Murnau. It’s hard not to imagine where Murnau would be on this list if he hasn’t died in a car accident at age 42. Top 10? He was a master of cinematography (both the Oscar version (mostly meaning photography) of the word and the true Bordwell definition). He’s the yin to Eisenstein’s yang as far as editing and camera movement go. He has two top 100 films (nobody behind him on my director list has more). Many debate whether Sunrise is the best silent film of all-time (I have it second to Passion of Joan of Arc) and, to give you an idea of the strength of Murnau’s case, there’s strong debate about whether Nosferatu is actually his singular masterpiece as well. 

Best film:  Sunrise. The most recent viewing of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc slid it past Sunrise but I have it at #18 of all-time. It’s known for those graceful tracking shots and tragic narrative—but the mise-en-scene work (as evidenced here) and some loud (in a good way) measured editing choice make it more than that- the complete package for a masterpiece.

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simple yet elegant mise-en-scene in Sunrise
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absolutely loaded mise-en-scene in Sunrise – expressionism and early precursor to von Sternberg
Welles and Ozu– well before Welles and Ozu of course with an blocked frame here

total archiveable films:  7

top 100 films: 2 (Sunrise, Nosferatu)

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Murnau’s titles were fascinating- “drowning” here in Sunrise

top 500 films: 3 (Sunrise, Nosferatu, The Last Laugh)

pure cinema in The Last Laugh hardly a title card used here as he uses the frame to make a description and discuss character- this would influence even those today like Scorsese or PT Anderson who can show isolation with a character in a large empty room

top 100 films of the decade: 5 (Sunrise, Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust, Phantom)

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stylistically charged- superimposition and manipulations in the frame and editing

most overrated:  Tabu. I can’t get behind this being #244 of all-time as it is on TSPDT (it isn’t in my top 500)— but– I’m due for a second visit.

most underrated: Nosferatu. It’s not wildly underrated (#134 all-time on TSPDT and I’m at #55). The expressionism and silhouette work is a landmark for mise-en-scene and the narrative  (and legendary lead performance) are entirely engaging.

silhouette– German Expressionism in a frame here in Nosferatu

gem I want to spotlight:  Nosferatu. Early (though not the earliest- that would go to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)) masterpiece of German expressionism, a triumph of mise-en-scene (which may be redundant saying that because the term is almost hand in hand with German expressionism) and a seminal landmark film in the horror genre.

stylistic innovations/traits:  Murnau is the father of camera movement—full stop— a baton he’d past to Renoir, Ophuls and may others up through Cuaron today. But- as you can grasp from the imagery on this page (and the one nice dissolve edit I was able to locate from Last Laugh) editing and mise-en-scene were not an afterthought. To that end—the German Expressionism movement from Caligari to Lang which bleeds into film noir in Hollywood is a major historical and stylistic film movement (not totally unlike Italian Neorealism or the French New Wave) and Murnau is right there with Lang in this movement’s legacy.

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genius edit here- dissolving into a doorway in The Last Laugh

top 10

  1. Sunrise
  2. Nosferatu
  3. The Last Laugh
  4. Faust
  5. Tabu
  6. Phantom
  7. City Girl
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mise-en-scene work in Nosferatu that makes “the father of camera movement” an imperfect designation for Murnau
from Faust- stunningly beautiful and one he’d borrow from in Sunrise a year later (above)

By year and grades

1922- Nosferatu MP
1922- Phantom R
1924- The Last Laugh MS
1926- Faust HR
1927- Sunrise MP
1930- City Girl R
1931- Tabu R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives