German 43: Exiles and Émigrés
 

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Photo of Friedrich MurnauMurnau, Friedrich Wilhelm

(Bielefeld 1888–Santa Monica, California 1931)

Born as Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe. Director. Like so many notable German actors, Murnau had his start with Max Reinhardt with whom he apprenticed as assistant director. Strongly influenced by his Danish contemporaries, his first success was Der Gang in die Nacht (1921), a melodramatic examination of a love triangle involving a blind painter. From that point onward, he would make the classic features that were to define not only German expressionist film, but also world cinema of the silent era. In particular, the vampire film Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924) are considered Murnau's most accomplished works. The former, derived from Bram Stoker's Dracula, established the infamous Count Orlock (played by Max Schreck) as an icon in the twentieth century. The latter, shot by Karl Freund and his 'unchained camera' that captures the point-of-view of the protagonist, is a revealing parable that exposes the contradictory impulses of Weimar society. Emil Jannings stars as the self-tormented yet self-assured protagonist. Although not as popular as his earlier movies, Tartüff and Faust (both 1926, and both featuring Jannings) are fascinating adaptations of well-known European narratives. Still, it was the international popularity of The Last Laugh that got Murnau a four-year contract with Fox in 1925. His first assignment was to direct Sunrise (1927, scripted by Carl Mayer), a film about a farmer who attempts to murder his wife in order to run away with his lover from the city. Sunrise was a commercial failure, but the careful unfolding of an "everyday" tragedy influenced numerous American filmmakers, including John Ford and Frank Borzage. Because of the poor reception to this film, Murnau found himself making two now-forgotten features: Four Devils (1929) and City Girl (1930). Finally, he severed his ties with Fox and collaborated with documentarian Robert Flaherty on filming the beautiful South Seas love story, Tabu (1931). A week before that movie's premiere in the United States, Murnau was killed in a car accident in California.


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