It must have been something to be a filmmaker in the 1920s, trying to imagine ways to scare people; you had a huge blank slate in front of you. Hardly any of it -- ghosts, vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies, cat people, maniacs, monsters, homicidal killers -- had been done yet. Moreover, the negative connotations of horror had yet to take hold. Whereas most modern horror films are ashamedly snuck past reviewers, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was released to rave reviews. The great critic Carl Sandburg, writing in the Chicago Daily News, called it "the most important and the most original photoplay that has come to this city of Chicago the last year." We can only imagine what Sandburg would have said about F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922); he may have seen it, but he didn't review it. For my money it is the superior of the two films, made by a far greater cinema artist.

Like Wiene, Fritz Lang, Joe May and many German directors of his era, Murnau (1888-1931) worked in German Expressionism, finding ways to manipulate the images in the frame to a point beyond reality for maximum emotional effect. But Murnau was unique in that he used these images to express his personal fears and desires; he also intermingled realistic, nature shots with his bizarre, artificial Expressionist shots. He completed just over 20 films in his short career, and almost half of them are said to be lost. He was gay and constantly struggled with all the conflicting pros and cons of his emotions in his films. He moved to Hollywood in 1927 and made his masterpiece Sunrise there. Just a few years later, after completing his final film, Tabu, he died in a car accident.

categories Features, Cinematical