With Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst, Murnau is one of the three directors on whose work rests the fame of the German cinema of the 1920s. Murnau, who gave himself the name of a famous artists' colony, studied philology, art history and literature before becoming a pupil of Max Reinhardt, mainly as assistant director. He joined the air force, spent most of the war in Switzerland and upon his return to Berlin directed Der Knabe in Blau (1919). Much influenced by the Danish cinema of the time, Der Gang in die Nacht (1921), his first success, was a poignantly lyrical treatment of a melodramatic love triangle involving a blind painter. Meeting the leading "film author" Carl Mayer proved decisive for both, with Murnau producing five films scripted by Mayer, including Der Bucklige und die Tänzerin (1920), Schloß Vogelöd (1921) and Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924). But Murnau also worked with Henrik Galeen (Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens / Nosferatu the Vampire, 1922) and Thea von Harbou (Der brennende Acker, 1922, Die Finanzen des Großherzogs / The Grand Duke's Finances, 1924), a variety indicative of his ability to mould a film subject to his style. His plots show a preference for archetypal triangular human entanglements in order to explode them from within, surrounding every relationship - of love or power - with radiant ambivalences.
Three Murnau films have entered the canon of world cinema, all for different reasons. Nosferatu, still the classic film version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, founded one of the few undying film genres and, in thte eponymous Count, one of the half dozen universally recognized film icons. Der letzte Mann is justly famous for its camerawork by Karl Freund (his ingenious devices for making the camera mobile were dubbed "entfesselt" - unchained - a word connoting erotic license at the time). But Der letzte Mann is also one of the most revealing parables of Weimar culture, with its fetishism of a uniform and Emil Jannings' classic study of the self-tormented and yet monstrously autocratic male. Underrated in the Murnau canon are Tartüff (1926) and Faust (1926), again both with Jannings: one a tour de force of psychological perversity, the other a tour de force of spectacle and pyrotechnics, though neither was the commercial success Murnau and Erich Pommer had expected (and needed).
By 1925 Murnau's reputation had reached Hollywood (thanks to Jannings' fame and the US distribution of Der letzte Mann), resulting in a four-year contract from William Fox. With a script by Mayer based on a Sudermann novel, Murnau embarked on what became his third acknowledged masterpice: Sunrise (1927). Old-fashioned in its morality and sense of sin, but ultra-modern in its sensibility, it is one of the most cinematically sophisticated exercises ever about how to represent, precisely, the unrepresentable. What Lubitsch achieved in comedy, Murnau did for tragic subjects: thought and emotion, cleansed of ambiguity and stripped of moody vagueness. A commercial failure, Sunrise led to leaner budgets on Murnau's other Fox assignments, Four Devils (1929) and City Girl (1930). He severed his contract and took a skeleton crew (and Robert Flaherty) to the South Seas, where he shot, under great difficulties, the independently produced Tabu (1931), a fairy tale of fate, eternal love and certain death in paradise. A week before its premiere, Murnau was killed in a car accident.
— Thomas Elsaesser, Encyclopedia of European Cinema
Internet Movie Database
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