F.W. Murnau, His Films, and Their Influence on German Expressionism
F.W. Murnau had a diverse and artistic upbringing, and led an international lifestyle as an adult. His experiences, interests, and education naturally had a profound effect on the way he viewed the world and expressed himself artistically. Writing for Cahiers du Cinema, Edgar G. Ulmer noted Murnau’s cosmopolitan outlook and knowledge of French and praised him as a uniquely cultured filmmaker.1
From the Author
This essay is focused on the work of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, whom I consider to be one of the first auteur filmmakers in world cinema. This statement is based on an analysis of the state of cinema before Murnau and consequently his impact on the medium, the historical, artistic, and social factors that influenced his own work and vision, their reflection in his films, and the techniques, ideas, innovations, signature characteristics, and aesthetic choices that shaped his body of work. The style and content of his work were enormously affected by his upbringing and the influences that he met with in his development as an artist.
In her extensive biography of Murnau, Lotte Eisner includes a number of interviews with his family members and friends, which shed some light on his early life and some of the influences that show up prominently in his work.2 Murnau’s brother, Robert Plumpe Murnau describes his passion for reading, saying that, “As soon as he could read he fell on every book that came his way, whether it was a novel or a classical drama.”3
Although he studied art history and literature at University, Murnau was also passionate about the theatre, and even constructed his own theatre as a boy to stage plays with his brothers.
His love for the stage led him to join a new theatre school founded by Max Reinhardt. Though Reinhardt was primarily a theatre director, his innovative ideas about lighting, set design, and continuity had a huge impact on Murnau’s films. His production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream stunned audiences by the unexpected “naturalism” of its forest setting and the use of a revolving stage to maintain a sense of continuity between scenes. The “veritable trees” standing on a stage that was “covered not with a painted ground-cloth, but with what seemed palpable grass, in which the feet sunk among the flowers” created a powerful illusion of reality in a play conventionally associated with fantasy and artifice.4
Reinhardt’s revolving stage allowed his actors and sets to smoothly transition between scenes without interruption, in much the same way that long takes and a moving camera would do in Murnau’s films. Lighting played a dominant role in his work, allowing him to “achieve that highest form of expression…the cooperation of all factors toward a common goal” through “the synthesis and analysis of all form through light” – another valuable lesson imbibed by his pupil.5
According to Margret Dietrich, his staging created “theatrical symphonies in which words and music, lighting and painting effects, and the art of acting were fused in an intoxicating whole which swept all along with it by the strength of its gripping qualities and its atmosphere” 6 These qualities evidently inspired the young Murnau as he strove to create a similar type of “symphonic” unity in his films, controlling every step of the process from screenplay, to art direction, to editing. It is notable that the full title of Nosferatu is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Murnau himself asserted that cinema had to be a “theatre for the eye” and that the relationship between characters, objects, and camera must be “an element in the symphony of the film.”7 In his article in Weimar Cinema Thomas Elsaesser even suggests that the character of Nosferatu himself was “something of a spoof” and an “insider joke about Reinhardt”, a powerful and charismatic figure who encouraged “antics…eccentricity and extravagance” in his circle of acquaintances and owned a private castle in Austria.8
Jo Leslie Collier traces Murnau’s theatrical influences as far back as the operas of Richard Wagner. She takes into account the social, political, and historical changes that took place in Germany between the lifetimes of Wagner and Murnau admitting that “a radically altered world called for a radically altered art”. At the same time, she finds that it is “rather remarkable to what degree the tenets of romanticism are to be found in the films of Murnau.”9 She feels that both Murnau’s aesthetic and his narrative choices were formed by a similar sensibility to that reflected in the works of Wagner. She goes on to claim that not only are general Romantic ideals and precepts traceable in his work, but that almost any Murnau film can be narratively and symbolically linked to a specific opera by Wagner.
A curious and adventurous individual, Murnau traveled extensively, learning from other cultures and interacting with the international film community. These experiences enhanced his films both aesthetically and technically. In an interview with Lotte Eisner, Ulmer talks about Murnau’s visit to Sweden and his introduction to local techniques and innovations, such as the metal camera. He goes on to note that when Murnau filmed the phantom forest sequence in Nosferatu, he was inspired by the creative usage of negative film in the 1921 Swedish horror film The Phantom Carriage.10
Murnau’s body of work combines a large and varied base of knowledge and inspiration, a constant search for innovation, and a unique artistic sense. Ulmer describes him as “a great purist” who always had a clear idea of his film even before shooting began. Constantly striving for perfection, he would demand reshoots of scenes that didn’t match his vision, always asserting that “Good is not enough”.11 Frank Hansen adds that Murnau was involved in every stage of the filmmaking process.
“He used to live each part, experiment with every possibility of the plot, draw up a mental picture of the sets, and perfect each detail of the whole with the greatest care, always asking himself what was the best way of presenting it by means of the camera lens.”12
It is hardly surprising, with his deep knowledge of literature, art, and theatre, that he was qualified to participate in every aspect of the filmmaking process far beyond the role of director, actually annotating all of his screenplays, giving “precise instructions concerning costumes and props, discussing the score with his composer, and providing notes on camera movement and framing.13 His diverse choice of subjects for his films and his ability to easily improvise new plot developments and interpretations are a direct result of his love for reading. Although he did not actually write his screenplays himself, he was evidently drawn primarily to projects taken from literary material. After all, Nosferatu is a reinterpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tartuffe is a play by Molière, Faust is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theatrical interpretation of a German legend, Phantom is based on a novel by nobel prize winner Gerhart Hauptmann, and Der Januskopf is one of the earliest film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Murnau’s appreciation for art history shines through vividly in his compositions, the interplay of light and shadow, his understanding of form and line, his involvement in the process of set and costume design, and even his ideas about the role of the camera. He saw cinema as a true art form, and the camera as an artist’s tool. In his own words, he believed the camera was “…the director’s sketching pencil. It should be as mobile as possible to catch every passing mood, and it is important that the mechanics of the cinema should not be interposed between the spectator and the picture.”14 In an article discussing the presence of the camera as a “character” in cinema, Ulmer jokes that Murnau “had a camera instead of a head”, and praises his almost innate understanding of filming techniques: “what was marvelous about Murnau was that he was always trying to do something new…he knew all the secrets of optics..15 Murnau’s obsession with effective camera techniques stemmed from his unerring faith in the power of the image. He placed great emphasis on visuals in his films, and firmly believed that the cinematic medium was uniquely qualified to communicate “by means of images alone; the ideal film does not need titles.”16 His films are living proof of that statement.
Murnau’s theatrical acting and directing experience endowed him with an insider’s touch when dealing with issues of performance. Eschewing the artificial conventions developed in early silent films, and the exaggerated, stylized acting associated with the Expressionist movement, he encouraged a more naturalistic acting style. Having worked and studied under Reinhardt, he was undoubtedly familiar with Stanislavsky’s concept of psychologically based method acting, and he did not hesitate to adapt Stanislavsky’s system for the silent cinema. He devoted a great deal of time and effort to the analysis and discussion of a character’s emotions and motivation with his actors, restraining their impulses when necessary to maintain balance and make a scene convincing and emotionally moving. He tried to get his actors “to forget the bad habit of ‘giving a performance’” and learn to create and develop their characters.17 Eisner mentions an argument Murnau had with Emil Jannings while filming The Last Laugh. Jannings insisted on a more exaggerated interpretation of a dramatic scene, while Murnau called for more subtlety. After shooting the scene in both versions, Jannings admitted that Murnau’s version was much more effective. Frank Hansen agrees that Murnau had a gift for getting his actors to convey “a profound inner life” and “could get the best out of them, even those who were mannered or over-stylized. He created characters who came to life and were not mere stereotypes.”18
Focusing more on the narrative and symbolic rather than visual aspects of Murnau’s films, Collier interprets this fondness for method acting and the “privileged place afforded to emotions” as a concern with the individual rather than the social group. By endowing his characters with personal emotions and urges, Murnau frequently places them outside the acceptable bounds of their respective communities. She also cites Murnau’s special emphasis on “Nature (and definitely with a capital ‘N’)” as well as his “fondness for Nature’s own – the earthy peasant and the noble savage”. While praising his emotional depth, however, she also criticizes him for his idealized, asexual image of women. She describes Murnau’s female protagonists as “asexual madonnas” destined to be sacrificed to the needs of their childish, ineffective male counterparts. In fact she uses this view as one of the bases for her comparison between Murnau and Wagner, claiming that “the dominant recurring theme in the works of both Wagner and Murnau is the redemption of the male by the loving sacrifice of the female.”19
In the preface to the English-language edition of Lotte Eisner’s biography of Murnau, she laments the fact that, out of the twenty-one films that she includes in his filmography, nine are missing entirely.20 In addition to this, some of the remaining films are incomplete, or rare and inaccessible. A single, incomplete copy of Gang in die Nacht is available in the Cinemathèque Française, only as a 35mm print, while Der Januskopf, is now little more than an annotated screenplay and a stack of stills. This sad fact naturally complicates any research on Murnau’s body of work.
The analysis that follows is based on three of Murnau’s best-known and most accessible films: Nosferatu (Eine Symphonie des Grauens), Faust, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans . These three films have the benefit of being complete and obtainable in a convenient and restored format, allowing for a fuller experience and analysis without the difficulties of dealing with faulty prints, distortion, graininess, and missing scenes. They are also a representative cross-section of Murnau’s career, ranging from Nosferatu (1922) to Faust (1926) and Sunrise (1927), giving a sense of his work as a developing artist and as a mature filmmaker who had enough experience and skill to achieve the effects he wanted.
Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
Nosferatu, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, is perhaps one of the best-known films of Murnau’s career. In her book on The Literary Monster on Film, Abigail Burnham Bloom states that “Nosferatu haunts the imagination of the viewer today in large part because of Shreck’s performance and the unusual images created by the cinematography.”21 Ado Kyrou takes the discussion of Shreck’s performance even further, noting that “the identity of the extraordinary actor whom brilliant make-up renders absolutely unrecognizable” is unknown, and gives several “guesses” ranging from Murnau himself to an actual vampire. 22 Whoever the mysterious Max Shreck really was, there is no doubt that both the decision to cast him, and the direction of his performance were determined by Murau himself. His appreciation for subtlety and method acting shines through even when his actor is concealed by layers of complex makeup that leaves him barely human. However exaggerated his pointy ears and rodent-like teeth may be, Nosferatu never seems to cross over into comedy or grotesqueness.
Bloom discusses the way films based on Stoker’s Dracula use the opportunity to create a unique physical image and show the vampire, a foreign disturbance of traditional Victorian society, as physically distinct from the rest of the characters, and cites Murnau’s version as “one of the strangest-looking ever filmed”. She associates the fear of Dracula’s corrupting “foreigness” and “otherness” with German Socialism, anti-Semitism, racism, and pan-Germanism post WW I.23
His “looks exemplify his unnatural state much in the same way that Frankenstein’s Creature’s exterior did as well”.24 Interestingly, a closer look at the film makes the definition of the character as nothing more than a symbol of German paranoia and the comparison to Frankenstein’s creature seem a bit oversimplified and superficial. There is no doubt that Nosferatu (Dracula) looks “unnatural” and stands out from the other characters. However, his body language is surprisingly subdued and at the same time eloquent.
Throughout most of the film his tall, thin frame is cautiously hunched over his folded hands and claw-like nails, making him seem like a furtive wild animal, ready to pounce but wary of the human world that rejects and fears him. There is no pointless lumbering across the screen, and no melodramatic “spooky” gestures. Every unusual movement he makes is carefully choreographed and structured, meant to create a very specific shape within the frame or to throw a particular shadow.
He is frequently placed in windows, doorways, and arches that surround his figure with oppressively structured negative space that seems to both imprison him in the coffin-lie confines of his immortality and showcase his unnaturalness to the other characters. These qualities are both visible when the doomed Ellen sees the vampire’s face and hands splayed across the widow of a neighboring house. He fills the confined space of the window luring her to her inevitable demise, but just as he takes over the frame, he is also crushed by it and almost seems to be trying to claw his way out in desperation. Ellen’s eventual surrender will be his salvation as well.
Throughout the film, his movements are so slow and measured that they gain a special significance and monumentality. In the famous low-angle shot aboard the ship taking him to Germany, he slowly crosses the frame, his long nails unfolded, his dark silhouette isolated and emphasized by the light background of the sky. The scene is shot from below, and creates an amazingly uncanny atmosphere simultaneously emphasizing the character’s detachment from humanity and his overbearing power. It is not the animalistic makeup that makes him frightening and inhuman, but the subtle, visceral quality of his body language, a charged timidity that melts almost imperceptibly into lethal menace.
Bloom compares Nosferatu’s Dracula with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, 1931). She refers to Lugosi as “sexually attractive”, “sympathetic”, and “mesmerizing”, explaining that the naïve English virgins of the film fall for him because he is exotic and different, even before being bitten/claimed by his vampiric power.25 Murnau gives his version of the famous vampire no such assets. His foreign “otherness” is a disease, as exemplified by the hoards of plague-bearing rats that he brings with him. He is unable to elicit sympathy or attraction from anyone and he expects none. He is both an ethereal symbol of evil and a tragic figure, so distorted and embittered by his essence that he can only be saved through suffering and sacrifice.
Murnau makes excellent use of shadows and silhouettes in Nosferatu to create the aura of a creature belonging to another world and convey a paranoid sense of evil omnipresence. As in all his films, Murnau was deeply involved in every step of the process beginning with the screenplay. Eisner describes how Murnau altered Henrik Galeen’s original script in the scene where Dracula watches Ellen “from his window like a spider” and then comes after her when she decides to sacrifice herself.26 Although this is not annotated in the script, in the finished film, Dracula’s progress up the stairs is shown almost exclusively through his cast shadow, which travels across the wall, and then expands over Ellen’s body, encroaching threateningly on her white nightgown.
Eisner notes that the scene could not have been spontaneously improvised as it required a new set. Although Eisner does not mention this, it must also have required extensive planning and choreography of the lighting to make sure all the shadows fell where and how they were supposed to. Everything from the locations of the lights to the positions of the actors’ bodies had to be mapped out in advance. As none of this is in the script, it must have been a last-minute decision by Murnau, who felt that the scene as written was not strong enough. Murnau’s understanding of the dramatic and emotional properties of light and shadow is one of his signature traits. Here, his decision to show Dracula’s advance in shadow form, emphasizes the vampire’s otherworldly, disembodied quality. His appearance before Ellen is made more frightening, because the audience is still denied the sight of his physical form as he appears only through the terrified gaze of Ellen, as his supernaturally large shadow engulfs her, the darkness obliterating her innocent white figure.
Collier takes a rather aggressive stance towards Murnau’s interpretation of Ellen’s character. She accuses Murnau of creating “female eunuchs” and “asexual madonnas”, the classic “romantic image of a woman” 27 , a description that actually ties in nicely with Murnau’s Romantic tendencies. In the same breath, however, she claims Murnau shows repressed sexuality as a destructive force, and that actually, “The Murnau woman wants to shed the halo that has been thrust upon her and regain her position as active and co-equal sexual partner.”28 But what about Ellen? Is she an asexual, self-sacrificing Madonna, or a liberated woman seeking her own path?
It seems Murnau was somewhat conflicted himself. After all, Ellen discovers her power to defeat Dracula by disobeying her husband’s admonitions, and then she voluntarily lets the vampire in, throwing open her window and inviting him into her bedroom behind her husband’s back – very much the act of a mature, brave woman. At the same time, she is shown at the start of the film as an innocent child playing with kittens, and mourning dead flowers. A closer look at Murnau’s copy of the screenplay shows that he modified a key gesture at the end of the film, mystifying Ellen’s role still further. Ellen realizes that to destroy Dracula, she must lure him to her bedside and keep him with her till dawn by allowing him to drink her blood. In the original screenplay, Dracula attempts to leave before sunrise and Ellen takes the initiative, embracing him and pulling him back. She relinquishes the role of passive martyr and actively participates in a ritual that will end in her death and Dracula’s salvation from an eternity of loneliness, darkness, and destruction. Interestingly, the scene is deleted by Murnau and does not figure in the script. By not allowing Ellen to make the final gesture Murnau re-asserts her position as victim.
An important feature of Nosferatu’s art direction is the decision to use genuine landscapes rather than studio-built sets. The dark, gloomy mountains and lowering clouds around Dracula’s castle create a mythological atmosphere, much like the naturalistic forest in Reinhardt’s famous production highlighted the mystic feel of Midsummer Night’s Dream. The weighty, dark mass of the mountains emerges out of the mist, making palpable the physical and spiritual distance between the neat, rural houses of the start of the film and the epic desolation of the castle’s ancient walls. The very real, monumental feeling of the landscape, shown in long, brooding takes, conveys a different kind of expressionism from the one achieved by artistically distorted sets in a studio. Lost in the wild darkness of nature, the viewer is given a glimpse of the timeless, animalstic world of the vampire’s lost soul.
An interesting contrast to Nosferatu, Faust does not actually feature natural environments. Shooting on a studio set, Murnau made sure to employ all of his theatrical experience to bring the sets as close to natural landscapes as possible, still not wanting to resort to evident artifice. Consequently, one of the main characters of the film is light.
Eisner praises Murnau’ s skillfull use of chiaroscuro. “No other director, not even Lang, ever succeeded in conjuring up the supernatural as masterfully as this. The entire town seems to be covered by the vast folds of a demon’s cloak (or is it a gigantic, lowering cloud?) as the demoniac forces of darkness prepare to devour the powers of light.”29 The scene she refers to, in which a monumental figure of Mephistopheles wraps a plague-stricken town in his huge black wings is truly mesmerizing. The smoky feel of the light, and the dark shadows on the wings make the demoniac figure seem as if he were materializing out of a cloud of dark mist.
The image is strangely reminiscent of Gloire et louange a toi, Satan, a lithograph by Odilon Redon made as an illustration for Baudelaire’s poem “Les Litanies de Satan” from Les Fleurs du Mal. The print depicts a figure of Satan with black, outstretched wings, emerging out of darkness. It is made on a coarse textured paper that dissolves the lines of the figure and helps to create the stormy atmosphere of the background. The sculptural volume of the figure is molded by the contrast between dark and light planes and a rim light coming from outside the frame. Faust uses similar lighting techniques to achieve the same effect in film. With his background in art history Murnau could easily have had Redon’s Satan in mind when filming Faust.
Shots of the demon unfurling his deadly wings are intercut with shots of a festive fair in the village below, alternating camera angles to increase tension and anticipation. Throughout the film, Murnau makes very effective use of panning shots to convey psychological states. A fast-paced traveling shot follows Faust and Mephisto’s flight through the air, embodying Faust’s thoughtless euphoria at his newly regained youth. In contrast, a pan of treacherous snow-covered mountains is overlaid with the face of the betrayed Gretchen, crying desperately for her faithless lover to save her and their dying infant.
Similarly to Nosferatu, shadows are used to enhance a character’s supernatural qualities. In his first appearance before Faust, Mephisto is shown enveloped in a formless smock “gnawed by the shadows into depriving him of all resemblance to a human being.”30 With no external attributes other than his smock and the shadows, the normally effusively gestural and comic Emil Jannings is transformed into a shapeless evil presence, created by the darkness that surrounds him, ready to seep into the soul of the unsuspecting Faust and bring about his spiritual downfall.
Light also acts as participant in the action. In the final scene, Faust, having rejected the false gift of youth that had cost him his soul, and regretting his own treachery, throws himself into the flames devouring Gretchen. As she recognizes him despite his transformation, “the flames leap up towards the sky and a globe of light hangs there as the symbol of eternal grace, the apotheosis of a fulfilled redemption.”31 Collier likens this scene to the death of Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring. Having betrayed his beloved, Brünnhilde, he like Faust, realizes the value of love, “which will purify the world”.32 As Faust and Gretchen unite in a final kiss, he seems to regain his youthful beauty, this time not through the agency of evil but through the loving gaze of the woman he will unite with in death. The scene (not present in Goethe’s original version) is undoubtedly sentimental. However, as the faces of Gretchen and Faust are illuminated by the soft chiaroscuro glow of the undulating flames, they are endowed with an ephemeral mythic quality that lends lyricism and pathos to the moment, far transcending its unabashed sentimentality.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Sunrise was Murnau’s American debut. With an unusually expansive budget he had a great deal of freedom to do what he wanted. Again Murnau does a great deal of experimentation with light. He frequently uses flashing or moving lights to create a sense of unease and disturbance, foreshadowing the drama to come.
He also uses light to differentiate between the misguided young husband’s two lives. His interactions with his faithful, innocent wife are flooded with a warm, glowing light, while his secret trysts on the swamp with his murderous mistress are filled with threatening shadows and harsh rim lights cast by the moon.
Marcel Carne discusses the use of the moving camera in Sunrise , saying that “the mobile camera gives the impression that a second person is following the hero”, thereby actually identifying the camera itself as an individual character.33 This technique gives the audience a feeling of involvement, almost of complicity in the husband’s guilt.
The idyllic portrayal of the young couple’s happiness is similar to the exaggerated, childish joy of Ellen ad her husband in Nosferatu. Here as well, the pure young wife must be sacrificed to save her husband’s soul, only in this case her husband is less Hutter and more Nosferatu himself. He turns into a monster, attempting to destroy her, and is redeemed through his realization of guilt and given a final chance to save her life. In other words he demonstrates the journey from Nosferatu to Faust, only here he does not have to burn with his Gretchen to expiate his guilt, but is forgiven and allowed to live with her in peace and happiness.
Collier draws a parallel between Sunrise and Wagner’s Tannhauser, comparing the husband’s relationship with his mistress to Tannhauser’s lust for Venus.34 She goes back to her idea of “the asexual Madonna” contrasting the purity of the young wife with the obvious sexuality of the mistress, who draws the husband away from spiritual beauty into carnal lust, and therefore into crime as well. It is interesting to note that young wife herself also links with Venus. Her rounded, child-like face and flowing golden hair are similar to those of Botticelli’s famous painting of the goddess. After her “death” the wife emerges reborn from the waters of the lake, ready to take the mistresses place in her husband’s heart, and the final scene shows her golden locks freed from restraint and scattered on her pillow. In a way then, the husband’s journey is cyclical, as he travels from a false Venus to a true one, that he had beside him all along but failed to recognize.
There seems to be a great deal of disagreement on the boundaries of the Expressionist movement and Murnau’s place in it. In The Haunted Screen, Lotte Eisner traces the emergence of Expressionism to the political and social unrest in Germany following the First World War. A sense of insecurity and disillusionment, tinted by the horrors of war brought about “an attraction for all that is obscure and undetermined”. This included dark magic, mysticism, folklore, and allegory, or in Eisner’s epically poetic terms, “…the ghosts which had haunted the German Romantics revived, like the shades of Hades after draughts of blood.”35
According to Eisner, Expressionism sought to find an escape from the “mere facts” of Naturalism and the “effeminacy of neo-Romanticism” in order to “isolate an object’s ‘most expressive expression’”. She notes the movement’s contradictory nature, with its violent rejection of psychology, realism, and objectivity, combined with a flaming individualism and a search for the “eternal, permanent meaning of facts and objects.”36 She emphasizes the use of exaggeratedly artificial sets, dramatic lighting, shadows, and chiaroscuro effects, and emotionally effusive, gesture-filled acting.
Talking about Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eisner describes his preoccupation with genuine landscapes and natural settings as opposed to artificially constructed studio environments, and at the same time asserts that “never again was so perfect an Expressionism to be attained…without the aid of the least artifice.37 In other words, she places him into the Expressionist movement in cinema, thus complicating the definition of the term “expressionism”. She finds expressionism in the way Murnau’s films are shot, rather than the way they are built. In other words, she sees his innovation in being able to see and show something natural in an expressionistic way, rather than artificially constructing something that is inherently expressionist.
In his introduction to the anthology Weimar Cinema, Noah Isenberg defines early German film as primarily a “cinema of attractions” more interested in spectacle than narrative “visual storytelling”, which then “built on the more established arts, drawing on folktales, legends, romantic lore, and material that was extracted from literature, theatre, and mass culture…feeding into the curiosity and imagination of the viewing public.”38
Siegfried Kracauer practically dismisses all German cinema before World War I, comparing it to “a young street arab…an uneducated creature running wild among the lower strata of society.”39 In the chapter devoted to Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, he describes the function of Expressionist film as “an outward projection of psychological events”, and says that this type of staging reflected “the general retreat into a shell which occurred in postwar Germany.” In fact, while praising Caligari’s abstract, distorted sets for their “revolutionary spirit”, he condemns the use of a framing device that places the film into the realm of logical reality by defining its eccentric imagery as the fantasy of a madman.40
Werner Sudendorf blames Eisner for creating the misconception that “all the classic German films made during the Weimar Republic were termed ‘expressionist’. He insists on narrowing the definition to only a handful of early Weimar films, still including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.41 Thomas Elsaesser engages with both Eisner and Krakauer, admitting that although both writers generate “imaginary constructs” about 1920s German cinema, their definitions help to lend “a semblance of consistency” to this period of German film history.42
It is as hard to define and classify the films of Murnau as it is to define the boundaries of Expressionist cinema. Was he an expressionist? An innovator? What was he trying to achieve and what did his films bring into the world of cinema? The answer depends on one’s understanding of Expressionism. If Expressionism in film is the ability to convey emotion and bare the inmost desires of the soul, and show every object and character’s most “expressive expression” through the use of camera, lighting, design, and acting, then Murnau was a true Expressionist, and his ability to take all the tools and knowledge at his disposal and fuse them into a new universe and a new way of communicating through film makes him a true auteur.
1: Ulmer, Edgar G. Interview with Louis Moullet and Bertrand Tavernier. Cahiers du Cinema, 122 (August 1961)
2: Eisner, Lotte H. Murnau (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973)
3: Eisner, Murnau 14.
4: Fuerst, Walter René, and Samuel J. Hume. Twentieth Century Stage Decoration (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929) 16
5: Oliver M. Sayler, ed., Max Reinhardt and His Theatre, trans. Mariele S. Gudernatsch and others (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1924) 111
6: Margret Dietrich, “Music and Dance in the Productions of Max Reinhardt,” In Total Theatre: A Critical Anthology, ed. E. T. Kirby ( New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1969) 163
7: Murnau, F.W. Interview in Cinea-Cine, 22 (1 April 1927)
8:Thomas Elsaesser, “No End To Nosferatu (1922),” In Weimar Cinema, ed. Noah Isenberg (New York: Columbia UP, 2009)
9: Collier, Jo Leslie. From Wagner to Murnau: The Transposition of Romanticism from Stage to Screen. (London: UMI Research Press, 1988) 105
10: Eisner, Murnau 88.
11: Eisner, Murnau 88.
12: Eisner, Murnau 86.
13: Eisner, Murnau 27-28.
14: F.W. Murnau, “The Ideal Picture Needs No Titles.” Theatre Magazine, Vol. XLVII, No. 322 (January 1928).
15: Marcel Carne, “La Camera, personage du drame.” In Anthologie du Cinema.Textes reunis et presents par Marcel Lapierre (Paris: La Novelle Edition, 1946) 233
16: F.W. Murnau, “The Ideal Picture Needs No Titles”
17: Interview in Film Kurier January 1920
18: Eisner, Murnau 153
19: Collier 105-107
20: Eisner, Murnau 5
21: Abigail Burnham Bloom, The Literary Monster on Film: Five Nineteenth Century British Novels and Their Cinematic Adaptations ( Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, 2010) 106
22: Ado Kyrou, Le Surrealisme au Cinema ( Paris: Ramsay, 1985)35
23: Bloom 161
24: Bloom 159
25: Bloom 160
26: Eisner, Murnau 45
27: For a more in-depth discussionof the role of women in Murnau’s films, see Collier 109-130
28: Collier 110
29: Eisner, Haunted 285
30: Eisner, Haunted 286
31: Eisner, Haunted 290-291
32: For a detailed comparison of Faust and the Ring, see Collier 121-122
33: In his article “La Camera, personage du drame.” Carne discusses Murnau’ s camera moves in Faust, The Last Laugh, and Sunrise
34: Collier 123-126
35: Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen. Trans. Roger Greaves. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973) 9
36: Eisner, Haunted 10-13
37: Eisner, Haunted 101-102
38: Noah Isenberg, introduction, Weimar Cinema, ed. Noah Isenberg ( New York: Columbia UP, 2009) 5.
39: Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Study of the German Film.( Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2004) 16
40: Krakauer 70-71
41: Werner Sudendorf, “Expressionism and Film: the Testament of D Caligari.” In Expressionism Reassessed, ed. Shulamith Behr, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993)
42: Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After. Germany’s Historical Imaginary (London, New York: Routledge, 2000) 3