- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

During World War I, a fellow officer described Lt. Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, destined to be known to movie posterity as F.W. Murnau, as “a curious mixture of wandering gypsy and cultivated gentleman.” Admirers of the German director’s enduring films probably would concur that signs of both estrangement and sophistication, especially pictorial sophistication, distinguish his work.

The Murnau filmography ranges thematically from “Nosferatu,” the 1922 granddaddy of vampire classics, to “Tabu,” a haunted romantic idyll about fugitive Polynesian lovers that prematurely concluded a brilliant silent-film career in 1931. A sizable portion of his surviving work will be showcased at the National Gallery of Art over the next few weekends. The retrospective begins with free showings of his last great achievements, “Sunrise” and “Tabu,” in the East Building this afternoon.

Murnau directed 21 features from 1919 to 1931, when he was mortally injured at 42 in a car accident near Santa Barbara, Calif. His recklessly chauffeured vehicle was en route to San Francisco, the first leg of a cross-country excursion to New York for the premiere of “Tabu.”

Nine of the Murnau pictures, most directed before “Nosferatu,” remain lost. Ten of the 12 that have been preserved will be shown during the National Gallery series, which unfolds in reverse chronology, more or less.

Despite the gaps in the filmography and the pathos associated with a career suddenly ended in its prime, Murnau’s reputation rests securely on an extraordinary preponderance of enduring classics: half a dozen of the surviving titles.

“Nosferatu” was his 10th feature. “The Last Laugh” (originally “Der Letzte Mann,” or “The Last Man,” in German) was his 15th and emerged as such an international prestige hit in 1924 that Hollywood overtures were inevitable. Murnau signed a contract with William Fox but shot two more superlative German films, “Tartuffe” and “Faust,” with the same star, Emil Jannings, and many of the same production associates before departing for the United States.

The transplanted Murnau promptly made a European masterpiece, “Sunrise,” under Hollywood auspices. Still one of the most imaginative and stirring tear-jerkers in movie history, it helped win Janet Gaynor the first Academy Award for best actress and won a unique best-picture prize of its own, for “artistic quality of production,” a category that was promptly abandoned.

The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer from Westphalia, Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (he adopted Murnau from an Alpine resort town) studied art history, literature and philology at the University of Heidelberg, where he also was active in student dramatic productions. He attracted the attention of the great theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt and appeared to be headed for a career as a Reinhardt actor and directing apprentice in the years before World War I.

Drafted into the infantry, he survived considerable action on the western front and became a company commander when transferred to Riga, Latvia. He later joined the air force and spent the remainder of the war interned in Switzerland after getting lost in bad weather and landing across the Swiss border. That mishap proved a professional boon, as Murnau resumed staging plays and then was entrusted with a camera crew to make a series of short propaganda films for the German government.

By the time the war was over, Murnau was so stimulated by the promise of filmmaking that he never resumed a career with Reinhardt. In some respects, Murnau facilitated the transfer of expressionistic theatrical techniques to the silent screen — indelibly in “Nosferatu,” which remains a masterful example of how to manipulate shadows and wraiths.

However, what seemed to preoccupy Murnau as a film innovator was the expressive potential in photorealistic imagery and narrative themselves. He wanted to enhance the mobility of the camera, which seemed to acquire a dazzling fluidity in many sequences of “The Last Laugh,” and to enlarge the range of observation, interweaving reveries and nightmares with material reality. He advanced these impulses a considerable distance in “Sunrise,” a fable of bucolic marital estrangement and reconciliation that shifts moods drastically from preamble to development to finale.

Murnau sometimes evoked musical analogies in subtitles: “Nosferatu” was called “a symphony of horror” and “Sunrise” a “song of two humans.” It’s not far-fetched to think of them as symphonic creations. The term “capriccio” certainly would apply to his playful digest of “Tartuffe,” which reduces the Moliere play to four characters, substitutes episodes that might have happened before the play starts and nestles the 17th-century scenes inside a framing story set in the present.

Murnau was one of the most accomplished orchestrators of tone, atmosphere, space and tempo in the history of the medium. Although his films became renowned for artful lighting and composition, he insisted that the goal was something more visionary than picturesque.

“There should be no such thing as ‘an interesting camera angle,’ ” he once argued. “The angle itself has no significance, and if it does not intensify the dramatic effect of the scene, it can even be harmful.”

FILM SERIES: “Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau”

WHERE: East Building of the National Gallery of Art

WHEN: Today through Oct. 30


PHONE: 202/842-6799


Today: “Sunrise” (1927), 1 p.m.; “Tabu” (1931), 3:30 p.m. Sunday: “Sunrise” (1926), 5:30 p.m. Oct. 9: “City Girl,” aka “Our Daily Bread” (1930), 1 p.m.; “Tartuffe” (1926), 3:30 p.m. Oct. 10: “City Girl,” 4:30 p.m. Oct. 16: “Faust” (1926), 1 p.m.; “The Last Laugh,” aka “Der Letzte Mann” (1924), 4 p.m. Oct. 17: “Nosferatu” (1922), 4:30 p.m. Oct. 24: “Phantom” (1922), 4:30 p.m. Oct. 30: “Journey Into the Night” (1920), 1 p.m.; “The Haunted Castle” (1921), 3:30 p.m.

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