.Magical Murnau: BAMPFA showcases F.W. Murnau, one of films’ greatest directors

Even if F.W. Murnau had made no other films than Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, he would still be considered one of the greatest directors of all time. But Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (1888–1931), who adopted the pseudonym Murnau, did indeed create films before and after Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927), in his native Germany and in Hollywood. They only add to the luster of the director’s reputation as one of film’s most passionate and poetic artists, as evidenced in “F.W. Murnau: Voyages into the Imaginary,” a retrospective curated by Director of Film Susan Oxtoby, currently running at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive.

Two years after Nosferatu set the bar for every horror pic that followed, Murnau, writer Carl Mayer and cinematographer Karl Freund took their camera down to urban street-level for The Last Laugh, the comparatively realistic story of a disgraced hotel doorman (Emil Jannings). A major character player who unfortunately went on to star in Nazi-themed movies for Hitler, Jannings brings his ponderous, hammy acting style to a subject even the cosmopolitan Murnau could relate to as a German: the power of a uniform in that society’s rigidly defined class system.

When the loyal but pompously officious doorman loses his position because of age and is reduced to the lowly status of a restroom attendant, he comes completely unglued. Only the decision to add an upbeat ending rescues him from further pathos. And yet, Murnau’s staging and direction ultimately lend a touch of grace to the humiliation. Compare and contrast the fall of the doorman to the predicament of the foolish professor in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, another Jannings hand-wringer. The Last Laugh, now digitally restored, screens Saturday, Jan. 29.

Before emigrating to the U.S., the director made Tartuffe (1925), a stylish adaptation of Molière’s satire in a film-within-a-film framework. Photographed like a richly detailed, delirious dream with actors Lil Dagover, Werner Krauss and Jannings—again, as the title hypocritical charlatan—conspiring in drawing rooms, Tartuffe revels in its own sophistication. The seduction scene between Dagover’s Elmire and Jannings’ lusty sybarite Tartuffe is exceptionally well shot and cut. Feb. 5.

Murnau moved to California in 1926 and the following year helmed one of history’s most remarkable films, the romantic tone-poem Sunrise. The 1930 City Girl, a silent produced well after the advent of sound, evokes many of the same American heartland themes as the earlier film, in the tale of a young Minnesota man (Charles Farrell) who defies his strict father by bringing his new bride, a former café waitress (Mary Duncan), to the family farm just in time for a natural catastrophe. Can the two lovers overcome the harsh environment with their relationship intact? They can, with the help of some beautifully composed sequences—a tracking shot of the twosome scampering through a wheat field, and a climactic fistfight in a runaway wagon—plus Murnau’s tender affection for his characters. It plays Feb. 25. 

More Murnau must-sees at the Archive: Faust (1926), featuring Carl Hoffmann’s gorgeous misty-mountain-top cinematography and another Jannings appearance, this time in the role of Mephistopheles in writer Hans Kyser’s adaptation of the Goethe-Marlowe deal-with-the-devil scenario. It shows Feb. 13. On a different plane entirely is Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), a thoroughly romanticized South Pacific island folk saga—originally conceived by Murnau and documentarian Robert J. Flaherty—in which the ethnographic splendor shot on location in Bora Bora is matched by Murnau’s worshipful depiction of a pair of “noble savages” played by amateurs Anne Chevalier and Matahiarii Tama. Floyd Crosby’s camera work here is justly renowned. Screening on Feb. 27. 

Murnau died at age 42 after a car crash on Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Barbara. The BAMPFA series of 12 films represents all his existing full-length filmography—the other nine titles are either lost or incomplete.

Playing now through Feb. 27 at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive. bampfa.org
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