With the possible exception of D.W. Griffith, F.W. Murnau is the most influential filmmaker in history. The scores of artistic innovations and useful cinematic techniques employed by the German genius helped retool a young art form already in danger of succumbing to mass commercialism, soundbite culture and wrong-headed ideology. Throughout his small but sublime body of work, Murnau created an almost embarrassing wealth of poignant scenes and haunting visions which ninety years on still have the power to take your breath away.
Yet, Murnau was by no means an Ivory Tower artist. By applying a painterly eye to his canvas and showing keen affection for his protagonists, Murnau the humanist provided countless, glorious examples of how to transcend a tawdry scenario to his peers and future generations of filmmakers. Though, at the time of his death it did seem melodrama might become his true niche, Murnau’s exquisite taste and compassion brought classical values to the struggling little people who inhabited his films.
In his youth, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau inhabited a dream world inspired by the masters of literature (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, the German philosophers) and art (the Dutch schools of Hals and Vermeer). Due to his father’s quixotic take on business, the family fortunes rose and fell precipitously over the years but little Wilhelm kept himself occupied helping his older sister organize plays and by reading the aforementioned intellectually ambitious books. Coming of age, and against his father’s wishes, Wilhelm eschewed studying an academic career to take part in the burgeoning theater life of Berlin. He soon left the University of Heidelberg to accept an invitation to join Max Reinhardt’s theatrical school and his legendary Deutsches Theater.
Murnau quickly learned his new mentor’s productions were more than the mere sum of the play and actors. Reinhardt was a master set designer and a brilliant choreographer lending a grace and musicality to even the most hoary and old-fashioned works for the stage. Still, this new life was a struggle and Wilhelm would spend the next few years playing secondary roles in the Mittel-European theatrical circuit.
Like D.W. Griffith, Murnau quickly learned his gangly physicality made him unfit for a leading man, so he turned to directing plays instead. But, the advent of WWI would sidetrack that dream, at least temporarily. Murnau was called up to fight in the infantry where after he distinguished himself in several brutal campaigns he became a company commander. Ever one to pursue flights of fancy, Murnau transferred to the Air Force where the daring pilot crashed his plane several times before he finally (and thankfully) was interned in Switzerland shortly before the end of the war. Upon returning home, a disillusioned Murnau distanced himself from family and friends and took up theatrical work once again. But, he would find the theater too limiting for his lofty ambitions and his attention turned towards a new art form taking Berlin by storm: the cinema.
Murnau took to filmmaking quickly but, unfortunately, several of Murnau’s early films are lost or survive in only small fragments. It is a particular shame since during those years (1919-20) Murnau collaborated with such early luminaries of German Expressionist film as Robert Wiene (director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Carl Mayer (screenwriter of Caligari and several of Murnau’s later masterpieces), actors Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Bela Lugosi, cinematographers Carl Hoffman (who worked with Lang and co-shot Ewald Andre Dupont’s classic Variety), Franz Arno Wagner (who worked with Lang and G.W. Pabst) and Karl Freund (who shot Lang’s Metropolis and went on to a highly successful career in Hollywood). Murnau’s most important professional relationship during this period was with the brilliant Erich Pommer who would go onto form UFA studios and produce many of the director’s most important German films.
Through his screenwriters Murnau learned to visualize his films through poetic imagery to create a more psychologically sophisticated narrative than had been used before. Mayer co-scripted one of the earliest extant Murnau films Der Gang in die Nacht, a curious drama about a middle-aged doctor who loses the affections of his young wife to a blind patient. The stolid Dr. Eigil Borne (Olaf Fonss) surprises his friends by leaving his faithful fiancé for the young music hall dancer Helene (Erna Morena) who he marries and whisks away to a blissful residence by the sea. The couple’s happy life is upended by the appearance of a mysterious blind painter (Conrad Veidt) who hopes the doctor can cure his malady. The operation is successful but much to Eigil’s horror he finds his darling wife has fallen in love with the younger man.
Der Gang in die Nacht is an uneven early effort but it is already evident Murnau had a talent for inspiring natural, spontaneous performances. Most significantly, the eerie sequence depicting the artist’s first appearance in the beachfront community is Murnau’s first exercise in pure cinema and anticipates the chilling horrors of Nosferatu.
Murnau would become one of the first directors to use storyboards as architectural blueprints. He would frustrate and inspire set designers and cameramen by insisting they work countless hours with him to fill in the world around his beloved actors. This led to groundbreaking experimentation with moving cameras, creating moveable sets, building miniatures, taking process shots and using light-altering filters to create shadow, all of which gave Murnau’s films a bold chiaroscuro effect. Only a few of these innovations would be evident in two of his earliest surviving works The Haunted Castleand Burning Soil.
Based on a novel by the then popular German writer Rudolf Stratz, The Haunted Castle is the atmospheric story of a group of rich hunting companions who get together for a weekend at a friend’s castle. They are unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of the Count Oetsch (Paul Hartmann), who they all suspect of having murdered his own brother, the husband of the Baroness Safterstaedt (Olga Tschechowa). Having shown up with a new husband in tow, The Baroness is made especially uncomfortable by the Count’s presence, leading her to confess past sins to another guest at the castle, Father Faramund. She accuses the Count of murdering her former husband, but a guilty conscience forces her to reveal the truth. Since the currently available prints of The Haunted Castle are missing minutes of running time, it’s difficult to give the film a fair shake. Still, while The Haunted Castle is elegantly shot and directed with a cool austerity, there is little to suggest the touch of a master filmmaker.
Recently restored to its original length, Burning Soil makes for a more satisfying viewing experience. Surprisingly, the urbane Murnau had a fondness for the rural life and as seen in the overlooked City Girl he found plenty of smoldering drama in sprawling fields far away from the great metropolises. Here, we follow the plight of restless Johannes Rog (Vladimir Gajdarov), a dreamer who turns down the affections of his lovely young neighbor Gerda (Lya de Putti) to marry her rich young stepmother Helga (Stella Arbenina). Helga is unaware her new husband only married her to inherit a plot of her land underneath which, according to legend, sits a vast resource of oil. Johannes mines the field to avail and fearing for her husband’s health Helga sells the land to her husband’s stalwart brother Peter (Eugen Klopfer). Upon learning of the transaction, Johannes tells Helga he never loved her and the distraught woman drowns herself.
A disgusted Peter voids the sale, but when the property finally bears the precious oil Johannes is too upset to take any pleasure in his new wealth. Gerda soon learns of Helga’s suicide and throws herself at Johannes, but when she learns he doesn’t love her either she burns his well in revenge. Bereft of his fortune, Johannes finally takes up with Maria (Grete Diercks), a poor village girl he loved before greed set him adrift. Shot by Freund and Wagner, the gorgeous The Burning Soil was certainly Murnau’s most ambitious film to date, but seen in the context of the glories that were to follow this solid early effort plays long and feels a bit stuffy.
A thinly-veiled take on the Dracula legend, Nosferatu was Murnau’s breakthrough film. Based on Bram Stoker‘s horror novel and “freely adapted” by Henrik Galeen this film-diary sets out to chronicle the Great Death of Wisborg (or Bremen, depending on which print of the film you see), Germany in 1843. Real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wagenheim) is sent to the Carpathian Mountains to get the reclusive Count Orlok (Max Schreck) to sign off on a Wisborg house. When Hutter finds The Book of the Vampire in his luggage, he suspects there is more than meets the eye to his strange new friend. Orlok has already tried to suck Hutter’s blood and when the bizarre man makes a nocturnal visit to his guest’s room, Hutter decides to investigate. After he sees Orlok sleeping in a coffin, the terrified Hutter makes a hasty escape and knocks himself unconscious. Orlok loads several coffins into a ship destined for Germany.
While at sea, the sailors notice the coffins are filled with rats and the ghastly sight of Orlok causes a mass exodus. When the ghost ship arrives in Wisborg, Orlok escapes with the rats bringing the plague to the city. Meanwhile, Hutter escapes from a hospital to warn his wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder) who suspects her husband has in trouble all along. Hutter escapes from a hospital to warn his hometown of the vampire’s arrival. But, it is too late as disease and sickness has run rampant. After reading The Book of the Vampire, Ellen decides to take matters into her own hands. She beckons Orlok to her bed, sacrificing her own neck so the vampire will perish in the daylight.
Shot by Gunther Krampf and Franz Arno Wagner on several locations in rural Slovakia and small North German towns, Nosferatu still retains its eerieness after all these years. Though Schreck is truly frightening as the rodent-like Orlok, it is Murnau’s genius for creating creepy ambiance with shadow, light and sleight of hand editing which gives the film its weird humor and foreboding sense of doom. These imaginative and inexpensive methods of dictating mood and atmosphere was a huge influence on James Whale’s two Frankenstein films, the Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, and the brilliant series of RKO horror films made by the producer-director tandem, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur.
The Phantom was Murnau’s second and most noteworthy film made with screenwriter Thea Von Harbou. Based on a short story by Gerhart Hauptmann, Von Harbou fashioned a weird psychological study of Lorentz Lubota (Alfred Abel), a small town clerk and aspiring writer who lives beyond his means to impress Veronica (Lya de Putti), the beautiful daughter of a rich local businessman. When a bookseller tells Lubata he can get his poems published, the clerk borrows money from his pawnbroker Aunt Schwabe (Grete Burger) to buy a wardrobe befitting an important author. The gullible Lubata is led astray by his aunt’s sleazy boyfriend Wigottschinski (Anton Edthofer) and loses touch with reality. After getting into a fight at a local tavern, Lubota approaches Veronica’s family in a ridiculous attempt to ask for her hand. Word of Lubota’s erratic behavior gets back to his employers who discharge him immediately.
Meanwhile, a critic who has read Lubota’s poems tells the bookseller they are the work of an amateur and have no commercial potential. The deluded Lubota transfers his affections to Melitta, a scheming young woman who bears a close resemblance to Veronica. Melitta and her “baroness” mother (Ilka Gruning) bleed Lubota dry and when Aunt Schwabe learns of her nephew’s deception she refuses to lend him more money. A desperate Lubota enters into a plan with Wigottschinski to rob his aunt’s apartment but the plan goes awry when his partner strangles the pawnbroker. The men are caught and Lubota is sentenced to a long prison term of hard labor.
The Phantom isn’t first rate Murnau but it does contain some fascinating sequences that reveal the filmmaker’s increasing flair for creating a hallucinatory world. Murnau sought to visualize Lubota’s psychological torment in ways that correlated to mental decline. Early on, in his dank, dark apartment, Lubota imagines he is alone on a dark street where the virtuous Veronica’s horsedrawn carriage appears in the distance. The street grows black, giving the carriage an unearthly glow as it threatens to crush the self-loathing clerk. For the film’s centerpiece sequence Murnau, with the help of designers Hermann Warm and Erich Czerwonski, devised a spectacular cobblestone street set which created the illusion of a block of buildings leaning and virtually crushing the harried Lubota just as his debt and shame are overwhelming him.
Such personal hells are little to be seen in Murnau’s next collaboration with Von Harbou, The Finances of the Grand Duke, a slightly murky spy caper reminiscent of her early work with her husband and collaborator Fritz Lang. The cash-strapped Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) of a Mediterranean Duchy finds himself at the mercy of his creditors and a band of flim-flam men who lurk about the palace. A marriage of convenience to the rich Grand Duchess of Russia (Mady Christians) is arranged but the nuptials are put on hiatus when a revealing letter goes missing. Murnau peppers the screen with zesty characterizations and moves the tangled narrative along at a steady clip but the slight story didn’t inspire its director to reach the sort of transcendent heights found in his next film.
The Last Laugh is Murnau’s simplest yet most experimental film. Set in and around a big city luxury hotel, this bitter tale of an elderly doorman’s demotion to washroom clerk takes a turn towards the tragic when his loss of status leads to public humiliation and a likely sorry end. What looks like a tacked-on ending, in which the porter (Emil Jannings) becomes the beneficiary of a huge fortune, is actually Murnau’s gently ironic tribute to his favorite Hollywood movies where the beaten down protagonists would always be rewarded with a happy ending. Nevertheless, The Last Laugh remains a revelation.
For this late period silent, Murnau declined to use inter-titles instead relying on the power of the images to tell the story. The film opens at a dizzying pace. A thrilling camera dolly (by Karl Freund) establishes the hustle and bustle of a busy hotel lobby. Out in the street cabs arrive with passengers leaping in and out, their heavy luggage strapped to the roof. Our jolly porter wears his ornate uniform proud, but it is clear he has become too long in the tooth to be doing so much heavy lifting. Still, he is not prepared for the shock of being relieved of his duties and uniform, then given the lowly job of handing out towels in the men’s room.
Hoping to keep the dark secret from his family, the porter steals his old uniform to wear home that night. He manages to pull the wool over his niece’s eyes but his ruse is discovered the next day by a vindictive neighbor who spills the beans to the locals. When he returns home that evening his little masquerade is exposed and the former porter cruelly roasted by neighbors and his family alike. Shattered and sickly, he is barely able to function even at the lowliest of jobs until fate steps in and makes this most unlikely subject a king for a day.
Already a veteran of nearly fifty films and a key collaborator with Lubitsch, the forty year old Jannings gives a remarkable performance as the vulnerable old man whose very existence is tremulously tied to a uniform he doesn’t even own. Easily Murnau’s best work to date, the kaleidoscopic The Last Laugh firmly placed him alongside Fritz Lang as the class of German cinema.
Murnau’s next project, a swirling, magisterial adaptation of Faust, is his German masterpiece. Based on a scenario by the poet Hans Kyser and rewritten extensively by Murnau, the finished film remains mostly faithful to the Goethe text. When the plague strikes a small, medieval town the frightened citizens look to the elderly alchemist Faust (Gosta Eckman) for an answer to their woes. Overwhelmed by their grief, Faust tosses his books and bible into the fire and makes a deal with the cynical Mephisto (Emil Jannings) to provide a cure. The good deed backfires when the guilt-ridden scholar cannot tell the superstitious public where he got his healing powers, so they accuse the old man of heresy. Unable to back out of his deal with the devil, Faust decides to take advantage of his new powers and enjoy the fruits of the sensual life.
He travels back in time in order to win the hand of an early love, the fair Gretchen (Camilla Horn). The handsome young Faust sweeps the damsel off her feet, finding true happiness for the first time in his life. The aggravated Mephisto alerts Gretchen’s brother Valentin (future director Willem Dieterle) about Faust’s lascivious intentions forcing a bloody confrontation. Faust slays Valentin and flees town. Before Valentin dies he condemns his sister of adultery, forcing the pregnant young woman to be banished from her home. Gretchen has her baby alone, but is unable to provide for the child. One night, the homeless and exhausted woman sets her baby down as she drifts off to sleep. An overnight blizzard kills the child and Gretchen is held for murder. Deserted by friends and family, she is sentenced to die at the stake. Her cries out into the night reach the ears of wretched old Faust. The alchemist summons Mephisto to take him to the execution site where, in an act of ecstasy, he is immolated with his beloved.
Faust is Murnau’s most visually stunning film. Shooting exclusively on UFA sets, Murnau, cinematographer Carl Hoffmann and set designers Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig created a painterly vision, implementing chiaroscuro from the Dutch Masters as well as earthy village landscapes inspired by Brueghel and Bosch. Even the players’ characterizations lend themselves to painting—indeed, Jannings’ gleeful devil resembles any number of Franz Hals’ rosy-faced rascals. As Gretchen’s plight grows increasingly bleak, she is seen as a light shining amongst dark settings; ala Rembrandt’s dramatic narrative paintings (The Night Watch). Such humanizing effects make for a more romantic than classical take on Goethe’s work. For his next project Murnau tackled another classic play, but this time he finally got a chance to show off his lighter side.
On the heels of the monumental The Last Laugh and Faust Murnau’s adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe can’t help but feel like a letdown. Still, the light-hearted film has undeniable charm and is full of plenty of cinematic invention. When a young man (Andre Mattoni) arrives home to find his rich grandfather (Hermann Picha) being taken advantage of by his manipulative servant (Rosa Valetti), he confronts her but only ends up getting thrown out of the house. He vows revenge, so the next time he shows up at the house he is disguised as a medicine show-type barker who has a magic cinema in his coach. He shows the governess and the old man a “play” about Tartuffe (Emil Jannings), a shakedown artist who uses brimstone and hellfire tactics to take advantage of a god-fearing local baron Orgon (Werner Krauss).
The prize in Tartuffe’s eyes is Orgon’s beautiful daughter Elmire (Lil Dagover) as well as the poor fool’s estate. The oily villain nearly gets his way before the law finally arrives. At play’s end, the rich old man comes to his senses and throws the conniving governess out before reconciling with his grandson.
Murnau came late to the production of Tartuffe but as he was already the recipient of a Carl Mayer scenario and would be working with once again with Karl Freund it didn’t turn out to be a difficult shoot. Murnau’s final German film is chalk-full of wicked and earthy humor giving rise to the possibility he could have given Lubitsch a run for his money as a director of comedy. But, like Lubitsch, Murnau saw his future lay not in Berlin but the Brave New World of Hollywood where he hoped he would have more freedom to choose his own stories and work with the best technicians in the world.
Received with open arms at his new home Fox Studios, Murnau and Carl Mayer adapted a story by Prussian writer Hermann Sudermann (Flesh and the Devil) and began writing the scenario for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Murnau retained the services of the studio’s best leading actress Janet Gaynor, who’d already made a specialty of playing winsome heroines most notably in Frank Borzage’s emotional masterpiece Seventh Heaven.
In Sunrise, Gaynor plays Indre, the ignored wife of restless farmer Anses (George O’Brien) who has fallen into the arms of a tempestuous woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). Anxious to get back to town with her new beau in tow, the woman plots with her handsome lover to drown his wife, making it look like an accident. The next day, Anses surprises Indre by asking her if she wants to join him on a visit to town. Her happiness turns to horror when she learns of her husband’s dark intentions. But, Anses finds he cannot go through with the deed and he spends the rest of the day trying to make amends to his broken-hearted wife. This prolonged sequence, which includes a magical trolley ride, the running of a pig through a posh restaurant and, finally, the spine-chilling dragging of the lake for Indre’s body, is as gripping and transcendent as anything in Murnau’s oeuvre or, for that matter, all cinema.
As befits the simple story Sunrise’s visual style is stripped-down and less self-conscious than in Murnau’s German films. Still, cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss and set designer Rochus Gliese provide an elegant backdrop for the nightmarish drama to unfold. Sunrise turned out to be Murnau’s most perfect and deeply moving film. Unfortunately, its richness was lost, ironically, on audiences outside the big cities and from then on the extravagant German director was kept on a short leash by his producers.
Murnau’s next film Four Devils is lost; a disappearance attributed to either fire or emulsion rot. Looking to make a film within the budget set by the studio, Murnau heavily researched his subject (a traveling circus) and even briefly joined a carny crew in Virginia to soak up the atmosphere. Janet Gaynor would play the lead but Murnau filled the rest of the cast with B-list actors to save money. The scenario written by Carl Mayer, based on a book by Hermann Bing, follows the plight of four children raised by the gentle circus clown (J. Farrell MacDonald) who killed their cruel guardian in a brawl. These four devils grow up under the Big Top and become successful trapeze artists. The handsome and talented Charles (Charles Morton) leads a fast life forever disappointing his faithful girlfriend Marion (Gaynor). When Charles takes up with a local hussy, Marion makes one last attempt to win him back.
When studio head William Fox scuttled the original tragic ending (which saw Charles and Marion die in a trapeze accident) Murnau dutifully shot a happy ending where Charles makes up with Marion and asks for her forgiveness. Photographic stills from Four Devils give evidence of a very striking work of art, but critics of the day felt the film didn’t hold up well next to Sunrise. Ironically, unlike his American masterpiece, Four Devils actually made money and gave Murnau an opportunity to continue working in Hollywood.
Admittedly fond of the farming life Murnau had great plans for his next film City Girl (aka Our Daily Bread), a rural melodrama vaguely reminiscent of The Burning Soil. Hoping to shoot the film on the farms outside of Chicago, the director also planned to again use unknown actors in telling his “Story of Wheat”. Buoyed by the box office windfall of Four Devils Murnau reverted to his extravagant ways, including buying a farm in Oregon to research his subject. Then, there was the problem of sound. Murnau’s studio, Fox, came late to this new technology and with the budget of this silent “art film” escalating by the day studio heads were worried they might have a white elephant on their hands. Under such difficult circumstances, Murnau managed to turn out a remarkable movie.
Based on a play by Elliot Lester with a scenario written by Marion Orth and Berthold Viertel, City Girl follows the plight of Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell), a naïve farmer’s son given the responsibility of selling his father’s wheat harvest to brokers in Chicago. Once in the big city, Lem becomes distracted by Kate (Mary Duncan), a pretty but hardboiled waitress he meets at a local hash joint. When Lem reads in the newspapers the price of wheat is falling he panics and sells below his father’s asking price. While he is worried about his father’s reaction, Lem is soothed by Mary’s acceptance of his marriage proposal.
When the newlywed couple returns to the farm, Lem’s father (David Torrence) is indeed furious at his son for selling short, but he is even more upset by the presence of Mary who accuses of being a gold digger. When Lem doesn’t stick up for Mary, she gives him the cold shoulder. To make things worse Mary has attracted the unwanted attention of the field hands, especially the foreman who tries to make love to her. The men are already near mutiny when a vicious storm threatens to wipe out the old man’s crop. They refuse to work at night to bring in the harvest, but they rally around Lem after his father accidentally fires his gun at him. After a remorseful Tustine patches things up with his son, the men return to the fields and Lem brings Mary back into the fold.
Anticipating that the film would be a hard sell to sound-spoiled audiences Fox did extensive re-editing and added incidental sound affects as well as a musical score. As a result, City Girl has a checkered reputation which is unfortunate as it is a bewitching drama of the first order. While the characterization of old man Tustine is the stuff of turgid blood and thunder melodrama, his unwillingness to accept Mary as a daughter in-law creates extreme discomfort between the young lovers helping. Lem’s reluctance to stand up to his father pushes Mary into the arms of a commoner which only confirms the old man’s suspicions. Seen in its truncated form City Girl offers only a few of the sort of breathtaking sequences found in Sunrise. But this gorgeous and rather cruel film proved Murnau was clearly capable of turning out a gripping story that, under the right circumstances, could have found a broad audience.
Frustrated by the meddling of studio producers, Murnau cut ties with Hollywood to form a production company with legendary documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Even more of a maverick than Murnau, Flaherty found it impossible to work within the budget and time limitations set by Hollywood and he hated having studio lackeys looking over his shoulder at every turn. For their first project the men set sail to Tahiti where they began to comb locations for Tabu – A Story of the South Seas. As Murnau sunk most of his savings into the film, he would be the director and Flaherty the cameraman.
A cinematic poet of the first rank, Flaherty was also a very deliberate worker and once on the set his procrastinations drove Murnau up the wall. Murnau, in turn, was too much of a craftsman and a romantic for the uncompromising Flaherty. Flaherty ended up leaving Tabu and was replaced by cinematographer Floyd Crosby. Despite their aesthetic differences too much of Flaherty’s regal visual style is evident in Tabu to write off his contributions to this exotic masterpiece.
Tabu follows the tragic plight of Matahi, a carefree young fisherman and the apple of his eye, the pretty native girl Reri (Anne Chevalier). One day, the formidable old warrior Hitu arrives on the island and informs the elders Reri has been chosen to become the virgin goddess of the islands. She will be forced to break off with Matahi and leave her home forever. To defy this holy proclamation is strictly taboo. Nevertheless, the fisherman kidnaps Reri and takes her to a neighboring island where they live as husband and wife. Due to his prowess as a pearl gatherer, Matahi becomes popular with the whites on the island. But, his good nature and gullibility leaves him at the mercy of Chinese merchants with whom he runs up a significant tab.
When Hitu makes a surprise appearance Reri makes a deal with him to become the goddess as long as Matahi remains unpunished. Meanwhile, Matahi is anxious to escape the island, but when he tries to buy ferry tickets he learns he must pay off his huge debt to the Chinese merchants before they will be allowed to leave. He returns to his shed to find a farewell note from Reri. Catching sight of Hitu’s ship Matahi swims out to intercept the vessel. Just as he is about to pull himself aboard, the Hitu cuts the rope leaving the young fisherman be cast adrift and swallowed by a watery grave.
Free from demanding studio bosses, invasive technology, and scripts that catered to lowbrow audiences, Murnau was left to complete his purest and most sensual film about a primitive civilization corrupted by want and greed. Here, the artist is stripped bare. Murnau’s organic approach to filmmaking shifts attention to the rootless lovers who find happiness at every turn until dark shadows appear in the authoritative persona of Hitu.
The restless Murnau seemed intrigued with the prospect of laying down roots in Tahiti, but just days before the premier of Tabu he died in a senseless auto accident, leaving generations of cineastes to guess at how this genius might have transcended the heights of his luminous and haunting swan song.
Openly homosexual, it’s unlikely Murnau would have been welcomed back to Hitler’s Germany with open arms, but like fellow German expatriate Max Ophuls he could well have found work in France or Italy. While Murnau wore out his welcome at Fox Studios it’s hard to imagine he would have found doors closed to him at rival studios, as long as he kept his sexuality a private matter. While Murnau was certainly an uncompromising filmmaker he never proved as difficult or self-destructive as the great martyrs of the American cinema; Welles, Stroheim and Sternberg. The lure of creating movie magic was just too damn seductive.
Books on Murnau:
Murnau – Lotte Eisner ****1/2 You’d do well to brush up on your Murnau viewing before delving into this meticulous study of the director’s art. It’s chalk-full of production info that will seem arcane to the uninitiated, but Eisner’s keen insight and access to the people in Murnau’s circle makes this a keeper. Out of print.
Films by Murnau:
1921 Der Gang in die Nacht ***1/2
1921 The Haunted Castle ***1/2
1922 The Burning Soil ***1/2
1922 Nosferatu ****
1922 The Phantom ****
1924 Finances of the Grand Duke ***1/2
1924 The Last Laugh ****1/2
1926 Herr Tartuffe ****
1926 Faust *****
1927 Sunrise *****
1929 City Girl ****
1931 Tabu ***** (uncredited Robert Flaherty)