The latest instalment in Eureka’s The Masters of Cinema series throws new light on the early work of F.W. Murnau, an early pillar of cinema and major figure of the German Expressionist movement. Containing five slightly left-field selections of his films between 1921 and 1925 (his most enduring work today, Nosferatu (1922), is absent), this extensive collection includes his other masterpiece, Der Letzte Mann (1924), four lesser known silent gems and some intriguing and informative extra features.
Disc one of this box set includes Der Schloss Vogelöd (1921) and Phantom (1922), two early films atypical of the style the director is most famous for. In contrast to the highly stylised expressionism of the earlier The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Murnau employs a more naturalistic style for both of these films. Der Schloss Vogelöd is an intimate and claustrophobic chamber drama, where terrible secrets from the past return, and Phantom is the tragic tale of a man possessed by a destructive and all-consuming love. Although Murnau was compulsively drawn to magic and the occult, both of these films are notable for their human focus.
Despite their age, there is a great amount of modern relevance in the thematic content of these films, ensuring they are more than just interesting historical artefacts. On disc two there is Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (1924), a farcical comedy set in the Mediterranean, and Tartuffe (1925), Murnau’s subtly satirical adaptation of Molière’s classic play. Compelled towards the source text because of his dislike for the church and his rejection by it (he was openly gay), the film is an open criticism of the sexual hypocrisy of societal institutions.
On disc three there is Der Letzte Mann. The version included is the product of painstaking and arduous research, labour and good fortune, likely to thrill a Murnau fan by its tale of origin alone. With pieces of the original German negative having been exactingly fashioned together from lost scraps of tape, the film is restored in high definition as the director first intended.
His most fully realised work best encapsulating his vision as an auteur, the film eschews many conventions of the silent film era (title cards are noticeably absent). Believing a film should be able to carry enough meaning in its visuals alone, this was Murnau’s attempt at cementing cinema’s place as a legitimate and standalone art form to rival theatre and literature. Stylistically about as far from his expressionist masterpiece, Nosferatu, as its possible to be, this is a poignant social-realist parable about the mental deterioration of an elderly hotel porter, played by Murnau regular Emil Jannings. Always as interested in special effects as he was in characterisation and plot, the film contains some interesting surrealist flourishes and groundbreaking camera work. The eerie and dizzying dream sequence is a notable highlight.
These aren’t films for the casual film fan and are as perhaps interesting to read and talk about as they are to watch. Thankfully, the bonus material included within the box set will satisfy those hungry for a little more contextual analysis. Each disc includes passionate and engaging co-commentaries from Murnau scholars, eager to describe what it is that makes the director so special. One particularly interesting feature goes into great technical depth, describing how Murnau used forced perspective to make his sets appear much larger than they were in reality. Perhaps more content focusing on the director’s significant influence on contemporary cinema wouldn’t have been amiss, especially in regards to modern horror and the films of Tim Burton, but this is only a slight criticism.
Ultimately, this is a well-packaged and extensive collection of films, bonus material and other features put together with sincere admiration and passion, perhaps more likely to satisfy existing Murnau fans and those with an interest in the history of cinema and the silent era rather than the average film fan. Each of the five films selected does its job in showcasing the director’s eclectic talents and each one is certainly worth your time.
Starring: Emil Jannings, Lil Dagover, Werner Krauss, Max Shreck, Alfred Abel, Lya De Putti, Arnold Korff, Olga Chekhova
Dir: F.W. Murnau
Early Murnau: Five Films, 1921-1925 is released on Blu-ray on September 26th.