Where to begin with F.W. Murnau

A beginner’s path through the sublime silent cinema of F.W. Murnau

21 December 2016

By Ben Nicholson

Nosferatu (1922)

Why this might not seem so easy

It can often be daunting when you decide to take the first plunge into the work of a revered director, and the reputation of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has been calcifying for nearly a century. His epic American romance Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is often considered not only to be one of the greatest films of the silent era but of cinema as a whole. Meanwhile, his terrifying take on Dracula, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (1922), is a long-established member of the horror genre’s pantheon.

Despite the acclaim, the fact that Murnau operated entirely in the silent era can also be of concern to new viewers. There have naturally been seismic changes in terms of narrative conventions, acting approaches and visual style and language since Murnau’s day. It can be easy to view the overwrought performances, or the communication through intertitles, as distancing and off-putting. It can be easy to assume that these modes make the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd more relatable to modern audiences than the sentimental and allegorical melodramas associated with the likes of Murnau. Fortunately, though his films are obviously a product of their time, they are also timeless; still as fresh and bracing today as they were in the early 20th century.

F.W. Murnau (right) on location for Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

The best place to start – The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh (1924) may not seem the obvious place to start with Murnau’s tragically brief career. It doesn’t have the recognisable genre cache of Nosferatu, or the widespread adulation of Sunrise, but there are a number of reasons why it feels like the ideal place to dive in.

The first of these is the fact that it is a combination of German Expressionism and something called Kammerspielfilm. The former is an artistic movement integral to Murnau’s style that rejected objective reality, often using distorted visuals to physically reflect psychology. Kammerspielfilm, on the other hand, eschews such sensational flourishes, instead telling more emotionally realistic and intimate dramas, often about the lower middle classes.

In the case of The Last Laugh, the narrative follows a proud hotel doorman, played wonderfully by Emil Jannings in one of the great physical performances. His character is devastated when his manager demotes him to washroom attendant because of his advanced years. It’s possible to see his succession of indignities echoing through the years in Ken Loach’s recent I, Daniel Blake (2016), although the epilogue of Murnau’s film – which inspires the English title (the original title was The Last Man) – has a far more comedic, satirical tone.

The Last Laugh (1924)

Regardless, this is an instantly relatable story for modern audiences, told with a realism that isn’t always the focus of silent cinema. The way that Murnau blended this with Expressionist tendencies helps create his own unique lyricism.

Two impressive technical aspects provide further reasons to recommend the film: the lack of intertitles and the swooping, zooming camera. Kammerspielfilm often used minimal title cards, but The Last Laugh is famous for avoiding them almost entirely. Audiences never cease to marvel at how easy it is to follow the narrative without dialogue. Instead – somewhat similarly to 2014’s award-winning Ukranian drama The Tribe – everything is conveyed through physical performance and filmmaking gusto.

Murnau’s innovative use of the camera, referred to as ‘the unchained camera’, was also quietly defining for the medium. Its subjectivity, constantly moving with the protagonist, was revolutionary and helps it to feel very modern. Stories of how shots were actually achieved – often by strapping cinematographer Karl Freund to a bicycle or a swing – only enhance the enjoyment.

What to watch next

The enormous success of The Last Laugh allowed Murnau and Jannings to go on and make the sweeping fantasy fable Faust (1926) – just one of several films that would make for suitable second steps into Murnau’s career. Admittedly, Faust can feel uneven in tone, which sometimes puts viewers off, but it’s worth persevering because this very unevenness informs the transcendental and heart-wrenching conclusion. It also features Emil Jannings in another lead role – as the wicked demon Mephisto – and is once again an undeniable visual triumph, this time beautifully shot by Carl Hoffmann.

Faust (1926)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

A more obvious, but equally valid, suggestion would be to hop next to either Sunrise or Nosferatu. Nosferatu is an exemplar of German Expressionism and gothic mood, not just a prototype for countless vampire films to follow but for whole areas of film style. It proved to be the perfect canvas for the director’s art-history-literate compositions and his powerful use of shadow and light. Dracula in all but name (Murnau’s film was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic), Count Orlok’s (Max Schreck) haunted physiognomy and the flickering silhouette it casts are two of the most recognisable images in film history. It may not be scary in the way that audiences expect from modern horrors, but its unnerving atmosphere is palpable and at times overwhelming.

After a number of films in Germany, Murnau crossed the Atlantic to America, and Sunrise was the first of three films he shot there before his untimely death in a car accident on Pacific Coast Highway in 1931. As visually dazzling as anything the director ever made, it’s another tonally tricksy affair that even today narratively wrong-foots audiences. From noir-ish thriller to folksy romantic fable, it’s more poignant and visually sublime than anything produced by modern Hollywood. Murnau’s aim was always to craft a universal cinematic language, and in this simple, human yarn he managed to find an almost perfect cinematic expression of love. Corny? Perhaps. But equally irresistible.

Where not to start

There’s nothing in Murnau’s filmography to be completely avoided, but there are a few titles that it might be prudent to see later in exploring his work.

City Girl (1930) was Murnau’s final film in America and the penultimate picture before his death (the beautiful Pacific island romance Tabu: A Story of the South Seas followed it in 1931). A romantic melodrama, it juxtaposes the bustle of the city with the claustrophobia of rural life, and its windswept wheat fields have clearly inspired many American filmmakers since – notably Terrence Malick. However, despite its familiarity, it would perhaps have more impact when seen after Sunrise – to which it is a thematic companion piece.

4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film (2003) is a 40-minute recreation of the director’s famously lost circus drama, which is possibly best reserved for completists – as might be The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924), Murnau’s only foray into comedy and, as such, a film that stands somewhat apart from the rest of his work.

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