Outtakes: F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau  

WHO is he?

German silent film director who made around 20 feature films during the 1920s, some of which are considered among the highest achievements in cinema. Murnau worked with the famed German studio UFA, before signing a contract with Fox Studios in the United States and moving to Hollywood.

WHAT are his films about?


Murnau is considered to be one of the pioneers of German Expressionism in the cinematic medium. However, his films rarely deal with the political and social preoccupations of the artistic movement directly. Murnau instead works with grand metaphysical ideas — greed, power, pride, fear, love, evil and good — that might relate to the film’s social background only in a roundabout way. Loss of innocence and the induction of Good by Evil are two familiar themes in these films.


Like in most noted Expressionistic films, the cinematography in Murnau’s films is underscored by the interplay of light and shadow and often handles harsh, unidirectional light. Physical forms are exaggerated for dramatic purpose, and so is the acting. The décor and architecture imbibe the aesthetic of the Gothic era. Richly atmospheric and tonally consistent, these films do not shy away from using special effects such as double exposures and miniature sets. Murnau was especially fond of the moving camera and mastered a number of innovations such as the tracking shot, handheld camera work and SnorriCam.

WHY is he of interest?

Murnau was a stylist par excellence and any current day filmmaker who has an elaborate or heightened style owes to Murnau’s cinema directly or indirectly. Watching his films, it is evident that he sought to explore the expressive potential of cinema to its fullest. Were his life not cut short so early, there is little doubt that he would have gone on to make some of the greatest films of the sound era as well.

WHERE to discover him?

Arguably Murnau’s finest accomplishment, The Last Laugh (1924), presents the descent into depression of an elderly hotel doorman, played by Emil Jannings, after he is relegated to a janitor role. Murnau’s film is a watershed work in the history of cinema and is marked by stunning shots full of complex compositions and camera movements. It’s a technical accomplishment that perhaps no movie till Citizen Kane (1941) emulated and, to date, retains its power to dazzle the audience.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 6:30:37 PM |

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