Why might this not sound easy
It can often be intimidating when you decide to immerse yourself for the first time in the work of the venerable director, and the reputation of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has been tarnished for nearly a century. Its American romantic sequel Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is often considered not only one of the greatest films of the silent era but of cinema as a whole. Meanwhile, his horror film about Dracula, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (1922), is an established member of the horror genre’s pantheon.
Although lauded, the fact that Murnau worked entirely in the silent era could be a source of concern for new viewers. There have naturally been seismic changes in terms of narrative conventions, approaches to representation, visual style and language since Murnau’s day. It can be easy to watch stressful shows, or connect through interstitial addresses, as spacing and downtime. It might be easy to assume that these styles make the slapstick comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd more relevant to modern audiences than the emotional and allegorical melodramas associated with the likes of Murnau. Fortunately, although his films are clearly a product of their time, they are also timeless; It’s still as fresh and prepared today as it was in the early 1900s.
Best place to start – the last laugh
The Last Laugh (1924) may not seem the place to begin Murnau’s tragic short career. It doesn’t have the cache of the kind known to Nosferatu, or the broad adulation of Sunrise, but there are a number of reasons why it seems like the perfect place to dip in.
The first being the fact that it is a mixture of German Expressionism and something called Kammerspielfilm. The first is an art movement embedded in Murnau’s style that rejected objective reality, often using distorted visuals to reflect psychosomatics. On the other hand, Kammerspielfil avoids such erotic flourishes, and instead tells more realistic and emotional dramas, often about the lower middle classes.
In the case of The Last Laugh, the narrative follows a proud hotel concierge, wonderfully played by Emil Jannings in one of the most remarkable physical performances. His personality is shattered when his manager downgrades him to a bathroom servant due to his advanced years. It’s possible to see his succession of insults echoing over the years in Ken Loach’s Last Daniel Blake (2016), though Murnau’s finale—which inspired the English title (the original title was The Last Man)—has a much more comedic tone. sarcastic.
Regardless, this is a story that can be instantly relatable to modern audiences, told with a realism that isn’t always the focus of silent cinema. The way Murnau blended this with expressive tendencies helps create his unique lyrical story.
There are two impressive technical aspects that provide additional reasons to recommend the film: the lack of in-house titles and the zoom camera. Kammerspielfilm often uses simple title cards, but The Last Laugh has been notorious for avoiding them almost entirely. The audience never ceases to be amazed at how easy it is to follow the narrative without dialogue. Instead – somewhat similarly to the 2014 award-winning Ukrainian drama The Tribe – everything is conveyed through the physical performance and enthusiasm of filmmaking.
Murnau’s innovative use of the camera, referred to as the “unrestricted camera,” quietly defined the medium. Her subjectivity, constantly moving with the protagonist, was revolutionary and helps her feel modern. Stories of how the shots were actually achieved – often by tying cinematographer Karl Freund to a bicycle or swing – only enhance the fun.
What do you watch next
The massive success of The Last Laugh allowed Murnau and Janning to continue making the sweeping fairy tale Faust (1926)—just one of several films that would mark fitting second steps in Murnau’s career. Admittedly, Faust can sense the disparity in tone, sometimes turning viewers off, but it’s worth persevering as this extreme disparity informs transcendental and heart-wrenching conclusion. Emil Janning also appears in another lead role – as the evil demon Mephisto – which is once again an undeniable visual triumph, this time beautifully portrayed by Karl Hoffmann.
A more obvious suggestion, but also true, is to jump next to Sunrise or Nosferatu. Nosferatu is a archetype of German Expressionism and Gothic temperament, not only a prototype for countless vampire films to follow but for entire areas of film style. It proved to be the perfect canvas for the director’s compositions educated in art history and his powerful use of shadow and light. Dracula in everything but the name (Mornau’s movie was an unauthorized adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic), and Count Orlock (Max Shrek) haunting physiognomy and his flashing silhouette are two of the most iconic in film history. It may not be scary in the way audiences would expect from modern horror, but its spooky atmosphere is palpable and sometimes overwhelming.
After a number of films in Germany, Murnau crossed the Atlantic to America, and Sunrise was the first of three films he shot there before his untimely death in a car accident on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1931. It’s yet another deceptive affair even today that misrepresents the audience’s narrative. From thriller noir-ish to folk romance, it’s more exciting and visually impactful than anything modern Hollywood has produced. Murnau’s goal has always been to craft a universal cinematic language, and in this simple human thread, he manages to find an almost perfect cinematic expression of love. corny? Probably. But equally irresistible.
Where not to start
There is nothing in Murnau’s filmography that can be completely avoided, but there are a few titles he might be wise to see later in his exploration of his work.
City Girl (1930) was Murnau’s last film in America and the penultimate picture before his death (Tabu: A Story of the South Seas in 1931). A romantic melodrama, it contrasts the bustle of the city with the claustrophobia of rural life, and it’s clear that the windswept fields of wheat have inspired many American filmmakers since then – notably Terrence Malik. However, despite its familiarity, it can make an even greater impact when seen after sunrise – an thematic companion piece.
4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film (2003) is a 40-minute recreation of the director’s famous lost circus drama, which is probably best reserved for the full – as The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924), Murnau’s only foray In a comic, and as such, a film that differs somewhat from the rest of his work.