F.W. Murnau (born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe) revolutionized the art of cinematic expression using the camera subjectively to interpret the emotional state of a character.
Murnau studied philosophy, art history, and literature at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin. In 1908 he joined the company of renowned stage director Max Reinhardt, acting in several plays and serving as Reinhardt’s assistant for the groundbreaking production of the wordless, ritualistic The Miracle (1911). After serving in the German army and air force during World War I, Murnau worked in Switzerland, where he directed short propaganda films for the German embassy. He directed his first feature film, Der Knabe in Blau (The Boy in Blue) in 1919. For the next few years Murnau made films that were Expressionistic or supernatural in nature, such as Der Januskopf (1920; Janus-Faced), a highly praised variation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story that starred Bela Lugosi and Conrad Veidt. Unfortunately, this and most of Murnau’s early films are lost or exist only in fragmentary form.
Complete prints survive of Murnau’s first major work, Nosferatu (1922), which is regarded by many as the most effective screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Der letzte Mann (1924; “The Last Man”; English title The Last Laugh) was a collaboration between Murnau and the renowned scriptwriter Carl Mayer, and it established Murnau’s reputation as one of the foremost German directors.The film's mobile camera style had an international impact on the cinema. Restricted by technology, noted cinematographer Karl Freund mounted cameras on bicycles, used overhead wires, and in one memorable sequence strapped a camera to his waist and stumbled across the set while on roller skates in order to portray the viewpoint of the drunken protagonist.
Following the success of Murnau’s final two German films, his reputation was such that he was offered a Hollywood contract by Fox Film Corporation and was allowed to use the same staff of technicians and craftsmen he used for his German films. His first American production, Sunrise (1927), was another masterpiece that has been hailed by many critics as the finest silent film ever produced by a Hollywood studio. Unfortunately, it was a box office fiasco, and the studio closely supervised Murnau on his next two productions: Four Devils (1928; now lost) and Our Daily Bread (1929; also released as City Girl).
In order to better control the content of his films, Murnau joined with the pioneer documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty and the pair traveled to the South Seas to film Tabu (1931). It is one of Murnau’s masterpieces and was his biggest popular success. Sadly Murnau was killed in an auto accident a week before Tabu’s premiere.