F.W. Murnau

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"Simplicity! Greater and greater simplicity—that will be the keynote of the new films. Our whole effort must be bent toward ridding motion pictures of all that does not belong to them, of all that is unnecessary and trivial and drawn from other sources—all the tricks, gags, ‘business’ not of the cinema, but of the stage and the written book. That is what has been accomplished when certain films reached the level of great art. That is what I tried to do in The Last Laugh. We must try for more and more simplicity and devotion to pure motion picture technique and material.”

F.W. Murnau

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“Art—authentic art—is simple. But simplicity demands the maximum of artistry. The camera is the director’s pencil. It should have the greatest possible mobility in order to record the most fleeting harmony of atmosphere. It is important that the mechanical factor should not stand between the spectator and the film.”
 
December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror

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Max Schreck relaxing between takes & creeping everyone out on the set of Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau) (via)

During the filming of Nosferatu, Schreck reportedly stayed in character at all times, even when the cameras weren’t rolling, and the cast and crew never saw him out of full makeup and costume. While this immersive approach to acting is commonplace now, it was unusual back then and his appearance & behavior led to wild rumors that Schreck actually was a vampire. If this photo is indicative of Schreck’s demeanor around the set of Nosferatu, the crew’s wariness was entirely understandable.

Werner Fuetterer as the Archangel in Faust (1926, dir. F. W. Murnau)

Title: FAUST (1926) ¥ Pers: FUETTERER, WERNER ¥ Year: 1926 ¥ Dir: MURNAU, F.W. ¥ Ref: FAU002AM ¥ Credit: [ UFA / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

“I think Murnau’s imperturbable calm in the studio was due not only to a sense of discipline, but also because he possessed that passion for ‘play’ itself which is necessary and essential to any kind of artistic activity.

For instance, I’d made a steam apparatus for the heaven scene in the Prologue to Faust. Steam was ejected out of several pipes against a background of clouds; arc-lights arranged in a circle lit up the steam to look like rays of light. The archangel was supposed to stand in front and raise his flaming sword. We did it several times, and each time it was perfectly all right, but Murnau was so caught up in the pleasure of doing it that he forgot all about time. The steam had to keep on billowing through the beams of light until the archangel — Werner Fuetterer — was so exhausted he could no longer lift his sword. When Murnau realized what had happened, he shook his head and laughed at himself, then gave everyone a break.”

-Faust art director Robert Herlth, quoted in Lotte Eisner’s Murnau. The scene Herlth is discussing is online here.

The Blackguard (1925, dir. Graham Cutts) Art direction & screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, who also served as assistant director.

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Behind the scenes of The Blackguard (1925, dir. Graham Cutts) Art direction by Alfred Hitchcock

When Hitchcock arrived on the set of The Blackguard, the great German director F.W. Murnau was filming The Last Laugh nearby on the UFA lot.

Hitchcock either engaged Murnau in conversation, or overheard him tell others: “What you see on the set does not matter. All that matters is what you see on the screen.”

Hitchcock never missed an opportunity to quote this remark, which became a cornerstone of his own approach: The reality didn’t matter if the illusion was effective. He then emulated Murnau by hiring a slew of dwarves to stand far from the camera in The Blackguard, creating an artificial perspective for a crowd scene.

-excerpted from Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light

Title: BLACKGUARD, THE ¥ Year: 1925 ¥ Dir: CUTTS, GRAHAM ¥ Ref: BLA129AA ¥ Credit: [ GAINSBOROUGH/UFA / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

 

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A select moment or two of “Tabu” is wonderful to look at, and represented Murnau in his prime (ironic, since this was his final film before dying far too soon, and far too deep into his prime as a filmmaker, in an auto accident). 

In Tahitian, a tabu is a designation of sacredness. Anything—object, place, or person—can be declared tabu, and it’s a serious matter. Break a tabu and things will go badly for you. Try to escape the consequences, and they will follow you. So take a hint and stay within your bounds.

This is such a gorgeous movie that I almost didn’t notice how little I cared about the plot watching it for the first time.

Tidbits from the very good commentary by R.D. Smith and “the” Brad Stevens: Robert Flaherty directed and shot the opening fishing scene, then Murnau removed him from the project, finding his direction of drama unsatisfying. Floyd Crosby (would go on to shoot tons of MST3K fare and X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes), who worked with Flaherty on White Shadows in the South Seas, took over the camera. Story is a retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. Visual motif of descent grows increasingly darker. Contrast between motion and stillness. Islanders paddling furiously towards giant ship, their vibrant humanity vs. the faceless ship (called Moana!) which seems from afar to be guiding itself, on which sits Hitu, surrounded by stillness. The ship brings a spreading plague as surely as the one in Nosferatu. Heterosexual couple threatened by a powerful individual, theme present in most Murnau movies – in this case, central relationship is more sexual + physical than in the others. Tabu is unprecedented in Murnau, having a character attempt to oppose fate – unsuccessfully, “gives the film much of its tragic quality.” When they escape to the larger island and meet white-influenced civilization, similar to the pure-country vs. corrupt-city themes in Sunrise and City Girl. Murnau didn’t like intertitles, used none in this movie except for diegetic writings, all of which hold negative connotations.

D E R L E T Z T E M A N N The Last Laugh (1924)

Jannings’ character, the doorman for a famous hotel, is demoted to washroom (bathroom) attendant, as he is considered too old and infirm to be the image of the hotel. He tries to conceal his demotion from his friends and family, but to his shame, he is discovered. His friends, thinking he has lied to them all along about his prestigious job, taunt him mercilessly while his family rejects him out of shame. The man, shocked and in incredible grief, returns to the hotel to sleep in the bathroom where he works. The only person to be kind towards him is the night watchman, who covers him with his coat as he falls asleep.

Following this comes the film’s only title card, which says: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

At the end, the doorman inherits a fortune and is able to dine happily at the same hotel he used to work for.