NOSFERATU. THE HAUNTED CASTLE, like some more sophisticated Murnau films to come, is a kammerspielfilm, or chamber drama. In it, a group of wealthy hunters reconvene at the castle of a lord. During the course of a few rained-in days, various characters enter the picture and reveal an ever-increasing number of dramatic secrets, culminating in, once again, suicide. It’s almost like a dark, not-so-fantastical THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), or any other “old dark house” horror/comedy to come. Even though it is not within the horror genre, despite its name, THE HAUNTED CASTLE does indicate the skills Murnau would put to use for NOSFERATU, as he ratchets up the tension between suspicious characters. He even uses novel flashbacks to do so. A tremendous restoration of the movie certainly does it favors, as its relatively static, luxurious sets and decidedly non-Expressionist lighting are revealed to be appealingly symmetrical at times. But THE HAUNTED CASTLE is still a bit of a slow melodrama, at least in relation to Murnau, and therefore a minor work in the scope of his filmography.
#10 — THE BURNING SOIL (1922)
THE BURNING SOIL, or “Der brennende Acker,” followed the aforementioned MARIZZA, and really gives the earliest glimpse of what made Murnau great. Shot by two all-timers, Fritz Arno Wagner and Karl Freund, and set-designed by Rochus Gliese, all with extensive resumes of great films, THE BURNING SOIL concerns the fight for a petroleum field. Much of its story unfolds in a manner similar to Murnau’s previous films, that is to say, with a series of melodramatic character moments, love triangles, revelations, and the like. But central to THE BURNING SOIL is a commentary on the contrasting experiences and lives of the rich and the poor, and the family squabbles that ensue, as exemplified by their duels. “Squabbles” may be too weak a word because, again, a number of THE BURNING SOIL’s plot points resolve in suicide. But in terms of its form, the movie is more clearly Expressionist, with the leaning farmhouse that the poor family lives in echoing the interior of the house in SUNRISE. The depiction of the “Devil’s Field,” the “cursed” place that is revealed to be the oilfield, is almost supernatural, and again, you would be forgiven if you thought THE BURNING SOIL had some kind of fantasy or horror element. At this time, the tinting of silent film scenes was very common and various colors are used to great effect. As evidenced by its place on this list, THE BURNING SOIL is still not a great Murnau film, but its slow burn (pardon the pun) and depiction of the dichotomy of simple rural life and vain, get-rich-quick ambition (another Griffith touchpoint) mark it as a distinct entry in Murnau’s early period. It is remarkable to note, however, that everything would change with his next film, also released in 1922: NOSFERATU. Just how did the guy grow so fast?
#9 — THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE (1924)
THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE (“Die Finanzen des Großherzogs”) is rightfully known as an offbeat and lesser Murnau film, perhaps more so than the other entries on this list so far because it came after the advent of his great critical success, NOSFERATU (and a lost film, THE EXPULSION ). And indeed, it’s his only relative “miss” in the period from 1922 to 1931, the only movie in that time period that doesn’t compete, if not for the best release of its year, then the whole silent era, or even of all time. But this rare comedy from Murnau (he technically made only one other) isn’t bad. It’s good! THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE plays with the rich and their machinations to stay that way through corruption, quick marriages, and revolutions; at times, it almost feels like a Lubitsch film. Cinematographer Freund and his partner Franz Planer get great shots of the Adriatic seaside, shot on location, and many of the sumptuous sets are a real treat to look at (designed as they were by Gliese). Alfred Abel gives a solid, charming performance as a disguise-hopping private investigator of sorts for the titular Grand Duke. Some of the plot points get clumsy, and the comedy isn’t always played for out-and-out laughs, but THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE is lively enough and an interesting, if not exceptional, detour in the Murnau canon.
#8 — TABU: A STORY OF THE SOUTH SEAS (1931)
TABU: A STORY OF THE SOUTH SEAS was Murnau’s last film. Released just a week after its director died, TABU is a combination of the ethnographic approach to documentary filmmaking of the time and a forbidden (or, yes, “taboo”) romance story. In fact, the film was conceived as an equal partnership between Murnau and director Robert J. Flaherty, of NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922) and MOANA (1926) fame; the latter is also an exploration of Polynesian/South Seas culture. Flaherty directed the opening scene, but the pair encountered creative difficulties, and Murnau was left to make much of the film himself…probably to his pleasure, as he was also able to make the decision to retool the part-talkie into a fully silent picture (with a score underneath, of course). The whole thing was really an independent venture, after Murnau’s frustration with Fox led him to striking out from the bounds of Hollywood, quite literally. Shot in Tahiti and Bora Bora with a cast of native, non-professional actors and a local crew, TABU really emphasized the natural beauty of the story’s setting and the accompanying nature of the inhabitants’ culture. Some kind of “problematic” coverage may be expected of a film about non-white cultures made by white people, and sure, there is probably something to TABU that can be justifiably criticized. But really, even compared to Flaherty’s own MOANA or the whole host of other South Seas movies that were quite popular at the time, TABU treats its subjects with remarkable restraint and humanity. Echoing (at least in its credits) the character naming conventions of SUNRISE, TABU follows The Boy and The Girl, islanders whose love is forbidden in favor of The Girl’s virgin sacrifice. They escape together to a French-controlled island, where The Boy becomes the “champion” pearl-diver. But this life, for all the tender and loving moments Murnau (and Flaherty, who continued to contribute to the story during production) includes, is threatened by the encroaching control of the Westerners. The couple is beset on both sides, and TABU’s final, tragic moment illustrates both the harm of violent tradition and violent “progress.” The whole of TABU is given weight by Floyd Crosby’s incredible cinematography, which actually won him an Oscar. It’s remarkable that Murnau, who gained widespread renown for NOSFERATU, made a film that’s so visually bright; TABU’s whites (and I’m talking in the shots, not the people) are searing, but not in a washed out or unintended way. It makes the people, night scenes, and ripples of the waves stand out. TABU is a special film, and indeed, from here on out, we’re talking an upper echelon of film, then and now. TABU’s stock has risen even more in recent years, and for good reason, but slight edges or differences here and there define the best of Murnau’s work.
#7 — CITY GIRL (1930)
With one contingent, the middling placement of CITY GIRL is probably controversial. Murnau’s final film made within the Hollywood studio system was intended as a silent, and today, that’s the only version we can watch. The Fox-mandated sound version, which was apparently more like a part-talkie, is lost. But that’s probably for the better, and indeed, CITY GIRL has risen to be considered one of Murnau’s best films. It followed the “biggest” gap between movies for Murnau. Since 1919, he never went a calendar year without at least one release, which changed in 1929; 1928 saw the release of 4 DEVILS, a now-lost film that has become something of a holy grail for preservationists and Murnau fans. In any event, the director came back from this minimal “break” with a Romantic romance that nearly channeled the spontaneous beauty of SUNRISE. The story tells of a country boy’s courting of a, yes, city girl and their love and subsequent troubles out on the boy’s family farm. Narratively, it actually plays in the reverse of SUNRISE; in that film, the couple is on the verge of collapse, but the danger gives way to rekindled love. CITY GIRL still has a happy Hollywood ending, but the journey to that point is moving, thrilling, and frustrating. The frustration stems from the behavior of the boy’s father, but to a much lesser extent, I also wasn’t able to settle into the groove of fascination with the film once the action moved away from the city. Oh, the entire film is shot beautifully enough (by Ernest Palmer), and the core performances from Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan are compelling. But I feel their chemistry is at its strongest in the beginning, perhaps because that’s when the wonder and spontaneity are still fresh. These are some waffling statements, however, because ultimately, CITY GIRL is an incredible testament to the lasting power of the silent movie art form. Even in being a “middling” Murnau, CITY GIRL makes its mark as one of the best movies of its time, and acts as a studio swan song for the medium, in the face of changing technology and executive and audience desires, not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (1931).
#6 — PHANTOM (1922)
I think PHANTOM is grossly underrated. Much of the criticism I’ve been able to read of the film describes it as an impotent depiction of an obsessive main character who keeps making frustratingly bad decisions…and yeah, that’s the point! But rather than build a strawman argument from a composite of various people, let me illustrate why PHANTOM is so great. First, a brief synopsis: the story, told mostly in flashback, follows Lorenz (Alfred Abel), a clerk and aspiring poet, who becomes infatuated with a rich woman (Lya De Putti) after she accidentally runs him down with her horses. Through a series of events, Lorenz starts seeing a gold-digger who is a doppelganger of the object of Lorenz’s desires (also played by De Putti), steals from his aunt, and essentially gets his own relative killed. These tortured developments are often rendered with a fluid camera reminiscent of the “unchained camera” concept behind Murnau’s later THE LAST LAUGH. PHANTOM also more explicitly employs Expressionist lighting and sets, but it also plays with tinting and soft focus to contrast the darkness of Lorenz’s psyche with a tranquil aspect of his yearning, exemplified by the film’s indelible shot, an image of his obsession floating in a sea of diffused blue. There are a number of other outstanding visual moments throughout PHANTOM, and they support a, if not totally sympathetic interpretation of Lorenz’s actions, at least a more understandable one. I suspect that, also like THE LAST LAUGH, PHANTOM’s anticipatory frame story, which establishes that Lorenz repented in jail and ended up with the “girl next door” character (played by Lil Dagover, who I have a considerate fondness for), was a concession to happy ending proponents at the Ufa studio. Ultimately, though, PHANTOM is remarkable because of the way its visual acuity truly communicates the increasingly fragile mental state of its main character, and it doesn’t get enough credit within the already amazing Murnau filmography.
#5 — NOSFERATU (1922)
Subtitled “eine Symphonie des Grauens,” or “A Symphony of Horror,” NOSFERATU is Murnau’s most recognizable film today. Its titular vampiric character appeared as a joke in an epidsode of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS (1999-present) for God’s sake. But this memorability is for good reason, since the German-ified adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA (1897) is incredible. This is true Expressionism, with extreme lighting, spectral effects, and moody set design rendering NOSFERATU perhaps the best horror film of the silent era. Like Tod Browning’s Hollywood DRACULA (1931), NOSFERATU is at its best when exploring its Count’s castle, but unlike DRACULA, those sequences aren’t painfully short. Of course, much of NOSFERATU’s power and lasting appeal is the truly bizarre and frightening makeup worn by Max Schreck, who gives a performance within it that imparts the substance to the style. All prints of NOSFERATU were famously court ordered to be destroyed after the Stoker estate sued production company Prana Film (which ended that corporation), even though names and some plot details were changed from the novel on which it is based. Thankfully, some prints of NOSFERATU survived, because what we can view today is one of the greatest entries into the German Expressionist film movement, and a movie reeking with mysticism and the ugly, rather than suave, face of pure evil.
#4 — THE LAST LAUGH (1924)
At some point, any Murnau fan could point to about half of his surviving films and say “OK, this is his best. No wait, this is. Alright, actually, this is.” That’s how I feel writing this list, so even though THE LAST LAUGH comes in at fourth place, let it be known that it is an incredible film. Its impact on film radiates on a different frequency, as its unchained camera concept, implemented by the great Karl Freund, shaped an approach to film that marked the best, at least until the static era of the early talkies came around. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock went and worked with Murnau for a little bit, and he looked back on THE LAST LAUGH as a nearly perfect film. And I guess that Hitchcock guy went on to do some pretty big, great, and important things. In any event, THE LAST LAUGH was actually released in Germany as “Der letzte Mann,” or “The Last Man.” It’s a key difference that, together with the English title of THE LAST LAUGH, illustrate the resonant impact of the movie. Emil Jannings gives a career-defining performance, within a career of many, many great performances, as a hotel doorman whose firing, proud denial of the firing to his friends and family, and whose ultimate degradation chart the path of working class treatment, German prosperity and lack thereof after World War I, and simple shame. But oh, technically the story doesn’t end there, since Ufa stressed a happy ending. Following the former doorman’s nearly final, sad moment of rest in the hotel washroom, an intertitle (one of the very few in the film) reads, “Here our story should really end, for in actual life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him, however, and provided quite an improbable epilogue.” Murnau was being cheeky before bringing our sad little protagonist to a place of fantastical wealth and prestige. But it’s a testament to THE LAST LAUGH that this ending, which is very much at odds with the rest of the movie, does not distract from its core emotions or themes. In a way, the final, dreamlike happy ending could be read as a true dream, manifesting out of the unhappy doorman’s sleeping mind. However you look at the ending, though, THE LAST LAUGH establishes a tremendous sympathy and rapport with its main character, for all his pride, bringing us closer to his experience with the movie’s contrasting austerity and luxuriousness and its fluidity.
#3 — TARTUFFE (1926)
TARTUFFE, at least in the scope of Murnau’s filmography, is underrated. His adaptation of Molière’s famous 1664 play breaks down the supporting cast and concept so as to render the story into a chamber drama that is as amusing as it is sinister. The lampoon of hypocrisy is clear, but there is such a great creepiness to Emil Jannings’ titular character that darkens TARTUFFE a bit, in a good way. But the radiant performance really comes from Lil Dagover; Tartuffe’s lust is credible as Murnau lingers on Dagover’s feminine features in a key scene. The whole film is shot beautifully, of course, by Karl Freund, and the sets fuse a sparseness with a luxury that bring it into a three-dimensional, kind of liminal space. While its frame story, which establishes the central story as a film within a film, is weaker and a bit didactic, TARTUFFE essentially never lets up on its brilliant combination of levity and slinking menace. It’s a truly funny movie as much as it represents a looming, important message, and in that sense, I suppose TARTUFFE can truly be compared to its famous source material.
#2 — FAUST (1926)
Murnau’s last German film is nearly the greatest of his entire career. His fantasy epic, again adapting a classic play (in this case, Goethe’s 1808 tragedy of the same name), is so visually astounding that various scenes have deservedly been praised and recognized as prime examples of the beauty of the silent era and Expressionism. Indeed, the whole of FAUST is one of the best films of the 1920s, and today, I can still marvel at its epic scope and remarkable special effects. FAUST rivals Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN films (1924) in its cultivation of a truly fantastic mise-en-scene, a towering collection of moody crossroads, stark villages, and elaborate palaces. FAUST is Murnau’s truly Expressionist manifesto, and its performances also reflect that. Gösta Ekman’s anguish as the title character is extreme, as is the diabolical demeanor of Emil Jannings’ Mephisto. So well do they represent the primal forces that Goethe’s play, and the traditional Faustian folk tales that Murnau also pulled from, that the movie foments a sort of existentialist terror. FAUST just consistently shocks with its visual acuity and, at least for me, its ability to steep its viewer into devilish fantasy.
#1 — SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)
But Murnau’s greatest achievement, one of the greatest movies of all time, and my personal favorite in both of those departments, followed FAUST, when he came to America. There, at Fox, the director was able to fuse all of the cinematic concepts he helped pioneer in Germany with a budding Hollywood style, itself influenced by German contributions, to nearly solidify the classical form and studio aesthetic that would come to define the Golden Age of Hollywood. As a fusion of Expressionism and Romanticism, SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS delivers a dizzying visual experience as it charts a classical tale, one that is a modern myth or fable. I have written about SUNRISE a couple of times before, including when it wasn’t quite my favorite movie. I’ve said that “Every element of filmmaking is rendered with such incredible proficiency for SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS.” I would add now that “proficiency” can come across as a euphemism for appreciating craft without truly connecting with it. That is not the case with SUNRISE, which is so humane at its core that it can emotionally rationalize, or in fact de-rationalize, the betrayal of a man plotting to kill his wife into a state of rekindled love and romantic bliss. F.W. Murnau was a great film director, and SUNRISE is his greatest film. Existing within its extradimensional bounds is a cinematic experience unlike any other, and sums up the sentiment that, hey, these movie things might be pretty good at tapping into and drawing out the humanity within all of us.