F. W. Murnau, Pabst, and the Silent German Movie Masters

Before leaving Germany at this precipitous moment, we should consider some of the other filmmakers who made significant contributions to the cinema in the 1920s. F. W. Murnau directed the classic vampire tale Nosferatu in 1922, with a heavily made-up Max Schreck in the title role of a Drac-ula-like vampire; indeed, Murnau had simply lifted the entire plot line of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, then still under copyright, to create the scenario for his film. Although Stoker himself was dead, his wife was not; she sued Murnau, demanding that the negative and all prints of Nosferatu be summarily destroyed.

The case dragged on for years, but fortunately several prints of the film survived, and today we can see Nosferatu intact as one of the most effective and chilling renditions of the Dracula legend. Murnau went on to create Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man, a k a The Last Laugh 1924), the story of a proud doorman at a plush hotel who is stripped of his uniform and position and forced

to work as a janitor in the men’s toilets. The film used numerous technical tricks, such as first-person camera work, multiple superimpositions within the frame, and Expressionistic lighting to convey the tragedy and pathos of the doorman’s plight, coupled with Emil Jannings’s superb performance in the role. As a twist, in the last few minutes of the film, Jannings’s character suddenly comes into a fortune, and when we last see him he is comfortably ensconced in the hotel’s dining room.

Other important German directors include Georg Wilhelm Pabst, better known as G. W. Pabst, who created the melodrama Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925) and then went on to direct the silent classics Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929), two equally downbeat films in which American-born Louise Brooks portrays a woman of easy virtue and few moral scruples. Walter Ruttman created a dazzling documentary, akin to Vertov’s 1929 The Man with a Movie Camera, with his Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927),

using footage shot by Karl Freund, the long career in America as a cinematographer and director (his last job was, astoundingly, as director of photography on the television show “I Love Lucy” in the 1950s).

Curt Siodmak, his brother Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinne-mann, all of whom would go on to major careers as directors in American cinema, collaborated on the sexually charged melodrama Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930), which has recently been restored by the Nederlands Film Archive in Amsterdam after nearly three-quarters of a century as a “phantom film” that was accessible only to a few.

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F. W. Murnau, Pabst, and the Silent German Movie Masters