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7+1 Best Movies of F. W. Murnau: Legacy of the Great Impressionist

9+1 Best Movies of F.W. Murnau: Legacy of the Great Impressionist

Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of F. W. Murnau

F. W. Murnau may have passed away in the distant past, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, he will never be really gone.

Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to meet the Great Impressionist, and to witness his personal style of visual storytelling, all you have to do, is watching one (or more) of his movies.

But which ones should you watch?
Well, if that’s the very question lurking in your mind right now, then you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the 7+1 Best Movies of F. W. Murnau.

If this is your first ride on the time-travelling FrameTrek Wagon, here’s what this is all about:

We choose a topic, in this case: “Best Movies of F. W. Murnau”, and we set sail for a journey, where the bricks of the trek are made of movie frames, and each stop represents a magnificent achievement in Film.

The Best Movies of F. W. Murnau is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.


Meet F. W. Murnau, the Great Impressionist

1888 – 1931

F. W. Murnau, the Great Impressionist, Movie director

F.W. Murnau is often regarded as one of the most important and most influential movie directors of the Silent Era.

Born and raised in Germany, he developed an obsession with film at a very young age. He read books by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Ibsen plays by the age of 12, and was greatly influenced by them.

His stage career was interrupted by World War I, in which he was a bomber pilot, surviving several crashes without any severe injuries. He went back to Germany after the war and entered the film business.

At the dawn of the 1920s, he made a name for himself with a string of films that are now considered classics of the Silent Era.

Murnau’s innovative use of light and dark shadowing creates a sinister, “gloomy” on-screen atmosphere, aiding his unique style of visual storytelling in such a way, that intertitles are barely needed, if at all.

I think films of the future will use more and more of these “camera angles” or, as I prefer to call them, these “dramatic angles”. They help photograph thought.

F. W. Murnau

His talent did not go unnoticed by the American film studios, and soon he was lured to the US by Fox Films, where Murnau refined his style further, and created classics, such as Sunrise.

So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to F. W. Murnau, but this article concentrates on his Top 7+1 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

After all, a director is as good as his greatest achievements. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Murnau, is through watching his best films as a marathon.

Ready? Buckle up then, and let the best movies of F. W. Murnau carry you to the cinematic lands of silence!

See FrameTrek's definition of 'Best' and the story behind this List (click to expand) ↴

How to define ‘Best’?

That’s a pretty good question, since ‘Best’ is relative. A movie can be considered being among the best for multiple reasons, such as: Critical Acclaim, Audience Feedback, Box Office Performance, Awards and Nominations, Iconic Status, Popularity, Watchability, and even Personal Preference, or for being part of a famous list such as the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die or Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list – or because that particular movie defined its era, or because it was a defining achievement of the artist(s) involved.

So how did we pick the Top 7+1 Movies of F. W. Murnau?

Well, it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy! F. W. Murnau directed so many excellent films, that it’s almost impossible to build a “Top List”, without leaving some of his great movies out of the spotlight. We did our best though.

While composing the Best Films of F. W. Murnau list, we tried to consider all of the factors mentioned in the ‘How to define Best’ paragraph above, and then some.

We believe that the movies that made the cut should not compete with one another any further, so we will just present them in the order they were released in.

If you watch these movies in a chronological order, you will embark on a cinematic journey through F. W. Murnau’s life, following him from the start of his career to the end.



Presenting the 7+1 Best Films of F. W. Murnau

Chronologically

The ‘+1’ is a Bonus Movie. Wait for it!


Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (original German title)

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922), Max Schreck, Best Movies of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent expressionist fantasy horror film starring Max Schreck.

Story: Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter’s wife. (IMDB)

Source: The movie is an unauthorized adaptation of the classic gothic horror novel Dracula, first published in 1897, written by Irish author Bram Stoker. Would you like to read the book?

Between Frames:
✪ The estate of Bram Stoker sued the producers for unauthorized use of the novel and an English court ordered all copies and negatives of the film to be destroyed. However, the film would subsequently surface through second-generation reels in other countries.

One of the silent era’s most influential masterpieces, Nosferatu‘s eerie, gothic feel – and a chilling performance from Max Schreck as the vampire – set the template for the horror films that followed.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror among the top movies of F. W. Murnau?
✓ It is selected by the Vatican in the “art” category of its list of 45 “great films”.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ The first true vampire movie ever made.


The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann (original German title)

The Last Laugh (1924), Emil Jannings,  Best Films of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent drama film starring Emil Jannings.

Story: An aging doorman, after being fired from his prestigious job at a luxurious Hotel is forced to face the scorn of his friends, neighbors and society.

Why is The Last Laugh among the top films of the Silent Era?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ The film was a major critical and financial success, critics praised the film’s style and artistic camera movements.
✓ For the first time in film history, the camera moves together with the actors through the room, setting a new benchmark in movie-making technique.


Tartuffe (1925)

Herr Tartüff (original German title)

Tartuffe (1925), Top Movies of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent drama film.

Story: A young man shows his millionaire grandfather a film based on Molière’s Tartuffe, in order to expose the old man’s hypocritical governess who covets his own inheritance. (IMDB)

Why is Tartuffe among the greatest movies of F.W. Murnau?
✓ Noteable for introducing a framing device, whereby the story of Tartuffe becomes a film-within-a-film.


Faust (1926)

Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (original German title)

Faust (1926), Top Films of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent fantasy horror film.

Story: The demon Mephisto wagers with God that he can corrupt a mortal man’s soul. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Due to the success of F.W. Murnau’s previous films, the studio promised him an unlimited budget with which to make this movie.

Why is Faust among the greatest films of F. W. Murnau?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Perfectly captures the intensity of a medieval universe steeped in religious fanaticism and pagan alchemy.
✓ Widely considered to be an influential classic, and one of the best horror films of all time.



Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Greatest Movies of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

American romantic drama film.

Story: An allegorical tale about a man fighting the good and evil within him. Both sides are made flesh – one a sophisticated woman he is attracted to and the other his wife. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ This is F.W. Murnau’s first American film.
✪ The scenes in the city were not filmed on location. They were filmed on a vast and expensive set, built especially for the movie.

Boasting masterful cinematography to match its well-acted, wonderfully romantic storyline, Sunrise is perhaps the final – and arguably definitive – statement of the silent era.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Sunrise among the best movies of F. W. Murnau?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Winner of 3 Oscars, including the “Best Picture of the Year” Academy Award.
✓ In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #82 Greatest Movie of All Time.


City Girl (1930)

City Girl (1930), Greatest Films of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent romantic drama film.

Story: A Chicago waitress falls in love with a Minnesota farmer, and decides to face a life in the country. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ A farm was constructed for the making of the film and the entire cast had to learn how to operate the wheat combine.


Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), Best Movies of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent romantic adventure drama film.

Story: On the South Pacific island of Bora Bora, a young couple’s love is threatened when the tribal chief declares the girl a sacred virgin. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Final film of director F.W. Murnau.
✪ He shot this film without any movie stars; the parts were played by locals. He invested his entire fortune in this production and also borrowed money, putting himself in debt.

Why is Tabu: A Story of the South Seas among the best films of F. W. Murnau?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


…and as promised: The BONUS Movie!

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Best Films of F. W. Murnau
Where to Watch?   More info

Fictionalized documentary horror film starring John Malkovich as F. W. Murnau.

Story: The filming of Nosferatu is hampered by the fact that its star Max Schreck is taking the role of a vampire far more seriously than seems humanly possible. (IMDB)

Based in part upon an urban legend that Max Schreck was in reality a vampire which is why he played the role of Orlock/Dracula so well.

Shadow of the Vampire is frightening, compelling, and funny, and features an excellent performance by Willem Dafoe.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

The end of F.W. Murnau’s Story

Murnau did not live to see the premiere of his last film Tabu; before it was released, he was killed in a car crash in 1931 at the age of 42.

Murnau’s 14-year-old valet was driving, who eventually lost control of the car and crashed into an electric pole.

He was buried in Southwest Cemetery near Berlin. Only 11 people attended the funeral. Among them were Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang, who delivered the funeral speech.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of F. W. Murnau’s life and death, you may want to read F. W. Murnau: For the Record by Les Hammer.



…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 7+1 Greatest Films of F. W. Murnau

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

7+1 Best movies of F. W. Murnau
Legacy of the Great Impressionist
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror 1922
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
The Last Laugh 1924
The Last Laugh (1924)

Tartuffe 1925
Tartuffe (1925)
Faust 1926
Faust (1926)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans 1927
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
City Girl 1930
City Girl (1930)
Tabu 1931
Tabu (1931)
Shadow of the Vampire 2000
Bonus Movie: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
*Click any title for more info or for Streaming / Disc Buying options

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