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.
total archiveable films: 7
top 100 films: 2 (Sunrise, Nosferatu)
top 500 films: 3 (Sunrise, Nosferatu, The Last Laugh)
top 100 films of the decade: 5 (Sunrise, Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust, Phantom)
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.
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.
- The Last Laugh
- City Girl
By year and grades
|1924- The Last Laugh||MS|
|1930- City Girl||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
I must praise Murnau. I’m always debating between Sunrise and Nosferatu myself. Hard to decide.
Fun fact. Did you know that Murnau considered playing (acting) Nosferatu because of his size and stature. He was quoted as being “a giant man near 7 feet tall.”(though he was only 6’4”)
I heard that nearly half of all silent movies are lost to time.
If suddenly 4-5 bad Murnau films were discovered, would that impact his ranking overall? Or would you only look at his ‘great’ movies and ignore the bad ones? (Of course this question applies to all directors especially silent ones).
@Azman– I think hardly if at all. I’m not a big per-movie average guy. I admire those that never really had a misstep (or very few) but I also get frustrated with those that take forever. I saw some stat yesterday that Soderbergh has made 25 movies since 1997 and James Cameron has made 1. haha. I’d trade 10 really good but not great Woody Allen movies for another Annie Hall or Manhattan easy– but if he’s not capable of that I’d rather have those 10 movies.
Hello Azman, it is a very sad fact, we will never see those movies. I would say no, Coppola is a good example, he has a lot of non-great movies, that doesn’t change the fact that he made Apocalypse Now, you can’t always make the best movie of all time
Well Coppola made TONS of great movies. Look at his run in the 70s and even in the 80s. That’s at least 5 or so MPs. (he also has a lot of bad movies but that evens out with his 4 massive MPs and 3 or so really good movies.
One hit wonders would be Richard Kelly, Guiseppe Tornatore, Zinneman etc who only really made one MP (really strong movie), the rest all HR or Rs. eventhough they have a great movie, I wouldn’t call them phenomenal because it was only 1 movie and the rest good or average movies.
It bothers me a little when The Last Laugh gets lost in that conversation. It was regarded at the time (1924) as the greatest film yet made, and still brilliantly stands the test of time to this day. Hitchcock credited it as the film that taught him the possibilities of what could be done with a camera.
I really, really like The last laugh a lot, but (for me) his two best movies are definitely Nosferatu and Sunrise. What do you think? How would you rank his movies?
Sorry if my comment bothered you. I agree with Drake here(that Murnau’s 2 masterpieces are Sunrise and Nosferatu, and as great as The Last Laugh is, I don’t think it can compare to those other 2 Murnau movies. I’d probably have it around MS/MP.)
I think all three are masterpieces and among the best and most historically significant silent films. In my recent list of top films from 1910-1929 I agreed on the order with you and Drake… but had all three in the top 10. I think Murnau is the singular greatest genius of silent film.
I agree, as much as I enjoy Chaplin, Keaton etc, I think Murnau is the greatest.
So I’m ridiculously late here, but I’m finally on my way for a Murnau study and I watched Sunrise yesterday, my first film of his. And I’m just flabbergasted. So where do I start.
The expressionism. I was watching the film and about in the first ten minutes or so, with the shots of the man walking by the lake with the moon showing, the music, the mise en scene and the entire composition, it screamed of expressionism. And I thought, well maybe it had to do with the need to express more things through image due to the absence of words. But I’m glad I’m not alone here noticing the expressionistic elements. And then there is the technical part. Honestly, Sunrise must be one of the most beautiful films out there, particularly in the context of its time period. How Murnau captured everything, from the fog, to the lights, to the water (and how it overturns the boat – a little mind-blown) to the fireworks, there is NOTHING missing here. Shout out to the music, which really elevated the experience and gives the film the allegorical tone that it tries to achieve, as well as Gaynor who is wonderfully spellbinding. And those dissolve edits… In 1927. Oh well. I’m just here, losing my mind.
@Georg- haha I love it- thank you for sharing and you pretty much covered it all right here!
Why is Tartuffe (1926) not archivable?
@RujK – I have not been able to catch this one
My ranking of Murnau`s films that I`ve seen:
1. Sunrise MP
2. Nosferatu MP
3. The Last Laugh MS/MP
4. Faust MS
5. Tartuffe R/HR
6. Tabu R/HR
7. Phantom R
8. City Girl R
@RujK- Love all the work here on the individual director pages- thank you for sharing! I’ll have to look through these
@Drake- thank you. I am just writing down films from directors that I have already gone through in my retrospective marathon. I will write them down when I get to their last film that I have an intention to see.
@RujK- Well you have certainly put an impressive dent on some of the best films and filmmakers in cinema history- great work.
February 16, 2022
My appreciation and gratitude to Azman, Drake, Georg, Matt and Rujk, who shared their admiration and respect for the legendary German director F.W. Murnau.
Your kindness makes up for a University of Pittsburgh professor named Mark Lynn Anderson, who blasted me and my book “F.W. Murnau: For The Record” in a Marxist manifesto, titled “Anger Management” — a reference
to the salacious account of his death in “Hollywood Babylon.”
@Lesc – Murnau was the king….