Back in the 1920s, before trying to conquer the world, Germany tried to conquer the world of film, and one of its deadliest weapons was F.W. Murnau, a fabric merchant's son from Bielefeld. Remembered mostly by cinemaphiles today, Murnau's films, along with those by Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang, more or less invented German Expressionism, a cinematic movement whose dark shadows and off-kilter compositions revolutionized the still-young medium. The bloody trenches of World War I had left everybody in a state of shock, if not outright insanity, and this psychological turmoil oozed its way into films like Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Murnau's own Nosferatu. These were no ordinary horror flicks. Drenched in dread, the screen itself seemed haunted.
It still does, or at least it will when the UW Cinematheque launches a new series on Friday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall. "Journey into Night: The German Films of F. W. Murnau," which continues on Fridays throughout the winter and spring, offers as comprehensive a look at this director as you're likely to get on the big screen, several of Murnau's films having been lost and several more still not available on DVD. Included are films that helped Murnau establish an international reputation: Nosferatu, Tartuffe, The Last Laugh and Faust. But so are films that most of us haven't even heard of: The Haunted Castle, Journey into Night, Phantom, The Burning Soil and The Grand Duke's Finances. Those who are so inclined will be able to fill in some of the blanks left by Murnau's heretofore sketchy oeuvre.
Nosferatu, which kicks things off, is one of those legendary silent films that everybody remembers but nobody's seen. What they have seen, in clips or in stills, is Max Schreck's Count Orlac, the Transylvanian bloodsucker modeled on Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Tall, exceedingly thin, with a face that belongs on a rat or a bat ' and did I mention the fingernails? ' Count Orlac stalks through the movie, looking for signs of life so that he might extinguish them. And Murnau gets such a somnambulistic pace going that you may find yourself falling into a trance, although pianist David Drazin's live accompaniment will surely evoke the film's subtitle: A Symphony of Horror. Nosferatu wasn't the first vampire film, just the first that mattered, and its effects, special and otherwise, can be felt all the way up to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Murnau wasn't all thrills and chills, as Tartuffe, adapted from MoliÃre's play, testifies. And The Last Laugh, despite its title, is a drama, a get-out-your-handkerchiefs drama about a hotel doorman (the inimitable Emil Jannings) who gets reassigned to the men's room. Often cited for its use of a moving camera, The Last Laugh failed to move me, I'm sorry to say, but it won Murnau a trip to Hollywood, courtesy of Fox, where he set about conquering the world of film on behalf of Uncle Sam. Sunrise, one of the very last silent films, was also one of the greatest, according to just about everybody you talk you. (Just don't talk to me.) Murnau was king of the world. Then, in 1931, while being chauffeured around the Pacific coast, he died in a car accident that landed him in Kenneth Anger's do-ask, do-tell-all book, Hollywood Babylon.
An unfortunate end to a career that could be described as both accomplished and promising, Murnau having been cut down in his prime. (He was 43.) Who knows what he might have gone on to do? Then again, who knew, until rather recently, exactly what he did? The Cinematheque series should give us a clearer idea of how Murnau journeyed into night, finally arriving at Sunrise.