While his name may be largely unknown to those not versed in film studies, F.W. Murnau is an important and critical figure deserving of a vast recognition. Before the explosive success of Hollywood, it was German cinema that proved to be one of the most prolific and creative.
Murnau (1888-1931) was at the head of the artistic movement known as German Expressionism, that ranged from the turn of the 20th century until the 1920s, and was a significant creator in an uncertain time for cinema. Though silent films and their makers may remain obscure to modern audiences, the work of filmmakers like F.W. Murnau remains hugely influential, especially in the genre of horror.
Even in the infancy stages of the history of cinema, the horror genre always captivated filmmakers and audiences alike. From the very beginning of cinema, stories involving the supernatural and other ‘horrific’ figures were being made but it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that the genre really began to take off. With titles like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Mummy (1932), amongst many others, the seeds of modern horror movie-making were well sowed.
Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker, is one of those key films both in the emergence of cinema and in the horror genre. Directed by Murnau, this silent movie has come to exemplify some of the very best in the German Expressionist style and is a cornerstone of early horror cinema. Featuring a truly creepy lead performance from actor Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok, Murnau’s film gave him a significant boost in his still-young career. Although the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and the film was ordered to be destroyed, some prints survived allowing the world outside of Germany to witness this masterpiece.
Murnau understood well the tricks to be used to create suspense and fear, but unlike later masters like Alfred Hitchcock, had no sound to work with at all. Silent films work on a completely different level in playing with human emotions, and those executed well can have really genuine effects on viewers. Nosferatu exists as a subtle film of horror, with great use of shadows and the unknown to cast fear.
“I think films of the future will use more and more of these “camera angles” or, as I prefer to call them, these “dramatic angles”. They help photograph thought.”
In the years following his 1922 masterpiece, F.W. Murnau continued to work on numerous silent films, often with a sprinkle of horror. These include The Last Laugh (1924) (starring Emil Jannings, the very first Best Actor winner at the Academy Awards), and Faust (1926).
Emigrating to Hollywood he found considerable success with titles like City Girl (1930) but it was his work behind the camera with Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) that solidified the genius he had shown with Nosferatu. At the first ceremony of the Oscars in 1929, the film won the award for Best Unique and Artistic Production (a pre-cursor to the Best Picture Award) as well as Best Actress and Cinematography. It is widely considered by film historians as one of the greatest silent films ever made.
Unfortunately for the world, F.W. Murnau’s life was cut short in 1931 after being injured in a car crash. Though his career as a filmmaker was relatively short-lived, Murnau’s small but ultimately important output has endured as a foundation for filmmakers in any genre, particularly horror.
If Nosferatu is to be his lasting legacy, then indeed what a film to choose! As one of the earliest models of horror cinema, Murnau showcased through his film that scary material could indeed move audiences and have them coming back for more.
Before Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, there was an early German master who created an essential work of cinema crucial to the inspirations of these later masters. A true pioneer of both the cinematic arts and the horror genre so many of us love so dearly.