Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is
born in Bielefeld on December 28, 1888 as Friedrich Wilhelm
Plumpe. His father Heinrich works as a cloth manufacturer
and his mother Ottilie is a teacher. Murnau has two brothers,
Bernhard and Robert, as well as two stepsisters, Ida and
He spends very little time in Bielefeld as the family moves
to Kassel in 1892, where Plumpe spends an unburdened childhood.
He is interested in art and theatre from an early age, encouraged
particularly by his mother and his sisters. His father,
on the other hand, is not enthusiastic about his son.
In 1907, Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe graduates cum laude from
high school in Kassel and then travels to Berlin to study
philology. Following a short stay in Heidelberg in 1908/09,
where he also enrols to study philology, he goes on to continue
his studies in Berlin from April 1909 on. It is here that
he meets Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, with whom he shares both
a deep friendship and a common passion for literature and
art. Together, the friends decide to go to Heidelberg, where
they both enrol to study art history and literature in April
1910. Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe quits his studies at the
end of the summer semester of 1911 and turns to acting.
As a result, he increasingly distances himself from his
family, who has very little understanding and sympathy for
his choice of vocation.
Around 1911, he takes on the name Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
as an homage to the Upper Bavarian artists’ colony
he has joined with his friend Ehrenbaum-Degele. He has always
regarded the name of “Plumpe” as a burden. He
finally returns to Berlin and assumes, at the German Theatre,
small roles, not only in the classics but also contemporary
In October 1914, he is drafted into the infantry and dispatched
to Potsdam and finally promoted to lieutenant in 1915. His
friend Hans, who has volunteered for the army, is killed
on the eastern front in 1915, to where Murnau is also dispatched.
Even during this period, he tries to maintain contact with
the theatre and stays in constant correspondence with his
acting friend and colleague from the German Theatre, Lothar
Müthel, who keeps him up to date with cultural life
He spends his home leave in the summer of 1916 with the
parents of his deceased friend, whose villa in Berlin he
makes his permanent residence. In 1917 he volunteers as
an observer for the German air force and, in December 1917,
he and his pilot land in Switzerland for unknown reasons
where they are subsequently interned. During this period,
Murnau once again dedicates his time to theatre rehearsals;
however, this time not as an actor, but as a director.
In February 1919, he is released and returns to Berlin,
where he takes up residence in the home of the Ehrenbaum-Degeles.
He refreshes his contacts and starts shooting his first
movie, DER KNABE IN BLAU, in 1919. In the same year, he
realises the episodic movie SATANAS under the artistic direction
of Robert Wiene, with Conrad Veidt in the lead role.
In the following years, Murnau becomes a very busy director
indeed. Around 1920, he makes six movies: SEHNSUCHT, DER
BUCKLIGE UND DIE TÄNZERIN, DER JANUSKOPF, ABEND –
NACHT – MORGEN, DER
GANG IN DIE NACHT and MARIZZA, GENANNT DIE SCHMUGGLERMADONNA.
In 1921, he completes SCHLOSS
VOGELÖD, in which critics have already identified
Murnau’s unique talent for blurring the boundaries
between reality and non-reality.
Murnau’s next movie, NOSFERATU
– EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS also plays with reality.
Murnau shoots the film in real locations in Wismar, Lübeck,
Lauenburg and Rostock. As in other movies, he draws on motifs
from paintings. NOSFERATU
becomes a German silent movie classic.
In 1922, he makes DER
BRENNENDE ACKER and in 1922, with extraordinary technical
expertise and daring, PHANTOM,
based on a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann. This is followed
by DIE AUSTREIBUNG, based on Carl Hauptmann’s play
of the same name as well as DIE
FINANZEN DES GROSSHERZOGS, Murnau’s only comedy.
In 1924, he makes his big breakthrough with his first Ufa
production, DER LETZTE
MANN, with which he also receives international acclaim.
The movie is celebrated particularly as a result of Karl
Freund’s “released camera”. Even before
the Berlin premiere on December 23, 1924, the movie is presented
to influential representatives of the movie industry and
press in New York on December 5, 1924. In January 1925,
it is released in the United States under the title THE
With his next movies, TARTÜFF,
and – above all – with FAUST,
Ufa hopes to latch onto the huge success of DER
LETZTE MANN, but the German critics remain somewhat
reserved, although Murnau is highly revered for his adaptation
of the script.
At the premiere of FAUST
on October 14, 1926, Murnau is no longer in Germany, as
he has already signed a contract with the American producer
William Fox, who having seen DER
LETZTE MANN is convinced of the German director’s
genius: Murnau travels to the United States in July of 1926.
He is celebrated in New York, where – en route to
Hollywood and his first movie venture with Fox, SUNRISE
– he makes a stop.
August of the same year sees the beginning of the filming
of the love drama SUNRISE. The technical details for this
movie – Murnau constructs an entire town on the Fox
lot – puts all other projects to date in the shade.
The total financial and artistic freedom awarded to Murnau
for this production becomes legendary.
SUNRISE receives enthusiastic critical acclaim and three
Academy Awards, although the movie is a total box-office
failure. At Fox, doubts start spreading about whether Murnau
would be able to attract the entire spectrum of the American
audience. Murnau is disappointed to be requested to orient
the contents of the movie more closely on the interests
of the audience and to take this into account when directing.
In 1927, Murnau briefly returns to Berlin, to make a final
movie for Ufa, but the project is scrapped. Back in Hollywood
Murnau prepares intensively for his next movie, FOUR DEVILS,
which he hopes to shoot with a completely moving camera.
To this end, he has a crane constructed with a platform
so that he can swivel the camera to any angle. However,
his venture can not be implemented as he has planned and
he has to reshoot the end of the movie, to dilute some of
the tragedy in it. There is also discord with Fox during
the next project, OUR DAILY BREAD/CITY GIRL. Murnau, no
longer willing to compromise, terminates his contract with
He takes his captain’s licence, purchases a yacht
and plans to change his life. Together with the documentary
maker, Robert Flaherty, he decides to make a film far away
from Hollywood: namely in the South Seas – TABU. He
signs a contract with the, at the time, new production company
Colorart. Full of enthusiasm, Murnau sets off on his yacht
in the spring of 1929 to Tahiti, while Flaherty stays in
the US attempting to sort out the financing. However, Flaherty
arrives in the South Seas with empty hands, as Colorart
proves unable to pay. The two directors begin filming without
any secure financing, with Murnau supporting the work with
the last of his own savings.
Due to the tense financial situation and the discordant
conceptual ideals, Flaherty and Murnau go their separate
ways. Murnau completes the movie alone and subsequently
returns to Hollywood. To edit the movie and complete the
soundtrack, Murnau goes into great personal debt, but there
is a silver lining – Paramount is interested in the
movie and offers Murnau a distribution agreement.
Murnau plans to return to Tahiti to complete further movie
projects. He also wants to return to Europe to study the
development of German talkies. However, he is unable to
realise these plans, and is not present at the premiere
of his movie TABU, either. While driving from Hollywood
to Monterey, Murnau is involved in a serious accident and
dies from his injuries on March 11, 1931 in a hospital in
Santa Monica. His body is transported to Germany and put
to rest at the Waldfriedhof Stahnsdorf cemetery near Berlin.
Further information on CD-ROM:
"FRIEDRICH WILHEM MURNAU »Der ideale Film...«
Leben und Werk";
available at F.-W.-Murnau-Stiftung.