Oscar Directors: Murnau–Sunrise

Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe was born on December 28, 1888, in Bielefeld, Germany. After studying art and literature history at the University of Heidelberg, Murnau (whose last name was taken from a neighboring German town) went to Berlin and became a pupil of then actor and assistant director Max Reinhardt.


Serving as a combat pilot during World War I, Murnau accidentally strayed off course and landed in Switzerland. He spent the rest of the war there, directing a play and compiling propaganda footage for the German embassy in Berne. Returning to Germany, he began his career as film director in 1919, but most of the films he made before 1921 have been lost.


It was with Nosferatu the Vampire (1922) that Murnau made his initial impact on world cinema. An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nospferatu was shot on real locations rather than on stylized studio sets (like most Expressionist films) and derived its horror and sense of mystery from setting its story in familiar surroundings among everyday people and events.


Murnau’s next masterpiece, The Last Laugh (1924), established his reputation as one of the world’s most preeminent directors. His creative use of free-wheeling camera movement was a milestone in the history of filmmaking, and the beginning of a tradition of mise-en-scène that was to be further explored by masters like Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, and Kenji Mizoguchi. The success of Last Laugh brought Murnau to Hollywood, through an invitation by Fox, early in 1927.


His first American film, SUNRISE, subtitled “A Story of Two Humans,” has been called “the last high peak of silent cinema.” Hailed by critics of the French Cahiers du cinéma as the greatest film of all time, Sunrise echoes the concern for spatial and dramatic integrity and the inherently pessimistic outlook that characterized Murnau’s German films.


Made from a script by Murnau’s longtime German collaborator Carl Mayer and backed by the financial resources of a large American studio, SUNRISE merged the traditions of UFA and Hollywood into a work of great lyrical beauty that survives the artificial ending imposed on it by the industry’s moral code.


His next film, THE FOUR DEVILS, is considered the most important lost silent film in the history of cinema and it was nominated for a Best Cinematography Academy Award–the film centers on the day-to-day operations of a circus act. 333 WEST 39TH STREET, SUITE 503 • NEW YORK, NY 10018 • TELEPHONE (212) 629-6880 • FAX (212) 714-0871 •

After making another film for Fox, CITY GIRL, Murnau entered a partnership with celebrated documentary director Robert Flaherty. Their first and last realized joint project was TABU, a film shot on location in the South Seas. Eventually, Murnau bought out Flaherty’s share in the picture and completed it himself, after they could not agree on a single approach and style for the movie.


What might have started as an expressive semi-documentary affair, balancing the divergent personalities and styles of both directors, ended up a characteristic Murnau film and the film became a big commercial success. But a week before it premiered, on March 11, 1931, Murnau was tragically killed in an automobile crash en route from Los Angeles to Monterey.


Murnau’s Filmography


Der Knabe in Blau/Der Todessmaragd (1919)



Der Bucklige und die Tanzerin

Der Januskopf/Schrecken/Janus-Faced


Der Gang in die Nacht (1920)

Schloss Vogelod/Haunted Castle (1921)

Marizza—gennant die Schmugglermadonna

Nosferatu—Eine Symphonie des Grauens/Nosferatu the Vampire

Der brennende Acker/Burning Soil

Phantom (1922)

Die Austrei-bung/Driven From Home (1923)

Die Finanzen des Grossher-zogs/The Grand Duke’s Finances

Der letze Mann/The Last Laugh (1924)


Faust (1926)

Sunrise/Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (1927)

Four Devils (1928)

City Girl/Our Daily Bread

Die zwolfte Stunde—Eine Nacht des Grauens (a revised sound version of 1922’s Nosferatu) (1930)

Tabu (co-dir, co-sc. with Robert Flaherty) (1931)