F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) made six or seven great or near-great films in his all-too-brief career. All save his last film were tightly controlled, studio-stylized works that (although they were beautiful and often moving) were thoroughly planned artifice. One might even use the contemporary expression “tight-assed” in describing them. His final film, Tabu (1931), however, seems almost the complete antithesis. Tabu is one of cinema’s simplest, most lyrical and masterful expressions of a despairing romanticism succumbing to the realities of a world from which none of us can escape. Read more
Posts tagged ‘F. W. Murnau’
These notes accompany the screening of Pandora’s Box, May 5, 6, and 7 in Theater 3.
“What counts is the image. So I would still claim that the creator of the film is much more the director than the author of the scenario or the actors.” – G. W. Pabst
Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885–1967) was the third member of the great Weimar directorial triumvirate, along with Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In some ways he was the most elusive and mysterious of the three. Murnau was haunted by whatever demons went along with being homosexual in an uncongenial era. Pabst’s fellow Austrian, Lang, seemed to flirt with Fascism—his intellectual instincts were Teutonic, his wife was a Nazi, and he was offered control of the Reich’s film industry—before deciding to go west and ultimately winding up in Hollywood (where he became a practicing democrat, although reports of his tyrannical relations with coworkers probably would disqualify him from canonization). Pabst was a horse of a different color altogether, or, perhaps more correctly, several different colors. While Lang could only imagine New York for Metropolis, Pabst spent a few youthful years here. He came to film directing rather late, in 1923, but he had made several successful movies (Der Schatz, Die Freudlose Gasse, Geheimnisse Einer Seele, Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) by the time of Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) in 1928. Read more
From the opening shot of Street Angel (1928), it is evident that Frank Borzage (1893–1962) had been enraptured by watching F. W. Murnau shoot Sunrise the preceding year at the Fox studio. Through atmospheric light and shadow, the camera prowls around elaborate Neapolitan sets in long, complicated takes. Borzage had won the first Oscar for best director for Seventh Heaven in 1927, but he evidently realized that Murnau and his team had brought something new to Hollywood, and his career over the next thirty years never cast off Murnau’s spell. Read more
These notes accompany the screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which screens on March 24, 25, and 26 in Theater 3.
After the international success of Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), the film cognoscenti could legitimately argue that F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) deserved to be recognized as the most important filmmaker in the world; D. W. Griffith was coming off several interesting but unprofitable films and was about to lose his independence, Erich von Stroheim was fighting to salvage Greed, and Charles Chaplin had yet to make The Gold Rush. Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg were still on the horizon. Murnau followed up with two additional Emil Jannings vehicles, adapted from Molière (Tartüff) and Goethe (Faust). Both films continued to utilize the vast resources of the Ufa studio, and the latter film was especially spectacular. The eminent film historian, Lotte Eisner, wrote “No other director…ever succeeded in conjuring up the supernatural as masterfully as this.” Hollywood took note. Read more
These notes accompany the screening of Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), which screens on February 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.
Friedrich Wilhelm (F. W.) Murnau (1888–1931) had already made over a dozen films before The Last Laugh, but only Nosferatu (1922) can be said to have raised any blip on the international scene—and Nosferatu didn’t open in America until 1929 (after The Last Laugh, Tartuffe, Faust, and Sunrise), receiving a dismissively condescending review in The New York Times. So, few were prepared for what may be the best film ever made by a German in Germany.
The style of The Last Laugh is derived from the Kammerspiele, introduced by the great stage impresario Max Reinhardt, of whom Murnau (along with almost everyone else of note) was a disciple. Reinhardt proposed an intimate theater with dim lighting in which the audience was close enough to the stage for the actors to perform with greater subtlety. Lotte Eisner, the doyenne of film scholarship of the Weimar era, makes the point that the Expressionist technique that had come to predominance in German cinema by 1924 is only peripheral to Murnau’s achievement. She contends that Murnau’s moving camera “is never used decoratively or symbolically…every movement…has a precise, clearly-defined aim.” (Whatever its rationale, Murnau’s camera mobility and long takes set a standard for such future masters as Kenji Mizoguchi and Max Ophuls, and was developed into the counter-theory to the montage postulated by Sergei Eisenstein and the Soviets. One of the great achievements of Orson Welles was to synthesize these two approaches.) According to Eisner, the director’s use of “opalescent surfaces streaming with reflections, rain, or light…is an almost Impressionistic way of evoking atmosphere.” She also suggests that the supposed ponderousness of the film is a way of lending gravitas and significance to what is, after all, a trivial event: the demotion of a doorman to mens-room attendant. Read more