To this day German filmmaker F. W. Murnau remains one of the most influential directors of cinema. After studying art and literature history at the University of Heidelberg, he became a student of director Max Reinhardt until serving in World War I as a combat pilot. During a flight, he accidentally strayed into Switzerland and stayed there till the war's end. He made his directorial debut in 1919 back in Germany; although he made several films over the next three years, most of them have been lost. Murnau first gained international renown with Nosferatu the Vampire in 1922. Unlike others, Murnau filmed this still chilling masterpiece on location. His next film, The Last Laugh (1924), utilized unique camera techniques that later became the basis for mise-en-scene. He continued making German films, notable for their pessimism and pervading sense of doom, until he moved to Hollywood in 1926 to work for Fox studios. His first American film, Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (1927), is considered to be the apex of German silent cinema, and was internationally acclaimed. He made two more films at Fox, and then teamed up with famed documentarist Robert Flaherty. Together they made Tabu (1931), which was shot in the South Seas. Their artistic visions for the work differed dramatically, and eventually Murnau bought up Flaherty's share and finished it himself. The film became a box-office hit, but the week before it opened, Murnau was killed in an auto accident. He was only 42.
Biography by Sandra Brennan
- Was extremely tall, standing 6'11".
- Served in the German air force during World War I; he was held as a prisoner of war after making an emergency landing in Switzerland, but was permitted to direct plays and make propaganda films during his internment.
- Moved to Hollywood not only for directing opportunities but so that life as an openly gay man would be easier.
- His 1927 movie Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is the only motion picture to win an Oscar for Unique and Artistic Production, as the category was retired after the inaugural 1929 Academy Awards.
- Died in a car accident in California; only 11 people attended his funeral.
- Greta Garbo commissioned a death mask of Murnau that she kept for many years. It is now in the collection of the Deutsche Kinemathek museum in Berlin.