F.W. Murnau

Max Schreck as Count Orlock, the Nosferatu (1922)

Max Schreck as Count Orlock, the Nosferatu (1922)

  • Born:  1888
  • Died:  1931
  • Rank:  41
  • Score:  597.00
  • Feature Films:  18
  • Best:  Sunrise
  • Worst:  Tabu

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Sunrise – 1927
  2. Nosferatu – 1922
  3. Faust – 1926
  4. The Last Laugh – 1924
  5. Phantom – 1922

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1914-1926 – 9th – Faust
  • 1927-1928 – 2nd – Sunrise
  • 1927-1928 – 2nd – Tartuffe
  • 1928-1929 – 1st – Nosferatu
  • 1929-1930 – 3rd – City Girl
  • 1930-1931 – 8th – Tabu

In some ways, Murnau is as much an example as von Stroheim of the loss of genius and what they might have accomplished.  While Stroheim’s masterpiece, Greed, was taken away from him and edited without his input, one of Murnau’s films, 4 Devils, an Oscar nominee for Best Cinematography is one of the great lost films.  And while Stroheim was eventually driven out of the director’s chair and forced to make his artistic contributions as an actor, Murnau died in a car accident at the age of 42.  He had been a major director in Germany in the 20’s (including a lost version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and was already internationally known for his versions of Faust and Nosferatu before coming to the States in 1926.  Once here, he quickly established himself, making Sunrise, the winner of 3 Oscars in the first year of the Academy Awards, including the only award for Best Production.  His 4 Devils was nominated for Cinematography the next year and Tabu would win Cinematography (as Sunrise also had), though by that time, Murnau was dead and any further career in Hollywood was lost to us.

Nosferatu – #1 film of 1928-1929

In the quest to make the perfect Dracula film (how has it no one has yet managed to cast Alan Rickman to play Dracula – he would be so perfect), we always forget that the best Dracula film in almost 90 years of trying was the initial version – the copyright infringing silent German film that dropped the name but kept everything else intact, Murnau’s masterpiece, Nosferatu.

How is it that Murnau made what is still the best Dracula film, and is rivaled only by Vampyr (another German film – this one mostly silent) for the position of best vampire film while using so little of the actual book?  Perhaps because he strived to get the feel of the book while not worrying about any fidelity to the plot of the book (wisely, since he was unable to secure the rights to the book and was sued by Bram Stoker’s widow; in fact the only reason the film still exists is that when the judge ordered all the copies destroyed some were missed).  So he has the horrific Count Orlock (a good move since he subtitled the film A Symphony of Horror), he has the creepiness of his movements, the claws, the rats, the disturbing castle.  He has the basic outline of the plot (the young Harker, the woman he loves, the crazed Renfield, the Count wishes to go to the city and buy some property), but he drops most of Van Helsing, condenses all the London parts (Bremen in the film) into some twenty minutes, and simply focuses on the horror.  And he drops the pursuit of the vampire, so important in the book (and interesting, with the various view points), into the moment where the vampire in his lust loses track of time and vanishes with the rising of the sun.

Because it is moments like that that make the film so memorable.  The sun rises and Orlock grabs at his heart and then he slowly vanishes, with a little bit of smoke remaining where he had been.  He moves so eerily along the deck of the ship, that it seems like he might be gliding.  It is these moments that give the film the true weight of the horror and some of these moments have been copied time and time again through Dracula movies (every time I see Christopher Lee rise out of his coffin, I think of Orlock rising in the hull of the ship).

Someday I do hope to have a truly definitive Dracula.  One with the feel and lushness of Coppola’s version, but with a better Harker, less mugging from Van Helsing and without the ridiculous “eternal love” theme.  But for now, perhaps forever, there will always be the Murnau version, the best version.