Motion Picture Director. Considered one of the most innovative and influential figures of world cinema. A supremely creative stylist, he pioneered the use of subjective photography to explore the psychic conflicts of his characters. His three masterpieces, "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror" (1922), "The Last Laugh" (1924), and "Sunrise" (1927), still turn up on critics' "All-Time Best" lists. Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe was born in Bielefeld, Germany, the son of a wealthy textile merchant of Swedish descent. Addicted to the theatre from childhood, he abandoned art history studies at the University of Heidelberg and took on the name "Murnau" for his acting debut in Berlin in 1908. From 1910 to 1914 he was an assistant to the great stage director Max Reinhardt. During World War I he served for three years as a communications officer on the Eastern Front and became a combat pilot in 1917. While returning from a mission he "strayed" off course and landed in Switzerland, where he remained for the duration of the war. He directed his first film, "The Blue Boy", in 1919. Murnau's development as a filmaker is difficult to gauge because nearly all his early work is lost. It seems he alternated commercial chores with such experimental dramas as "The Janus Head" (1920), a variation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme. It was with "Nosferatu" that he emerged as a major talent. Adapted (without permission) from Bram Stoker's "Dracula", and featuring an unforgettable performance by Max Schreck as the vampire, it achieved its singularly spooky atmosphere by combining Expressionist techniques with real locations. It remains one of the most chilling of horror films. Murnau's next masterpiece, "The Last Laugh", could hardly have been more different. The plot was simple, almost mundane - a proud hotel doorman (played by Emil Jannings), having grown too old for his job, is demoted to men's room attendant - but its treatment was revolutionary. Working closely with screenwriter Carl Mayer and cinematographer Karl Freund, Murnau developed his belief that the camera should not merely record the action but become a participant and interpreter. To this end he devised a freewheeling visual style so expressive that the story is told almost entirely without intertitles. "The Last Laugh" had a worldwide impact and has been hailed by historians as the progenitor of "mise-en-scene" in films, with its emphasis on camera movement instead of editing. Murnau made two more fine films in Germany, "Tartuffe" (1925) and "Faust" (1926), before he was lured to Hollywood by mogul William Fox in 1926. Given complete creative freedom and an unlimited budget, he directed the lyrical romance "Sunrise", arguably his greatest picture and the culmination of all the virtues of the silent film medium. It was an immense critical success and won three Oscars at the first Academy Award ceremony, tying with "Wings" (1927) for Best Picture. But it was also an expensive flop at the box office and Murnau's subsequent Fox films, "The Four Devils" (1928, now lost) and "City Girl" (1930), were produced under greater restrictions. Unwilling to compromise with Hollywood any further, Murnau formed an independent partnership with filmaker Robert Flaherty in 1930 and headed for the South Seas to shoot "Tabu", which was planned as a semi-documentary look at the life of Tahitian islanders. Once there the two men disagreed on an approach to the subject; Murnau bought out Flaherty's share and made the film on his own, concocting a doomed love story so he could focus on the natives' inner beings rather than their physical surroundings. Filled with gorgeous images, "Tabu" became a considerable hit - a vindication its director would not enjoy. One week before its premiere in March 1931, Murnau was killed in an automobile accident in California. He was 42. Although promoted as a talkie, "Tabu" was really a silent film with synchronized music and effects; how Murnau would have adapted his essentially imagistic language to the demands of sound will never be known. But his visual influence continues to this day. Directors inspired by Murnau include Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophuls, Orson Welles, Kenji Mizoguchi, Stanley Kubrick, Miklos Jancso, Werner Herzog, and Paul Thomas Anderson. In "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000), a fictional take on the making of "Nosferatu", John Malkovich played Murnau as an artist so committed to the film he hires a real vampire to play the title role. A retrospective of his work was held at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards