Friedrich Plumpe, aka Murnau, is one of the most famous directors in German. Born in 1888 on December 28 in Bielefeld. He is one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. Most of his films are influenced by expressionism and kammerspiel.
After a childhood in which he already showed his penchant for art and theater by staging small shows in the family, Murnau was not prone to the physical activity of the Germanic culture of the period. He studies at the University of Berlin and is passionate about Dostoevsky’s literature, the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. At that time he met director Max Reinhardt who offered him to become his assistant director in the Deutsches Theater, and to follow him on his theatrical tours. He abandons his studies and takes the opportunity to also change his name to detach himself from the family, with a serious break with his father, who did not want to accept either his homosexuality or his aspiration to become an artist.
In that period he directly associated with the great German directors, such as Lubitsch, Leni, Jennings, Krauss, and the expressionist painters who subsequently influenced his films. Social critic of man as an instrument of capitalism and obsessive materialism, he matures a contemptuous and aristocratic gaze towards him, recurrent in his future works. Murnau’s life during the First World War was quite difficult. Prisoner in Switzerland due to a bad landing, he also saw his then comrade die in the troops fighting in Russia.
After the end of the war, thanks to his friendships with him in the entertainment world, he immediately starts making films that have been mostly lost. The most important meeting takes place with the writer Carl Meyer in 1920, the most illustrious screenwriter of expressionist cinema. Mayer had written Doctor Caligari’s Cabinet, collaborated with Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene. In short, it was an opportunity to establish a relationship with a great character to collaborate with for the following films.
The beginnings of Murnau in the cinema
Murnau’s cinema is his artistic growth that is difficult to decipher. Many of his early films have been lost. Until 1922, almost all of his films were lost. The thing that seems to interest him most is the technical research and the innovation of the form. Two great films have survived oblivion: The Walk in the Night , a fantastic kammerspiel, and The Vogelod Castle , a detective story found only in 2002, in Brazil.
Then comes his first masterpiece: Nosferatu the vampire. Nosferatu’s distribution history is very unique: Dracula’s copyright holders sue Murnau and the producers, and the director changed Dracula’s name and setting names. But Bram Stoker sued him anyway and won it. The court forced Murnau to destroy all copies of the film. But the director secretly saved one, the one preserved to this day. Before being sentenced to destruction, the film was a great success and this favors Murnau’s growth in his film career.
Murnau and the Kammerspiel
At that time, in addition to expressionism, kammerspiel was also widespread, which was hoped for chamber music. It was a style designed for performances for a few people with the aim of minimizing the distance between actors and audience. The kammerspiel looked into the intimate of the characters, delving into their psychology, as if they were observed under a microscope. The acting is minimalistic, natural, in a sense the opposite of the overcharged acting of expressionism.
The makeup, the lights and the sets are discreet and plausible. Dialogue is essential and facial expressions must be kept to a minimum. An acting that in more recent times has been defined as “subtraction”. The foreground is therefore an essential tool of the kammerspiel. The observation of the scene takes place with detachment, rigor, it is almost a scientific study on human beings. Murnau is one of the few directors who combines expressionism and kammerspiel in his films. In particular in The Last Laugh, an absolute masterpiece of innovations. never seen before.
In 1922 he made “Phantom” ( Ghost ), the story of Lorenz, a humble employee and aspiring poet, the victim of a mad passion for Veronika, belonging to one of the richest families of his city. A melodrama that anticipates the themes of the dark lady who brings man to ruin, which we will find again in Aurora.
The last laugh
A hotel doorman, played by an extraordinary Emil Jannings, is stripped of his shiny chevron-filled uniform. The manager of the hotel where he works, Atlantic in Berlin, assigns him to clean the toilet. Inside he can’t accept it and hides the fact from his family and neighbors, he gets drunk so as not to think about what has happened and continue to fantasize. But the next morning the reality is imposed again before his eyes.
A masterpiece of experimentation and avant-garde visual techniques worthy of the best modern cinema, Murnau really invents everything in this film. He even hooks the camera to an escalator to create vertical movement. What was called at the time “the flying camera”. The carts, the subjective and the inner world represented in this film is indeed extraordinary. Visual distortions had never been done that way. The camera becomes one of the protagonists. Some scenes are reminiscent of the avant-gardes of the 1920s, such as surrealism. Others are complex in camera movements that have probably been the inspiration for many masters of modern cinema.
Although the film is expressionist in form, in light and in its exasperated subjectivity that deforms the perception of reality, it differs greatly from the dark and supernatural themes of expressionism. It is a film in its own way realistic, with moments of irony, which tells a human and moving story. For many it is Murnau’s best film. In 1926 he concludes his experience in Germany with Tartuffe and Faust.
Murnau in Hollywood
Fox keeps an eye on his movie success and offers him a contract. The most important result is Aurora, still a masterpiece, which, however, is not a great success with the public. Film awarded with an Oscar and a multitude of awards is a drama with shades of Noir. A Dark Lady of the city convinces a weak man to kill her wife in order to escape with her. Aurora is a journey to hell of a man torn apart by irreconcilable impulses.
Between a femme fatale who represents the night, desire and madness, and the country woman who is a symbol of dawn, light, normality and balance. Aurora is a new version of the dark tale of Nosferatu, in the form of a passionate drama. In this film the director, with very few captions, focuses on all the experiments of image and film editing that he has learned up to that moment. In the last shot of the film, Murnau himself is on set.
Try two other films: The Four Devils of 1928 and Our Daily Bread of 1930. But American success doesn’t come. Furthermore, the quality of these last two films is not comparable to that of Aurora.
Disappointed by his experience in Hollywood, Murnau realized that he had also lost the strong and incisive style that had made him famous in Germany. He decided to return to his country with the firm intention of making personal films, pursuing his artistic research without commercial compromises.
Taboo: between documentary and drama
What happens instead is that he bought himself a yacht and went with documentarian Robert Flaherty to shoot his latest film in Bora Bora, Polynesia: Taboo. Reri, a beautiful girl from the island of & nbsp; Bora Bora, in Polynesia, is offered as a gift to the deity and is forced to remain a virgin. Her boyfriend Matahi can’t stand the tribe’s decision and kidnaps her.
The film is also clearly marked by Murnau’s fascination with the male gender. The bodies of Matahi and his companions are framed in the beauty of nature, all handsome and handsome. Unfortunately, the processing of this film was also troubled. The production decided to close funding for the project and Flaherty did not share Murnau’s more expressionist style. Flaherty was a pure documentary maker, besides he couldn’t stand Murnau’s authoritarianism and his introverted character. So he also abandoned the project, leaving Murnau alone, who finished the film at his own expense, with non-professional actors taken from the local population, directed in a truly magnificent way.
The end result was extraordinary. Taboo is a masterpiece that once again, like most of Murnau’s cinema, brings never-before-seen novelties. A film Poised between documentary, drama, and the objective realism of which neorealism will later pick up the legacy. In the film there are images of nudity of the native population that were censored in the United States. Non-professional actors who dose their facial expressions in an extraordinary way, working by subtraction. Paramount executives immediately thought upon seeing the film that it was an extraordinary work and decided to distribute it.
The car accident
But Friedrich will not be able to attend the premiere on August 1, 1931. While driving around in his car, and driving him is his Filipino valet and lover Garcia Stevenson, The car crashes head-on into a truck. Murnau dies a few hours later in the hospital. At his funeral, in addition to Hollywood stars and other directors, were his collaborator and writer Carl Mayer and Fritz Lang who read the funeral oration.
Greta Garbo who adored Murnau had a plaster cast of her face made in her California villa. The director’s body was brought back to Germany and buried in the West Berlin cemetery.
In 2015, a group of grave robbers came up with the brilliant idea of breaking into the grave and stealing Murnau’s embalmed head to demand a ransom. The ransom has been paid but his head has not yet been returned. Let’s hope it’s not a publicity stunt for the release of the remake of some of his films turned into a streaming TV series.
Murnau a director with a multifaceted and multifaceted personality, also the protagonist of a life lived against the tide, is only partially inspired in his films by expressionism and kammerspiel. His style of him actually adds to the traditional expressionist canons shooting outdoors, depth of field, close-up and realistic storytelling, exotic documentary adventures.
To all of these he adds something that has never been seen before. The camera becomes a character in the film. Her mechanical eye is almost a metaphysical presence, endowed with a personality of her own. She chases the characters, spies on them, she is scared or attracted to them. The camera feels emotions, it is the eye of the director himself. That is why it could be said that the cinema itself, and not the character, is the true protagonist of Murnau’s film.
It is the cinema of the gaze that will be developed only many years later by the avant-garde movements of the 60s. A cinema where the camera is an explorer of the set with its own complete autonomy, its own personality.