F.W. Murnau was a great mood-setter. No matter which genre he was working in -- melodrama, horror, documentary -- the German director was a master of Expressionism, that silent-screen form that often placed style above story. But Murnau managed both in his films. Before moving to Hollywood (where he died in a car accident in 1931 at age 42), he made a series of movies that gorgeously captured Germany's blight and despair. Over the next month, the Cleveland Cinematheque is screening Murnau's Greatest Hits, six restored flicks that stand the test of time. (All showings are at 7 p.m. at 11141 East Boulevard. Admission is $8; call 216-421-7450.)
Nosferatu -- Murnau's 1922 vampire film, based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, is the director's finest work and one of the best horror movies ever made. Scenes in which the bloodsucker emerges from a coffin and stands on the deck of a ship he's just ravaged are the silent era's most harrowing images. Eighty-some years later, they're still pretty damn scary. (November 7)
The Last Laugh -- The most poignant Murnau movie is the tale of an esteemed hotel doorman who's demoted to bathroom attendant. Emil Jannings plays the humiliated employee with hunched shoulders, pathetic shuffle, and lifeless gaze. At one dreamlike point, the towering hotel -- an achievement in set design -- literally engulfs him. Even the tacked-on happy ending (which is unabashedly transparent, even by today's standards) doesn't tarnish the film, which unfolds without title cards. It's supreme storytelling. (November 14)
Sunrise -- It's the first film Murnau made in the U.S., and he never created a more visually stunning story (it snagged three Oscars in 1928). A wicked city girl tempts a married country farmer; a murder plot, a raging tempest, and dazzling special effects ensue. It would be a dozen years before another film (Citizen Kane) would advance the art form so radically. (November 18 and 21)
City Girl -- Rural and urban life are again contrasted, and once more a husband and wife are at the center of a conflict (this time, the family farm and wheat prices fuel the drama). Despite its troubled production -- the movie was taken away from Murnau -- a climactic storm scene ranks among the director's greatest set pieces. (November 27)
Faust -- Goethe's tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil was Murnau's final German film, and he used the opportunity to weave some social commentary into the fable. But the movie works best as a study in art direction, cinematography, and camera movement. This 1926 offering has style to spare. (December 5)
Tabu -- Murnau's last movie (he died a couple of weeks before its premiere) is a collaboration with documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. And like Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Tabu was shot and set in a faraway locale (Tahiti). Unlike in Nanook, there's a scripted story at the center of Tabu, about cursed young lovers. Murnau keeps the camera tricks to a minimum in this pretty but hollow faux-documentary. (December 9)
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