FF. W. Murnau, born Freidrich Wilhelm Plumpe on December 28, 1888 in Westphalia is best known for his work in Expressionism films, most notably Nosferatu with Max Schreck as the vampire) and Last Laugh. He died in 1931 while riding in a car with his valet. He was a combat pilot during World War I, including a company commander and some time in the German Air Force. This resulted in many crashes as well as an internment where he kept himself busy with small productions in Switzerland.
His early films dabbled at the edge of Expressionism, but his breakthrough in the genre wasn't until he directed Nosferatu. His work included great use of negative and super-imposed images and odd angles of the castle really shwon through. However there were copyright issues as well as some financial difficulties at the film company he made it with that prevented it from really coming into its own. He actually lost the lawsuit and all copies of the film were ordered destroyed. Fortunately copies were kept safe and have allowed us to preserve and enjoy this film. Nosferatu is of course an interpretation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, where the Romanian townspeople refer to the undead as Nosferatu. While some of the characters were changed, such as the use of Nosferatu instead of Dracula, some of the secondary characters were cut as well. Its is however, unmistakable what the film is inspired by.
After Nosferatu he went on to direct Last Laugh, which had even more dreamlike images than Nosferatu. It introduced the concept of the camera "seeing" from the perspective of the characters which was really refreshing. It also utilized a technique of a mixture of pans, tilts, zooms, etc of the camera called Unchained Camera Technique. It is often considered his second most note-worthy piece. As he learned how to tell a story more with imagery he broke away from using as many intertitles which is seen in the drastic reduction in the number used between Nosferatu and Last Laugh.
His last film in his native land was Faust. Unlike many films using the topic Murnau's pulled from older ideas instead of branching out into new ideas about how it should be interpreted. The cast of Gösta Ekman as Faust, Emil Jannings as Mephisto and Camilla Horn as Gretchen turns out a memorable performance. The mix of known and unknown actors proved to be a good combination.
By then Murnau came to the attention of Hollywood, and notably William Fox. He signed a contract and made movies which yielded him several Academy Awards at the very first ceremony, including Cinematography, Best Actress, and Unique and Artistic Picture.He progressed from silent films to talkies but even then he remained strong to his roots and often used minimal dialogue to portray the plot. He did not get to see the premier of his last film, as he died before its scheduled release.
Fortunately for us many of his films were kept safe through the years so that we may enjoy them today. There is rumored to only be one copy of the original Nosferatu films still in existence although many copies have been made over the years and circulated for everyone to enjoy.
- Watch "Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror" for Free on FMO.
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