Preston Clive is offering you to have website «Preston Clive's Schreckian Cinema Crypt» remembered
Do you want us to remember the «Preston Clive's Schreckian Cinema Crypt» website?
Yes No
×
Прогноз погоды

FW Murnau: Twice As Bright, Half As Long

expand

FW Murnau: Twice As Bright, Half As Long

A rare peek at the lighter side of the man. (IMG: Fox films)

Cinema to me will always be embodied by the DNA of the output of two men:

James Whale in the sound era, and F.W. Murnau in the silent era.

This isn't necessarily because I claim historical supremacy of these two particular men above all other directors (though for the latter I do). Rather, it's because--in my head--these were the two men who laid down the first cinematic images apprehended by my prepubescent mind: these were the first directors whose films set off a serious reaction, a chase, a pursuit, a longing, an obsession.

I can't emphasize how important library books were to a young child's mind back then in the mid-1970s when a was a kid forming an identity by responding to those things that he found he had a natural magnetic pull to. Back then there was no home theater: no VHS, no DVD, no BD .  .  .  no not even cable television. Youtube for silents and old horror itches needing a scratch? 

Forget about it.

If you wanted to see a movie, you had to wait half a year, a year. Sometimes more. I recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Weine) coming on a grand total of once, on PBS throughout the entirety of my boyhood.

And I was very thorough--my mother subscribed to the TV Guide throughout my entire youth, and as soon as it came in our mailbox, I would run immediately over to the living room couch and flip instantly to the movie section. Ordered by day of the week, it would instantly tell me what movies would be on television the upcoming week--what days and what times. I never missed a week because the subscription never was interrupted. Caligari came on once, and there probably wasn't a single time that I opened that TV guide from the age of roughly 9 or 10 forward, that I didn't hungrily peel page off of page through that section hoping to see the words Cabinet and Caligari in the same title.

I saw it once--and nearly blasted up through the ceiling up into the third floor of the house, through that ceiling and up through that roof to go sailing across the north Bronx, leaving behind me a rocket contrail of ecstasy.

While these movies actually came on, you pinched yourself. Heaven. Couldn't believe it. Major event. God forbid your brother or parents wanted to watch something else. We had a big black and white TV down in our first floor play room so if I got squeezed out, I had another TV to default to.

Which is why books at the public library were so important. They helped you--a kid in fourth grade without no job couldn't pick up Famous Monsters of Filmland--remember what these films looked like in the first place. There was a large coffee table sized book on the horror film that my local Bronx library had back in those days which outlined the history of the horror film from the beginning of the silent era up to that point in time, meaning it probably cut off in the late sixties. I remember gazing even at films from the fifties and early sixties that I never got to see until many years later: young Michael Landon in I Was A Teenaged Werewolf, plus Carnival of Souls, and many others.

But it was the films from the silent era and the initial run of Universal sound-era classics from the early to mid 1930's which exerted the biggest pull on me. Those faded images of Paul Wegener's Golem, the terrifyingly eerie persona of Max Schreck's Count Orlok standing in his "salt warehouse" doorway with his fingers extended into impossibly long claws in faded scratchy black and white; the impossibly warped phantasms of Caligari, rendered in strange Expressionist sets my young mind failed to completely comprehend but loved; the grim, solemn seriousness of Karloff's face in the first Frankenstein, the terrifyingly somber mountebanks played by Chaney--these all carried a stern, stoical, sinister quality that was somehow different from anything and everything else on the earth. These weren't just movies, to my young mind--they carried the aroma of something extra that wasn't injected in other movies. Something frightening, something unfriendly, something demonic. Something that was very very different from my family and I; that dark, forbidding atmosphere exerted a pull on me. I would take the book out from the library, then have to return it. Each week searching the new issue of the TV guide, mostly only getting lucky with Son of Frankenstein, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Son of Kong, and Japanese Monster Week on the 4:30 movie on ABC TV after school. Godzilla for days.

But as too much time would go by without ever getting to see any of the movies I just mentioned from the silent and early sound era with Chaney, Karloff, etc, the distance I felt from those images that haunted my mind would need to be closed again, and I would go and take the book out once again so I could stare at those loaded images all over again, and give the whole era of the 20's and 30's a refresh in my young brain. The difficulty of finally getting to see these films only added to their ominous quality in my impressionable head; the more time went on without finally getting to tick a title off the Sacred List, the more important the list became, and the greater the import of the titles. Somebody was trying to keep something from me about these films--maybe they were truly evil! Maybe they were Just That Scary!

*         *         *

As for James Whale, we can leave him for another column--but FW Murnau for me has personally been a cornerstone of what constitutes the cinema, for years. This quiet, reserved German from the earth of Westphalia, this solidly middle class Plumpe, this determined obsessive, this in a certain sense stereotypically Teutonic hard worker, seeker of impact, chaser of dreams, this private homosexual, this sailor and admirer of Crux the Southern Cross, this tragic loss at far too young an age, this epitome of all the cinema strived to be back during the age of his professional output and during the present age--this single man was this and so much more, all during the briefest of cinematic careers .  .  .  a career which, when measuring impact against number of years as craftsman, may be the most concentrated in the whole of the cinema.

As a youth, young Murnau (a name he took from a period spent with an artists colony around Murnau am Staffelsee in the southernmost region of Bavaria) gravitated instantly to the world of acting and the stage; during his schooling he attracted the attention--during an acting performance-- of the legendary Max Reinhardt of the critically acclaimed and aesthetically vital Deutsches Theater in Berlin, were he mixed with future collaborators like Alexander Granach (a close friend), Lothar Muthel (ditto) Conrad Veidt. For an insight into Murnau's character we listen to the memoirs of Granach--who played Knock for Murnau in the director's legendary Nosferatu--who remembers the tall, handsome Murnau defending the short, squat Granach from the antisemitic attacks of their cohorts and especially those of a (Jewish, no less) professor, called Held. He also recalls episodes of the two of them slithering into private theater boxes and laying on their bellies to peer down and watch and listen to the great Reinhardt give his private lessons in the theater, which he insisted remain private and unattended by general classes.

This phase of his life was, like many others, interrupted by the coming of WW1. During the Great War Murnau served as an officer on the Russian side of the war, maintaining a life of strict regimentation and order in the miserable surroundings of the trenches. He passed the time writing letters to his close friend and probably romantic companion, Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, as well as the young man's family--particularly after suffering the loss of young Hans early on during the war.

During the latter phase of his war service he enrolled in the air corps, and served on the European/French front near Verdun, where his meticulously maintained (some say obsessively labored over) plane went down numerous times (between 7 and 9 crashes/unplanned landings by some counts), until he finally took his plane down in fog one fateful last unplanned time into neutral Swiss territory--this ended the war for him.

It was during his internship in Switzerland, riding out the rest of the war on the Swiss side of the border, Murnau re-involved himself with the world of the stage while interned at Andernatt. During this period a production of a renowned Swiss national drama was being put together, and solicitations for production were put out. As internees were allowed to submit, Murnau assembled his own version of the drama, and won first prize and even won himself a modicum of national acclaim in Switzerland when the play was mounted in Berne.

*         *         *

As the war ended and Murnau returned to Berlin, he set himself to the business of the burgeoning world of the cinema. From the war experience, the green eyed young suburbaner had become hardened, learning loss, witnessing endless death, facing his own mortality over and over again on a fantastically industrial scale. He had come home with a highly educated, deeply learned mind set free to a degree by the tutelage of Reinhardt, abstracted by the experience of flight, darkened by death and crashes .  .  .  and yet, rather than succumbing to indulgence or an overwrought disposition, these grimmer elements of humanity were absorbed by an already hyperactive mind obsessed with the world of dreams, flights of fantasy, aches and pains for a lost loved one. One can only wonder--reading the endless ciphers of personal heartbreak in Murnau's films, whether or not he knew real love beyond the loss of the ideal of Hans Degele.

For such an incredibly hyperactive and emotional--and yet severely reserved, occasionally icy but always decent--individual, his monstrous amount of devotion to the new world of the Berlin cinema seems as much a result of his severe work ethic as it does his probably requirement for an outlet for all of that churning, deeply responsive interior life. Without the outlet of the cinema, it's likely that Murnau would have had to do battle with temptation towards some form of indulgence.

*         *         *

Flights in physical space and flights of fancy; the lawless world of dreams, where the hard rules of reality are battered by the escaping mind; smooth movements in space and time; the expressive quality of nature, architecture, weather for narrative punctuation, speaking for character and speaking for a situational mood; clashes between the sensibilities between good and evil, between commerce and the dreamer, between the uncorrupted innocent and the functioning-in-the-world pragmatist, between the city and the country, between civilization and between the instinctual, between man and woman, natural and supernatural, truth and little white lies, between religious hypocrisy and human decency without a congregation, between great fun with the devil and deprivation with the angels, between parent and child: all these elements are very rich in the world of F. W. Murnau. All of these things can be picked speculatively out of his life like an apple picker sifting through a tree for ripened granny smiths. 

The war, his sexual proclivity versus his family's bourgeois inclinations, the tragedy of Degele's untimely death, the repression of an overly severe and perhaps personally unforgiving disposition--all of these things are there in Murnau's life to speculate about, to pick apart if one is so inclined.

But there is little profit there: the joy is in the beholding of the end product of this assembly line of elements that overtook Murnau's mind, and which Murnau's mind overtook when he was making a film--the expressive joy of the artist achieving, venting in code, pointing someone else's fictional finger at this or that personal torment .  .  .  director as worker of puppets, of grand theatrics, of playing god in a universe created all on his own.

The fascinating thing about Murnau, as much as we might be inclined to consider him (and rightly so) an auteur, is that he wrote very very little of his canon: this was left to men and women like Carl Mayer, Thea von Harbou, Galeen, Hauptmann, and others.

But what makes Murnau's film so essentially Murnau is the power of the images, as well as their assembly; and what makes their images and their assembly so powerful is exactly what makes the cinema as a medium so powerful when the cinema does what it does best: tell a story in pictures.

A script is a script indeed--but a silent film scenario generally does not exert quite the power of the proceedings of the final product as does a sound film script. Poorly spoken lines and bad acting can sink a sound film. Poorly spoken lines are not noticed in a silent film, which blimps towards the heavens when a man like Murnau is at the helm because of the power of its images to absorb the viewer, to trigger unspecific poetry quietly in the mind of the viewer--unspecific poetry that is different every time the same viewer beholds the same film. This unlike sound film, which can be-- subconsciously or on purpose--memorized by the viewer, and repeats precisely at each time.

Murnau took the silent film--with other directors, undoubtedly--away from the proscenium, away from the tens and teens concept of a filmed play where the blank camera lens was merely a General Eye of Generic Audience Member. Murnau turned the cinema into a world that viewers simply couldn't believe then, and still marvel incredulously at today: the world of legitimate dreams .  .   . good dreams, bad dreams, phantasms of the everyday, iconic dream images of country, of urban jungle, of supernatural castle. Murnau was the first to consistently bring into the image that thing that the human mind adds to its surroundings-- the glistening sheen of our desires, our love for a mate, our dark and damp and chilly terrors, the dark shadows of our sins, the idealized longings for fame, for home.

Why does the town we live in or were raised in as a child hold such a special quality? Why do we relive in our minds the place and time of good memories? Because what our mind has done to those affairs: Murnau was the first man to consistently take this mysterious human freight of the mind, of life, and put it up onscreen consistently, film after film after film.

Murnau could find the humanity in a script handed to him, find the netherworld side of the mind in a certain tension or conflict, and stamp it with his visual vocabulary--a foundational point in the development of film grammar.

How extraordinary that a man could walk out of WW1 and walk right into Berlin and start making films and in two years, by 1921, start rattling off masterpiece after masterpiece, soaring cinematic towers, one after the other. Walk out of Berlin by 1925 and enter the alien world of Hollywood and make masterwork after masterwork, and leave your stamp on the greatest filmmakers that country would ever produce. Exit that country at the end of the decade and pick up the tatters of a disbanded collboration with Robert Flaherty, and make one of the most unusual, most original, and most heartbreaking (and also, for Murnau, atypical) films ever made.

And exit the making of that final film and enter at last into the netherworld, the ethereal world that haunted all of his films... the intangible and the eternal, where his name and his films will forever reside. He's been my favorite director since I--at last, long after my childhood spent laboring over library books and TV Guides, looking for his most famous film Nosferatu, which I craved manically--had the chance to explore the rest of his canon, little by little during the VHS age, during the 1980's.

They say that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long--that's surely FW Murnau.

Here's to you, sir.

Preston Clive/HSchreck

3/11/2015***


Published by , 11.03.2015 at 23:34
Статистика 1
Показы: 1 Охват: 0 Прочтений: 0

Comments

To show the previous comments (%s from %s)
Wim_Wenders
Wim_Wenders 12 March 15 18:59 He is a director I have to rewatch, some of the films and I understand why they get such accolades (the Jannings films), but Sunrise is just corny for me! Beautiful article really though! Keep it up :) Text hided expand
0
Owen Stone
Owen Stone 13 March 15 20:18 Great article about this interesting director. Text hided expand
0
Show new comments
All comments are shown: 2
Like

Site search

Last comments

Owen Stone
I'm sad to see you go, because I enjoyed the art and having those really classic movies that you su…
Owen Stone NOTICE: THIS PAGE IS PARKED FOR THE DURATION
serdar202
I recently rewatched the Schmidlin restoration of Touch of Evil, Mr. Clive knows why, then I listen…
serdar202 The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart
Owen Stone
I always like to check out the artworks for these classic movies.
Owen Stone The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart
Owen Stone
Do you find these movies in public domain or how do you get access to these old classics?
Owen Stone Coming Soon (FOR REAL): Nosferatu, (Murnau, 1921)
Owen Stone
I still come back to read these blogs daily, just to get a glimpse of these awesome artworks.
Owen Stone The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production
Owen Stone
This is a cool looking movie.
Owen Stone T-Men & Raw Deal (Mann/Alton, 1947): A Cry Into The Void
Owen Stone
Preston Clive
serdar202
I guess I must watch Operation Daybreak now ;)
serdar202 Atentát (1965) Vs. Hangmen (1943) Vs. Operation Daybreak (1975)--The Mirror of Murder Has Three Faces
Owen Stone
The artwork in these pieces are really amazing. The cover photo just reeks of communism tension, it…
Owen Stone Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget . . . .