F.W. Murnau was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in the German town of Bielefeld on December 28, 1888. He spent his formative years in theater, striking up a working relationship with the luminary director Max Reinhardt. Plumpe would assume the name F.W. Murnau upon his first appearance in one of Reinhardt's plays, acting in the 1909 production of "Das Mirakel." His work with Reinhardt would lead to something of an apprenticeship, with the young Murnau taking up an assistant director position.
That theatre career was interrupted by World War I, when Murnau joined the German Air Force and cheated death over and over when his plane crash landed on seven separate occasions. His final crash landing put him in neutral Switzerland, where he was taken out of commission as a fighter but allowed to join with local theatre productions. The Swiss also allowed Murnau to film war-time propaganda for the German government, making Murnau realize that film directing was his destiny.
As such, his feature film directing career began just after the end of World War I, when he made 12 films from the years of 1919 through 1922. A few of these were collaborations with Fritz Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, and several are now lost. Not everything made during this prolific early period is considered to be golden, but Murnau did make Nosferatu during this run. That film's release in 1922 was plagued by a lawsuit raised by Bram Stoker's widow, which resulted in a court order that all copies of the film be burned. Fortunately for us, Nosferatu had already been distributed, so it was impossible to destroy every copy and, in turn, the film lives today as Murnau's most famous.
Nosferatu is far from Murnau's only legendary film, though. His 1924 classic The Last Laugh is arguably one of the most influential films of all time. It holds a place in the canon of film departments across the world thanks to its near total lack of intertitles (those cards with dialog and other expository text flashed during silent films). But its influence on the history of film is really thanks to Murnau's daring innovations with camera movement which freed narrative film from the stationary tripod and opened up boundless possibilities for poetry in the film form.
And indeed, thanks to this innovation in camera movement and the subjective camera style (wherein camerawork mirrors the internal life of its subject), Murnau is considered one of the great poets in cinematic history. This reputation was cemented when The Last Laugh opened Hollywood's doors to Murnau, resulting in what's widely considered his masterpiece: Sunrise from 1927. Many hold that Sunrise is the pinnacle of silent film, and it stands up as one of the most breathtaking, emotive films ever made. It garnered Oscars for the 1920s equivalent of Best Picture, as well as a Best Director award for Murnau. Despite its artistry, Sunrise was a flop at the box office, leading to Fox meddling in Murnau's next features.
In America, Murnau was able to embrace the sexuality that he'd been repressing while living in Germany on account of his home country's strict, regressive laws against homosexuality. It was during this period that Murnau started taking voyages to visit his long-time lover Walter Spies, who had been living in Southeast Asia as a painter, likely with Murnau's financial support. One such trip to Bali resulted in Murnau shooting his final film Tabu on location in Tahiti. Tabu's narrative was added in editing, and the film would go on to be Murnau's first box office success.
Yet Murnau would die in a strange car accident before the release of the film. The facts of the accident hold that Murnau was being driven by a 14-year-old boy when the car collided with a pole. Since Murnau measured a hulking 6'11", he hit his head on the ceiling of the car upon the collision, resulting in a blunt force trauma that ended his life. But there is an air of mystery around the accident. Where was Murnau headed? One story holds that he was on his way to travel somewhere by boat because a psychic warned him against land travel. Why was a 14-year-old driving the car? One problematic (and flimsy) assertion holds that Murnau was simply attracted to the boy.
Nonetheless, for a man who cheated death seven times over in World War I and made the timeless occult masterpiece Nosferatu, a mysterious death—thanks partially to what proved to be a fateful height — seems all too apt.