Queerly Digital: Remembering F.W. Murnau

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Welcome to Queerly Digital, a monthly column about LGBT films and filmmakers.

F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) was a German film director best remembered for "Nosferatu" (1922), the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula." At the time of the film's initial release, Stoker's book was still held under a strict copyright. Undaunted, Murnau filmed a fairly recognizable version of the story, merely changing all the character's names – Stoker's widow sued for copyright infringement and won. All copies of "Nosferatu" were ordered destroyed, and for many years it was considered a lost film.

Fortunately, some prints survived and "Nosferatu" now stands as a poetic masterpiece. Murnau shot the film on location in Germany and in Eastern Europe. The vampire's lair was filmed at an actual centuries old castle – the desolate countryside which surrounds the Count's  undead abode and the candlelit interiors create a mood of encroaching dread unlike anything the horror genre has seen since. Max Schreck as "Count Orlock" was made to look like a walking if decomposing corpse – his face is a visage which remains unnerving to this very day.

"Nosferatu" contains numerous moments of unforgettable artistic beauty – glimpses of the Count's castle against a dark, cloudy sky resemble a painting even though these shots were taken on location. Scenes in which the Count carries his coffin through the plague ridden town as thousands of rats follow in his wake are still mesmerizing.

Related: LGBT cinema on DVD/Blu Ray, a monthly column

Unknown at the time but fairly common knowledge now is the fact that F.W. Murnau was a gay man. His death in a 1931 car accident was said to have been caused by an act of fellatio he was giving to his young driver as they drove through the streets of Santa Barbara California – apparently the young man crashed into a pole, which inflicted a fatal head injury upon the filmmaker.

According to legends, when paramedics arrived Murnau's head was between his driver's legs – the circumstances of that accident have never been substantiated, though throughout his life Murnau was never seen in the company of women.

Murnau's artistic legacy remains unscathed. Films like "Faust" (1926), a medieval chiller in which Satan enters into a wager with an archangel, pulls viewers into a dreamlike netherworld – sequences in which The Devil hovers over the town, produced at a time when film-making was still in its infancy and when effects technology was somewhat primitive, have lost none of their hypnotic power. Murnau was a filmmaker who's stunning sense of the visual became an actual character in whatever tale he was telling.

Both "Nosferatu" and "Faust" are available on DVD and Blu Ray courtesy of Kino Lorber, purveyors of restored, classic cinema. Kino pulled out all the stops – they searched for the finest elements from film vaults around the world in order to piece together the most complete prints possible of both films. The Blu Ray of "Nosferatu" includes a 60-minute documentary, produced for German television, on Murnau's career and artistic vision – a surviving relative who actually knew the auteur as a child is among the interviewees. Though the doc offers a great deal of information on his late 19th Century childhood and artistic influences, no mention is made of the director's personal life.

One of Kino Lorber's primary missions is to rescue, preserve, and restore classic cinema from generations ago. The company has made dozens of hard-to-find titles from around the world readily available to modern audiences – the company's catalog is a treasure chest for film buffs. For fledgling filmmakers, Kino is an education. It's always important to remember and learn from those who came before us.

There's a creepy postscript to F. W. Murnau's story, and it's a horror story worthy of one of his films. In July 2015, Murnau's grave in Stahnsdorg Germany was looted – his skull disappeared. No one knows who the perpetrators were or what they did with the head – we can only imagine.


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